Blended learning is not ‘new’ – and calling it so is damaging

I was recently in a conversation about blended learning with a senior manager of a college, who kept referring to blended learning as being ‘new’, or this ‘new way of working’ or this ‘new approach’. At first I accepted these slips of the tongue, as referring to the fact that it was new to him and possibly his organisation, but as the conversation developed, I realised that he was seeing blended learning as being new in general, which of course it isn’t.

I don’t want to try and pinpoint the exact point in history that blended learning started (many other people have done that) – as that isn’t the purpose of this post, the point here is that it clearly isn’t new. Although we didn’t call it blended learning at the time, I was doing a form of blended learning about 16 years ago. In 2007 I started working on the excellent AASE programme at Loughborough College – which was and still is a hugely successful blended learning FE programme, and I have been working on blended learning projects almost exclusively ever since. So for me that is at least a decade, which in education and technology terms, is a very long time, and certainly not ‘new’.

Going back to the conversation with the senior manager. He was clearly scared of this way of working, and a way of coping with that fear, was to somehow make it sound that this was an untested, or experimental way of working that hadn’t been proven, and in doing so justified his lateness when arriving at the party. But the problem here, is that this inaccurate fear, and his overuse of the word ‘new’ (I don’t think he was conscious how often he did it) – is going to have a very negative effect on his organisation. If he has to stand up and inspire teachers to change their ways of working, he will struggle to do so, as he hasn’t even convinced or inspired himself.

Image of 2 characters, one on an upward arrow, the other on a downward arrowI also expect that this situation isn’t isolated to him or his organisation, and is quite widespread through education in the UK, and I predict is an issue that may take quite a few more years to go away. What I do expect to happen is a greater gap between those organisations that do and those that don’t, as the organisations with senior managers who simply don’t get it, being held further and further behind, whilst others progress into the future.

I cannot offer any magical solutions to this problem, as I feel it is possibly ingrained within the ‘DNA’ of the individuals – I just hope that over time enough people come into the senior positions that do get these ideas and notions, that there can be the widespread cultural change to stop treating things that have been around for years as ‘new’.


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/white-male-3d-model-isolated-3d-2064871/

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The future of flexible learning requires flexible working

A couple of weeks ago in the UK, the clocks changed. Most people in the UK rejoice at the October clock change as they get an extra hour in bed on a Sunday morning. Personally I rejoiced as it meant I could get an extra hour of work done on the Sunday morning. I appreciate that this makes me sound either very sad, or an egotistical workaholic – but one of the beauties of my work is that I have the ability to work flexibly, and can therefore choose what hours I work. I regularly get up early and do a couple of hours of work before breakfast, even at weekends, but then I take time off during the day which is much more useful to me and my family life. The key here though is about choice. Most weeks I take at least one half day ‘off’ sometimes more, and I try not to work too much during school holidays, so have about 12 weeks holiday a year – yes my income is reduced significantly as a result, but that is all part of the choice process that comes with flexible learning. As part of my work I support many clients both within the UK and globally – and subsequently, I regularly have to work at unusual times to account for global time variations, again this is part of the flexibility that my work requires and I enjoy.

Image of someone working on a computer outside on a bench with a cup of coffeeSo – coming back to the title of this post. We have identified for many years the advantages that flexible learning brings to the learners, but we don’t appear to have caught up yet, that to truly support flexible learning, requires better flexible working from the teachers. I regularly speak with senior managers in organisations about things such as blended learning, and often discuss options such as providing tuition outside of normal working hours – but I am often given the excuse that ‘Teachers won’t want to work weekends or evenings’. This is clearly nonsense, as any teacher or former teacher (like myself) will tell you, that they have to work weekends and evenings anyway to keep up with the planning and marking, as part of their job. Some teachers would welcome the option to work outside of normal hours to formalise the work they are doing anyway at those times.

What the real problem is, that many parts of education are still stuck in the factory/office mentality of working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. There is also an inherent and sad distrust, that if teachers were given more flexibility, they would somehow abuse this and not do the work (which is again nonsense) if they are not on the premises where they can be checked up on, these two issues are genuine barriers to organisations taking flexible learning seriously.

