Our aim was to develop a learning model that supports student engagement, that helps them focus on what they’re studying at that time, and that gives them insight into their progress.Dr Ellen Buck, Director of Learning and Teaching, University of Suffolk
Design For Online Learning
The University of Suffolk, like all higher education (HE) institutions, had to transition rapidly online when the COVID-19 pandemic closed buildings. The University set out to transform its approach to online learning and teaching to maximise student engagement and outcomes. While fully online was a necessity for much of the year, the forward-thinking University realised a truly ‘blended’ model of in-person and online would equip the institution long-term as technology adoption in HE rises.
“Like many institutions, we moved teaching online quickly but we knew that, for example, simply moving a three hour lecture from the physical classroom to a virtual one doesn’t create high quality learning and teaching designed for online,” explains Aaron Burrell, Associate Director Digital Learning and Innovation at the University. “Instead, we wanted to be in a position to design for online learning, not just online delivery, and take an approach that would fully support students and teaching staff by being flexible and helping students to achieve their learning outcomes.”
The University was also aware that conditions resulting from the pandemic put students under even more pressure than usual. Many were juggling additional responsibilities, such as jobs and caring roles, alongside their studies. For some, the impact of 2020 would be life-changing, continuing to affect their studies beyond the immediate crisis.
“Widening participation is at the core of what we do,” explains Dr Ellen Buck, Director of Learning and Teaching at the University. “We recognise that, for many of our students, studying three different subjects at once, alongside everything else in their lives, is a big ask.”
The team also had concerns about the assessment load students could experience from concurrent modules. Although timetabling aimed to prevent assessments arriving at the same time, this was often difficult to avoid.
For academic staff, the conventional teaching approach provided limited flexibility for time management and scope for extracurricular activities. These include engagement with enterprise and other organisations within the local community, furthering their own research, and maintaining continuing professional development.
Block And Blend
A number of universities, including some in the UK and Australia, have explored an alternative approach to the conventional style of university semester teaching, with the aim of improving student retention and performance.
Through D2L, the University of Suffolk contacted Victoria University in Australia to discuss how they had implemented ‘block teaching’ and, in September 2020, began a pilot of its own ‘block and blend’ approach.
“By moving to block, students study one module at a time, instead of three,” explains Aaron. “Learning is delivered in short, focused periods. Each block is equivalent to 20 credits and consists of up to four weeks of academic content—lectures, practical work, seminars, tutorials and so forth—and a fifth week when students take a module assessment and prepare for the next block.”
During a four-week block, students are expected to engage in 12 hours of tutor structured learning time each week. While block learning can be fully online or face to face, it can also be delivered through a blend of the two. This made it ideal for the context in which the model was being rolled out, but also as a learning and teaching approach for the long-term, recognising the increasing role technology now plays.
First-year undergraduates of all courses at the University’s Suffolk Business School and most of those within Social Sciences and Humanities studied through the block and blend approach, through academic year 2020–2021. Across the whole academic year, this equated to 65 modules and 586 students.
“Block and blend repositioned our learning platform, Brightspace, at the heart of our education ecosystem,” says Ellen. “Blend is taken to mean learning that sometimes happens in the classroom and sometimes happens at home, but it can also happen inside the classroom through a learning platform that forms a bridge across all environments that students learn in.”
The University held staff development events to redesign courses in the ‘block’ model format, giving them the opportunity to rethink the approach. Previous work done with D2L’s Learning and Creative Services team paid dividends as they were able to make best use of html templates created to help build new course content quickly.
Ellen says: “We wanted course leaders to think differently and be creative; to ask themselves: what journey are you taking students on? Where do you want them to get to? How can you test skills development? In many cases, it meant cutting content differently and reshaping modules. It’s an evolution, and that will continue.”
Each week’s worth of content has clear learning outcomes and a theme, consistent image and strong narrative across all synchronous and asynchronous learning activities. Learning objectives are set at the start of each week and modules make full use of multimedia for maximum student engagement. Lectures can be streamed and recorded or delivered live. The use of quizzes to check student understanding has doubled and checklists are also widely used, working together with release conditions to determine when additional content is released to each student. At the end of the module, the learning objectives are repeated and checked off.
“D2L partnered with us throughout the process. They introduced us to Victoria University, so we could learn from their experience, and were always just an email or phone call away.”
Aaron Burrell, Associate Director Digital Learning and Innovation, University of Suffolk
We don’t have physical and virtual anymore, we have a learning environment with activities delivered in ways that suit different learners and times of learning.Dr Ellen Buck, Director of Learning and Teaching, University of Suffolk
Resilient And Confident Learners
An evaluation of 13 modules taught through block and blend (September–December 2020) revealed impressive results. Outcomes were compared against the same modules taught the previous academic year and showed that block and blend students achieved higher assessment grades on average—an uplift to 66 from 56 per cent.
Academics also reported that students were more engaged with online learning content. Data from the Brightspace platform showed a 10 per cent increase in hours spent in content compared to 2019/20 and a 55 per cent increase on 2018/19. Additionally, the number of accesses of content increased by 30 per cent from 2019/20, while the use of social learning tools was more than 8x what it was in 2019/20—from 332 posts to over 2,800.
Growing familiarity with the online tools would have contributed to higher levels of use but intentional design of the learning modules and an online induction to the University also played a big part. This new induction, hosted in the Brightspace platform for all Level 4 learners, helped support students in their transition into the University, and to normalise learning in the online space.
Students are assessed earlier in their learning journeys in the block and blend model. This, Ellen explains, helps give them a grasp on what’s working and what’s not, much sooner. It gives them the opportunity to get more support if they need it and helps them build resilience and confidence in themselves as learners. It also sets a foundation for cumulative skills development, not only during students’ time at university, but also beyond in their journey towards lifelong learning.
One student, commenting on the new block model, said: “‘There is a sense of being organised and ‘ticking off’ modules—personally, I like that, and I feel going through a module one by one makes me feel more on top of things and accomplished.”
“The block and blend approach also helps tutors engage in community activities, liaise with industry and keep up to date with their own learning and development,” adds Ellen. “If tutors know they’re not teaching until block two of a semester, they have more flexibility and can plan their time to meet the many additional non-teaching responsibilities they hold.”
Looking ahead, the University is committed to the block and blend model and recognises that the approach will evolve and develop to continue meeting student and staff needs.
“One model may not fit all courses but, while block and blend may have been born out of the pandemic, it’s here to stay,” says Ellen. “It advances our agenda to widen participation to cater for all students and equip them with the knowledge, skills and confidence to transform their lives. Academics appreciate this is a whole new pedagogical model that needs careful planning and execution and that includes building an understanding of how to make full use of the capabilities of the learning platform.”