As we know, one of those industries particularly affected by COVID is education. According to global UNESCO data, as of the end of April 2021 - more than a year on from the start of the COVID-19 crisis - approximately 920 million learners were still affected by partial or total school closure. This figure peaks to approximately 1.6 billion learners in April 2020 (around 88% of those being from total closures).
According to UNESCO, as of March 2021, since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the average global total weeks of closures stood at 27 weeks - just over half a year - with some places registering as high as 53 total weeks of school closures.
With these daunting prospects and realisations, many countries have had to be reactive in how they continue to further their learners’ education, whilst remaining safe.
The immediate response to the pandemic and education
Tightening our lens to those in higher and further education (especially those studying BTEC Higher National qualifications), many of these learners have been especially affected by these closures.
Some may say that they’ve been more so affected than other learners, due to their proximity to career decision and – ultimately – employment. Others could say that those studying practical units would be even more affected.
In any case, as a response to this, the European Commission reported that many institutions moved towards an emergency online/remote delivery of learning, with around 85% of institutions in Europe changing to this mode of delivery at the beginning of the crisis. This is, then, translated to around 75% of students on a global scale who had to move towards some sort of remote learning solution. At first, it was not ideal but was borne of absolute necessity and safety.
Blended vs. face-to-face delivery: the current picture
With some places in the world, especially the UK, moving out of lockdown and starting to loosen restrictions completely, many institutions seem keen to move back to the original face-to-face design of delivery, and eliminate online sessions altogether. This is understandable as many - teachers and learners alike - found it difficult to adjust to blended learning, at first.
The following are some of the challenges put forward by students and lecturers respectively, in research by the Joint Information Systems Committee, in response to how learning and teaching will look like moving forward.
However, that same research also concluded major benefits for both learner and teacher, when it came to blended delivery:
Furthermore, institution leaders cited that whilst they understand the training need for teachers and the need to fulfil the social experience learners want alongside learning, the future is blended learning and they do not see the ‘digital shift’ rolling back – the benefits of breaking geographical, multimodal and accessibility barriers are too great.
Due to this, there are some who have looked at this as a new horizon of learning and are keen to adopt or maintain a blended/online delivery model for their cohorts, especially when you consider the benefits it offers for those studying qualifications such as Higher Nationals.
How Pearson is offering solutions
As we move towards this epoch of teaching, Pearson is always working to advance learning, whilst making it accessible for all. Thinking about the BTEC Higher Nationals Pearson offers, there too are advancements in provisions for those delivering these qualifications.
Many FE, private and international colleges have adopted HN Online, to seamlessly deliver Higher Nationals with this style of learning, even before the start of the COVID pandemic. Whilst it helps as a handy and convenient partner to delivering blended learning in the interest of safety, many providers have also seen it as a long-term multimodal solution designed to open up their courses to more than the usual attendee cohort - and in turn, widen their accessibility to all types of learners. Students using HN Online have mentioned that with “the variety of different modules and activities, it just makes learning so much easier”.
Meanwhile, centre staff representatives such as Katy Unwin, Director of Learning, at North Warwickshire South Leicestershire College, have also told us that “using HN Online meant not only were [they] predicting recruitment numbers, but [they were] also going to see a decrease in the administration and planning for [their] staff, that were going to be delivering it”.
When integrating HN Online to help deliver asynchronous learning within blended learning, another benefit is that easy-to-use reports can allow tutors to track student progress and facilitate tailor-made interventions, effectively. This way, time can be better dedicated to live, synchronous contact time, whilst focusing on high-value teaching and assignment support. It is no wonder that the same staff have said “it was an absolute no brainer” to adopt.
The future for blended learning
To end, blended learning is a practical long-term solution, and not just a plaster on a pretty deep cut that will heal in time. The benefits of convenience, effectiveness, interactivity and wider approach to all types of cohort is numerous, but how does one go about integrating it for that long-term benefit, whilst dealing with the short-term challenges?
First, institution leaders should start – or continue – embedding digitalisation into their learning culture. As suggested in the JISC 2020 report, if there is a leadership in place which outwardly embraces digital aspects within the way to learn, it will be easier for both learner and teacher to adopt and adapt. Moreover, with the challenges of students feeling they lack social community, there are solutions in place to help cater to this.
For example, Pearson has a free platform called HN Global, which is a repository of learning materials, for student and learner, whilst doubling up as a social online portal.
Of the many useful functions on there, there is an ever-growing forum, where students can engage with other HN Learners globally, within particular subjects – or just generally chat with each other, in the ‘student lounge’.
Next, there must be conversations on an economic level on how the benefits of blended learning outweigh those of the short-term investment. These are beginning to happen, as Pearson engages with multiple education organisations.
Thinking about how most workspaces are rapidly becoming digitised and multimodal, it is in the best interest of these same leaders to look at the economic models needed to deliver on the same style of learning, whist looking towards the long-term benefits - i.e. more accurate student recruitment; and better wellbeing for learners who are juggling family life, work life and home life (especially where all of those have now merged into one life, due to the pandemic).
Institutions should also consider investments in hardware and software, for learners who cannot otherwise access the material.
Finally, in order to deliver successfully, there needs to be consideration on how training and support is facilitated by institutions for their staff - and in turn, their students. In order to reap the benefits of blended learning, there will need to be a better level of digital confidence and evangelism, on all fronts.
Once these challenges are solved, many providers of blended learning will be able to reach all types of learners more easily - accessing those with all levels of accessibility and learning needs; those with rigid family or work commitments; the school leaver and the adult student.
And once we work through the reverberations that COVID has left, as we work on proactive and preventative measures - rather than reactive and curative measures - with education, we will continue to service all types of learner, whatever the circumstance, and understand why blended learning is still best.