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Blended learning: a new normal for higher education?

Published on 20 July 2021
Daniella Bo Ya Hu
Daniella Hu

ACU Impact and Insight Officer

The second series of The Internationalist podcast from the ACU explores how the work of universities is being changed by the digital revolution, and how they can use their position to confront the challenges posed by digital technology. With thanks to Professor Jackson Too, Ag. Deputy Commission Secretary of the Commission of University Education, Kenya, Dr Luz Longsworth, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of West Indies (UWI) Open Campus, Jamaica, and Christine Koine, a first-year information science student at Kenyatta University, Kenya for their contributions and ideas in the fourth episode, many of which are outlined below.

The digital revolution is shifting the landscape of higher education – and nowhere has the impact been greater than in teaching. Even before the pandemic, blended learning – a pedagogical approach combining face-to-face teaching with online course delivery – had been steadily gaining traction due to its cost-effectiveness and flexibility.

A year after COVID-19 shuttered campuses around the globe, universities have already invested a great deal in technology-mediated teaching and learning. As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic campus, will universities retain some elements of online learning going forward? Will blended learning be the new normal?  

Why blended learning?

Professor Jackson Too and Dr Luz Longsworth agree that blended learning offers opportunities for universities to diversify teaching and expand student access by reducing the need to travel.

There is also increasing evidence that blended pedagogy has inherent benefits for the learner. Describing her experience as a student at Kenyatta University, Christine Koine says that blended learning is a much more engaging approach compared to face-to-face lectures, and has enabled her to develop more independence as a learner.

Just as technology has transformed the way students learn, it has also changed what lecturers teach. Professor Too explains that blended learning platforms enable academics to produce locally relevant teaching materials, which can easily be shared with other universities via online platforms. In east Africa, the Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) – a pilot programme led by the ACU and supported by the UK FCDO’s SPHEIR – supports academics from Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya to develop and share online teaching material geared to the needs and interests of students in the region. In the long term, this can decrease universities’ reliance on teaching content produced in entirely different sociopolitical contexts.

However, blended learning is not as simple as uploading existing courses online. A successful blended programme requires adequate infrastructure and connectivity, technical training for staff and students, and robust quality assurance frameworks. These processes are complex and challenging, particularly for smaller, resource-strapped universities experiencing high staff turnover rates.

Then there is the question of hesitance from both students and teachers to embrace technology. Professor Too points to the simple fact that not everyone is comfortable with technology or has regular access to it, and this lack of familiarity often translates into lower confidence in the idea of a blended course. This is a familiar challenge for Dr Longsworth at the University of West Indies’ Open Campus, where she has observed a widely held perception that programmes with online elements are inferior to traditional in-person courses.

But for UWI, a federal university comprising 17 countries, online platforms open doors for people across the Caribbean to access university education. Dr Longsworth describes how a combination of comprehensive pedagogical training for all faculty members, and the standardisation of quality assurance frameworks for both online and in-person courses, ultimately helped shift mindsets to embrace blended and online programmes.

Looking ahead: the future-proof university

In a world where technology touches upon virtually all aspects of the human experience, universities are not siloed. They must keep evolving to prepare graduates to succeed in the modern world of work, and this includes changing what is taught – and how it is taught.

Both Professor Too and Dr Longsworth agree that blended learning is not just the new normal – but also a new imperative for universities to become truly future-proof.

In Kenya, Professor Too is looking forward to a future where blended learning will become widespread. COVID-19 has resulted in a marked increase of interest in blended learning, with more academic staff and educational developers in the region looking to innovate and embrace technology. They are also paying closer attention to initiatives such as PEBL, which supports a growing regional network of blended learning experts.

‘Through PEBL, the capacity of academics was enhanced. Students have also changed their attitudes and they are now better equipped in terms of technology use. I see more and more people coming on board.’ – Professor Jackson Too

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, Dr Longsworth is envisioning a future where blended programmes will continue to evolve alongside new innovations in educational technology. At UWI, the focus will be on developing new and interactive types of programming, including real-time, fully immersive learning experiences for students living far away from campuses and laboratories.

‘I think universities would be serving our societies poorly if we did not insist on blended learning, because our students will not be able to survive if they cannot manipulate this environment. If we don't push it on all of our people to have a certain level of digital literacy, our countries will be continuing to lag in terms of development.’ – Dr Luz Longsworth

Blended learning can increase the flexibility and adaptability of universities, while enhancing learners’ digital skills and independence. While it is difficult to predict the future, it is clear that some form of technology-mediated learning is here to stay. Amidst these changes, we must not forget the conversation around equity, access, and inclusion in the digital space. As conduits between students and the world of work, universities have a vital role to play in ensuring that the digital revolution – both on campus and beyond – leaves no one behind.

You can discover more podcast episodes here, or by searching for The Internationalist on your preferred podcast platform.