So here we are, one year on from the start of a global pandemic and I reflect on whether the following statement is true: "Once you begin to accept the unexpected, an organisation can switch unconsciously and begin to strongly cultivate a culture that demonstrates the willingness and ability to innovate, grow and achieve in a time of crisis."
It has been a trying time for the education sector, but at the same time it has given organisations the opportunity to reflect on what works, what requires additional support and what may need a complete overhaul.
In 2018, Pearson launched a digital solution that would enable institutions to deliver the BTEC Higher National qualification in Business, through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. HN Online was originally hosted on a third-party service until September 2020, when we launched our own Pearson-hosted platform. We also expanded our offering to include content for both Business and Engineering subjects.
No one could have predicted how timely it would be for us to launch this new digital platform in 2020, allowing us to better understand our customer needs and to further shape our thinking. While HN Online has been designed to provide an online learning experience to support a progressive education strategy, it also brings an opportunity to further enrich and expand the breadth of students that an institution could attract by offering more flexible learning.
As quoted by our newly appointed CEO, Andy Bird, who is also a champion of digital delivery,
A digital platform is a new method of learning and plays on the expectations of the millennial generation, who expect an online, interactive and immersive experience. As a society we increasingly require changes to how we learn and indeed how we are taught.
There are distinct advantages to embracing and utilising increased connectivity, as adopted by many businesses, that will provide better experiences for students that ultimately help deliver better learning outcomes. It’s an exciting change for the business.
As we continue to make a global move into an increasingly virtual world, the highly favoured combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning, as part of a blended learning delivery methodology, is top of the agenda. Blended learning is not a new concept: some educational institutions have already spent time considering the need for the right pedagogy to support the implementation of a blended learning environment.
Initially adopting a blended learning model can be seen as a costly and time-consuming process, but the benefits can be quickly optimised and measured. This may include seeing an increase in the recruitment by appealing to a broader mix of students who are unable to attend a fully face to face programme, or higher retention rates, as students will have the opportunity to learn in more flexible ways, face to face and virtual. There also may be an opportunity to reduce overarching running costs by perhaps introducing flexibility in building facility usage, and realising the opportunity for economies of scale when re-using learning materials.
So, what have we learned from this pandemic about asynchronous learning (learning that can occur at different times, places and pace) mostly online, and how have institutions adapted?
Flexibility and adaptability are key words to reflect on right now; traditional learning environments are undergoing substantive change, and the landscape has changed forever.
In November 2020, Pearson undertook research to gather further insight into the impact the pandemic has had on UK FE institutions delivering BTEC Higher Nationals, using HN Online.
While some of the findings were predictable, 80% of the institutions reported that they were able to adapt quickly to the first lockdown and moved their provision either partly or entirely online by adopting a blended learning approach across their provision. The agility and speed with which they could implement this varied across sectors, dependent on the materials required for those subjects that traditionally had a substantial practical component.
According to further findings, part-time students, who were more familiar with diverse modes of learning, transitioned to online learning more easily. For those who had not experienced anything other than face to face learning, the transition proved slower. Further evidence suggests that additional preparation time by the tutor was required, and timing of lessons had to be flexed to accommodate student social responsibilities.
A significant number of these HN students are employed full-time and so evening delivery continued. For some, daytime sessions were switched to evening, theoretical sessions and target practical time continued in the classroom where applicable. All timetables were flexed, and digital advocates appointed to smooth the experience, with the sharing of technology to bridge any gaps for learners.
The research also helped realise further challenges arising from the move to online delivery, such as:
- how to keep students engaged,
- the need to create additional materials to complement content,
- time spent understanding how to change and manage workflow,
- a need for students to do more in less time,
- adapting assessment briefs and learning material for the new environment,
- technological fatigue and phobia,
- gaps in knowledge and a challenged skillset.
For some this fast transition to online learning further cemented the decision to continue this way of working into the next academic year. There is evidence that institutions will need to expedite budgetary decisions to invest quickly in both hardware and software solutions to deliver the required provision.
Interestingly, some institutions had begun to think more strategically about the shift from traditional face to face teaching and online delivery management prior to the crisis, but cited that quicker decision-making was a positive by-product of the forced circumstance.
Blended learning is not without its challenges. At the forefront of this challenge is how to transform the flow and function of the learning. If we know that the tutor is the most important agent of change then how do institutions design customisable instructional delivery models? How do tutors build relationships with their learners that promote engagement and make them feel welcome, accepted, supported and safe. How do we build a blended learning culture?
So, what does the future hold:
- Blended learning will continue to be a focus, and a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning will move front and centre as a way to provide students fluidity in choice, experience, and ultimately empowerment. This focus will shape and create an entirely different workflow structure.
- Given the impact of the pandemic on mental health, a learner will require a greater control of the allocation of time to learn and study, with the added ability to plan social and workplace obligations and be given a broadened opportunity to achieve.
- The use of artificial intelligence in the development of learning platforms will drive the ability to better monitor progress and recommend next steps.
- The future will bring questions around whether we really should continue to tether a student to a specific time slot or whether there is a greater benefit to allow for more freedom of choice of when and where to study.
- Overarching programme design will need an inbuilt agility that will complement a need to be able to offer the student a daily choice of whether to attend a traditional style face to face session or to join a synchronous or asynchronous session of choice.
- Distance will no longer be a barrier and far more students will have access and opportunity to study with an institution of their choice going forward.
It follows that skills development brings confidence and with confidence comes the aspiration to want to contribute and grow. New ideas foster an innovative mindset, and it is this mindset that the future of education and our economy will depend on. The future is bright. We all play a vital role and must contribute to the development of policy, but at the same time continue to demonstrate our commitment to providing a journey of a lifetime for all learners.