So – what do I propose? If a teacher is being expected to support a significant numbers of learners that are studying flexibly (by whichever means), I think that teacher should have one day a week where they have the option to not come into work on that day. In other words, the timetable is constructed such that, that teacher has no timetabled classes on that day, giving them the freedom to come in and work in the office, or stay at home and work, or do something totally different, and then work flexibly in the evening or at the weekend. I wouldn’t have any sort of ‘clocking in’ system – I would simply trust the teachers (who by default is already doing more hours in a week than they are paid for), for them to use their professional judgement, as to what needs doing, how much needs doing and by when.

If we take this model further – if an organisation sets up genuine hot-desking in an office (and I have worked at a college that has done this successfully) – you can get away with significantly smaller and more cost effective staff rooms, as you don’t need to provide a desk for every single person, only for that desk to be unused for about 70% of the week whilst they are teaching. Rather than sticking desktop computers onto the desks; you provide teachers with laptops, and have docking stations on the desks so they can use a proper mouse, keyboard and monitor when there. Get rid of the landline phones, and replace these with mobile phones for teachers (which I have blogged about previously – https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/if-you-are-serious-about-blended-learning-give-teachers-a-mobile-phone/)

This does require a major culture shift within organisations, and going back to the issue of choice, some teachers won’t want increased flexibility, which is fine, but for those that do – then now is the time to explore this way of working. If done well it will reduce costs, improve quality, keep teachers happier (which should reduce turn over rate of staff), and should increase the satisfaction of the learners.


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/laptop-notebook-work-keyboard-2443739/

Stop blaming the tools, and invest in CPD

There seems to be a recurring theme in education, where tools are blamed for poor practices. PowerPoint, Interactive Whiteboards, Tablet devices and various VLEs have all fallen foul of this phenomenon, and yes the tools themselves may contribute, but in most cases it is the way that they are used that is the problem.

If I use a sporting analogy – if I play cricket and I get out cheaply bowled (which is sadly too common an occurrence) it is not due to the fact that I have a cheap bat that is over 20 years old – it is due to the fact that I swung the bat and missed the ball. I would never blame my bat for my inability, nor would I head to the local cricket store and spend £200 and expect to suddenly start scoring 100s – I would still get bowled cheaply, just with a more expensive bat for decoration.

Image of computers in a skipGoing back to PowerPoint – the staple presentation giving technology that is used and abused by many, and yes sadly there are many low quality presentations out there – but then you look at some of the things that I (any many others) have done with PowerPoint, and realise that it can be an excellent tool. So what is the difference? Well usually having the time, desire and opportunity to learn how to use it effectively. When I first started working freelance just over 10 years ago, I was regularly running training sessions on the effective use of PowerPoint – but nowadays, I run very few, as people think it is ‘old-hat’, everyone knows how to use it (which is clearly not the case) and it isn’t seen as fashionable to run this sort of training. People have tried using or encouraging others to use different tools such as Prezi, Keynote, Google slides, Sway etc. but without investment in CPD in these, the same problems will occur. Rather than people creating bad PowerPoints, they just create bad Prezis (which is like a bad PowerPoint, but additional sea sickness thrown in), and so these tools will get blamed for the poor use, and we will switch to the next ‘new’ miracle tool, and around we go again.

We currently have a similar situation appearing within the VLE market. For many years – the two heavy weights were Blackboard and Moodle, but Canvas has arrived on the scene with a bang, and many institutions are switching to it. It’s main selling point is its simplicity of use, which is obviously attractive, but talking to decision makers in organisations that are switching, I am again sensing that people are switching because they are blaming the previous tools, rather than the lack of CPD opportunities about effectively using the tools. My prediction for the future, is there won’t be enough CPD for the use of the new tools, they therefore won’t be used as effectively as they could be, and in 4 or 5 years time, they will switch again.

