The disruption caused by Covid-19 has derailed current plans by universities and accelerated future ones due to the speed and intensity of its impact. It may be fair to assume that past performances can no longer fuel universities’ future plans. While universities stretch their efforts in planning how to adopt new modes of teaching and prepare their staff to obtain the right skills, the extent of information being communicated to students may be a cause for concern. We conducted a survey interview with new and returning students that revealed the lack of clear communication from their respective universities. A new graphic design student fears that lectures may be delayed and complains that ‘there has been no communication from the university about the start date and emails present no information on teaching and learning’. We believe that having a two-way dialogue between universities and students to identify ‘what students want’ could be a direction worth exploring.
The blended learning dichotomy
According to Bothwell (2020), UK universities favour a blended mode of delivery for the upcoming year, but do universities clearly outline what this means to students? A returning biochemistry student, for instance, responding to the survey described blended as different forms of learning such as workshops, computers, labs and lectures. The graphic design student further expressed their concerns, stating ‘I am not sure what blended learning means’. There are several definitions of blended teaching and learning without a clear agreement on one; however, it has been universally understood as a mode of delivery that can be located on a continuum between face-to-face learning (on campus) to fully online learning (Siemens, Gašević, & Dawson, 2015). More so, the term ‘blended’ is often used interchangeably with hybrid or mixed-mode or dual-mode, which all having subtle differences in the way they are defined (Means, Toyama, Murphy, & Baki, 2013). The confusion is inevitable and course-specific guidance on what blended learning entails might be well received by students.
Clear as mud
Universities have left no stone unturned in terms of attracting new overseas students. Some universities are offering different scholarships that include free accommodation and reduced fees, while others are providing hardship funds on the basis of meeting essential living costs. Furthermore, talks have surfaced about how universities may even charter flights to bring these students to the UK (Baker, 2020). One could argue that universities communicating their capabilities to attract students may only exemplify their consumerist relationship with them. However, listening to what students perceive as challenges in the upcoming year could be an approach that is not only student-centred but also more valued by students. The apparent lack of appropriate communication with home students and the overreliance of information communicated to overseas students through social media channels or one-way communication through websites fail to foster a meaningful partnership with them. A returning international business student, also co-president of a student society, expects meaningful weekly updates of what’s changing and noted a lack of proper spaces to work and learn independently as two of their key challenges in the upcoming year. However, the communication they received has been limited to information that had limited relevance to teaching and learning.
Students as partners
While universities focus on implementing potent strategies to create blended courses, minimise the financial impact and deal with resource provision, more needs to be done to involve students as partners. Initiating a dialogue through Q&A sessions led by student unions and societies or conducting live webinars to answer key questions about teaching and learning could be a good starting point. A partnership approach could lead universities to formulate a clear communication strategy that could help unveil a Pandora’s box of uncertainties and anxieties students may face. Student partnership raises awareness of the implicit assumptions about the nature of teaching and learning between universities and students which in turn present better choices to act upon through authentic engagement (Bryson, 2016). Moreover, student needs could be wide-ranging, with some expecting a bespoke guide to blended teaching and learning and others wanting online workshops on digital learning or navigating through library resources. The question is whether universities will try and find out what students really want.
Baker, S. (2020, July 9). British universities explore charter flights for international students. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/07/09/british-universities-explore-charter-flights-international-students
Bothwell, E. (2020, May 26). UK universities favour blended learning approach for 2020-21. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/uk-universities-favour-blended-learning-approach-2020-21
Bryson, C. (2016). Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. International Journal for International Development, 21(1), 84-86. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2016.1124966
Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., & Baki, M. (2013). The effectiveness of online and blended learning: A meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Teachers College Record, 115(3), 1–47.
Siemens, G., Gašević, D., & Dawson, S. (2015). Preparing for the digital university: A review of the history and current state of distance, blended, and online learning. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.1.3515.8483