By Joe McFadden
The University of Manchester recently announced its new strategy for blended and flexible learning, marking the beginning of a new long-term strategy to harness digital technologies in everyday learning.
In our latest episode of Under the Spotlight, we sat down with Dan George, the Associate Vice-President for Blended and Flexible Learning, to find out more about the new strategy.
We started off by asking Dan what the term “flexible learning” actually means and what it specifically entails. Dan told us that “at the heart of it, we really want to create a lifelong learning that’s inclusive, it’s accessible, and it’s international” so it “prepares our students for an increasingly digital, interconnected world”.
Elaborating, Dan said the strategy will have two key elements.
First: On-campus students. The university reportedly aims “to create greater flexibility for our on-campus students so when you’re on campus, it [will] be worth your while to come on campus”.
Dan further explains the reason for prioritising on-campus students, stating, “we want that to be interactive learning, we want that mix of real-time learning and stuff that you can do at your own pace, and we want it to be purposely designed teaching so that we make sure it does support your learning and development”.
So we want to deliver an education that fits with the learners’ lives
Second: Off-campus students. The reasoning behind this decision is that the university “wants to extend that offering of a University of Manchester education to anyone and everyone”.
“We know that our three or four-year undergraduates or our one-year, two-year postgraduate degrees don’t work for everyone, and why should that stop you from having a University of Manchester education? So we want to deliver an education that fits with the learners’ lives.”
Dan used people with caring responsibilities, career switchers, or even prospective students who don’t live in Manchester as examples of how this new commitment to off-campus teaching could benefit students. Crucially, she emphasised that the “growth in our off-campus provision is in addition to what we have” and is “not reducing anything that we have on campus”.
This last point was important as next we discussed the backlash to the initial announcement in Summer 2021. When the initiative was first announced, it was met with a wave of criticism over fears that teaching would be moved permanently online. It was eventually clarified that this would not be the case, but students were already anxious and angry about the perceived move.
Forget the bit you’ve heard that’s been totally misrepresented, this is what we’re actually talking about
On this issue, Dan was keen to clear the air and she firmly reiterated that flexible learning won’t spell the end of face-to-face teaching. Discussing the way the story was handled when it broke, Dan’s message to students was to “forget the bit you’ve heard that’s been totally misrepresented, this is what we’re actually talking about”.
She emphasised the difference between online learning and blended and flexible learning as the confusion arose from beliefs that blended learning was synonymous with online learning, which is not the case. In hindsight, Dan said the silver lining of the issue was the high levels of student engagement the announcement prompted. Following the backlash, the University set up lots of open meetings to discuss the plan with students which lots of them engaged with. For Dan, this was positive because “once [the University] described what it is we were actually talking about … students were like ‘oh, that sounds really good, how can I get involved?’”
Dan succinctly summed the mission statement up as blended learning being about making “this lifelong learning inclusive, accessible, [and] international – nothing about … becoming an online university, … we’re absolutely an on-campus university”.
One key aspect of this new flexible learning strategy will be something called a “flexible learning innovation space”, which, in Dan’s words, is designed to “trial different ways of teaching [and] learning”. This flexible learning innovation space will be located in Prospect house and will contain multiple spaces to enhance students’ learning.
The most ambitious and exciting of these is an “extended reality (XR) space” to utilise virtual reality in teaching and learning. The examples Dan used were medical students being able to study anatomy in virtual reality, mechanical engineering students being able to examine an industrial jet engine, or even town planners looking at a city. The plan is to use Prospect house as a trial space before moving the flexible learning innovation space to Booth Street East which is currently under construction.
Another space that will be available in Prospect house is a commuter student lounge so “they can feel like they’ve got a home for when they’re on campus”. Included in the space will be seating areas, water facilities, fridges, and microwaves alongside individual and group study spaces so students can make the most of their time on campus. When asked about how this will benefit commuter students, an often under-represented group in university life, Dan pointed to how it could save costs for them as it would mean they’d have their own dedicated space on campus to spend time in between lectures.
A second core pillar of the Blended and Flexible Learning strategy is the Digital Learning Environment (DLE) which will function as the primary delivery vehicle of this new Blended learning initiative.
Dan told us that, when consulting with students, the three things they wanted from it were: Accessibility, so it “works for anyone, across any device”, “engaging content” so students can “collaborate easily with other students [and] teaching staff”, and “crucially, it needs to be easy to use and have one login for all the different learning platforms”.
Next, we touched on whether students desired this new flexible learning approach. Dan once again emphasised that “this is not about removing your on-campus experience”. Instead, the overall focus of the move will be to “make it worth your while to come on campus, … when you come on campus, you’re going to get the best out of your learning”.
“When you say it like that many of our students say, well, why wouldn’t you want that? You know, it’s a good question – why wouldn’t you want that?”
Enhance digital skills in a way that benefits not only the learning from a student perspective but in their lives and in their careers as well.
On the topic of how these new ways of learning will be implemented into day-to-day university life, Dan compared it to being “almost like doing your homework before you come into the theatre”. She said there will be specific times scheduled into students’ timetables to complete the pre-lecture material (although the material will be available for students to complete whenever and wherever they want) so in-class lectures can cover concepts that students may have struggled with or can dedicate more time to explaining complex theories instead of using valuable contact hours to discuss the basics.
These new ways of learning will be very much aimed at STEM students because, as Dan said, “humanities as a subject has been doing this for a long time in many ways” with the mixed approach of weekly readings, lectures, and seminars/ tutorials.
Assuaging fears that this will reduce humanities students’ contact hours, Dan was firm in her response to the question, saying “it will definitely not reduce it.”
One potential concern that has been raised in this transition to Blended and Flexible Learning is the training and skills required, particularly for staff members, who will be tasked with delivering these new ways of teaching. For Dan, training staff and students are “absolutely crucial” because the university must “enhance digital skills in a way that benefits not only the learning from a student perspective but in their lives and in their careers as well”.
Pointing to an existing programme called the “Jisc discovery tool” which can train students in digital skills, Dan believes “we’ve got to make sure that this is absolutely personalised for individual students so that they leave with their own digital passport”.
To combat the pre-existing digital divide amongst students from different socio-economic backgrounds, Dan announced that the university, in coordination with Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford, is looking to extend Eduroam across the city to ensure students can access their work anywhere within the city. She also said that talks were ongoing with the bus companies as well to try and further address the digital divide.
Whilst all these plans are years away from being fully implemented and part of the natural university ecosystem, the prospect of Blended and Flexible Learning is exciting. An integrated, digitised campus could help release the unrealised potential of higher education and aid in developing skills across the city and in multiple sectors, not just 20-something undergraduate students.
If the university can pull this off then it could have revolutionary effects on the way we learn and the way university learning is experienced by students. Only time will tell if, when, and how this happens – but this level of ambition is certainly a welcome move from the University.
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