The decision to change VLE tool, is a huge decision for an organisation to make – there is the cost involved, the disruption, the transferring of existing courses etc. so not a decision that should be made lightly – but my current fear is that people are making the decision for the wrong reason. A more sensible approach would be to invest more in the CPD of your existing tools from the start, so that they can be used effectively, rather than blaming the technology.

So please, can we stop blaming the tools, and focus on the CPD?


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/computer-scrap-technology-garbage-2049019/

Free multi-choice patience activity template

When I worked as a teacher, as well as using technology during the teaching and learning process, I also often used it to create activities that didn’t use technology during the actual session. One such activity that I created is something I have called ‘multi-choice patience’. This is a series of ‘cards’ that are printed out and given to the students. Each card is numbered and contains a multiple choice question, with 4 possible answers (1 correct and 3 wrong). Answering each question directs the learner to the next card. To complete the activity the learners have to create ‘loops’ e.g. if using the 36 card set, the answer to the 6th card, should point back to the 1st card in that loop. If it doesn’t then one of the 6 questions has been incorrectly answered, but the learner doesn’t know which one, so they have to go back and try different options, until they correctly complete the loop. Once a loop is created, they pick another card from the pack and start again trying to create a ‘loop’.

Multi choice patience

Screenshot of the multi-choice patience activity

I generally used this activity in the last week of term, when the learners were not up for anything too heavy – I would have the learners in groups of about 4, and they would race against the other groups to see which group could complete the challenge the quickest.

To create the cards, I created a template in excel, where I entered the questions and answers, and the computer randomised the answer order, and worked out the ‘loops’, randomly changing the options each time, and it is this template that I have shared so others can create similar activities.

If a teacher wants to be even cleverer, you get the learners to design the questions in one week (and you could set up something like a Google form that the learners populate) – you then check the questions, copy them into the grid, print out and cut up.

I have recently changed the template, so rather than being limited to having to have exactly 36 questions, it will now work with either 36, 30, 25 or 20 questions.

The template itself can be directly downloaded from:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources/MultipleChoicePatience2017.xls

A complete example can be downloaded from:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources/MultipleChoicePatienceEXAMPLE.xls

And other similar activity templates can be viewed at:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources_class_management.php

A video showing how to use the multi-choice patience template is:

A financial model for blended learning

I was recently involved in a training session with managers on blended learning, and the underlying issue for them was working out a sustainable financial model for this way of working.

The easy (but ineffective and ultimately expensive) approach is to simply ask teachers to develop the online learning elements in their own time, and then reward them by reducing their face to face contact time for each unit or module. This results in the teachers then teaching more units or modules in total, which means more marking (which as we all know, teachers do in their own time). Not surprisingly this method doesn’t work, but sadly it seems to be the approach that many are adopting – all that happens, is the good teachers leave to work elsewhere, and the organisation has to go through the expensive process of finding replacement staff, and the associated disruption to the team dynamics.

So the solution is to find a model that works for the students, the teachers and the organisation. This may sound like an unattainable Holy Grail, but it is possible, and  a college I supported recently used such a model in one of their HE areas which I will describe here.

Need

The initial driver came from the students; who didn’t like travelling into college 4 days a week, and then find the lectures were often not ‘focused’, and there were big gaps between lectures. The idea was to reduce the face to face element so they only had to attend on 3 more focused days. Each lecture would be reduced in length by roughly 25% and be replaced by an online element that students do in their own time, either as preparation for the face to face element (flipped learning) or as a follow up from the face to face provision (it varied from unit to unit).

Development

A pile of £1 coinsThe team invested money into developing this model, by actually paying the teachers a small amount to develop each of the online chunks. I forget the exact amount, but it was something like £10 per online session, and they had to develop the relevant resources/activities before they were paid. Most of the staff carried out this additional work in the summer months before the start of the next term, and they were supported by the in-house learning technologists, and myself.

First year delivery

In the first year of delivery, although the face to face time for students was reduced, the amount of teaching time allocated to the teachers remained the same, this allowed them to effectively support the online elements that they had developed – and to reflect on and improve them. This means there was no increase in the teachers marking commitments, and made the model attractive to the teachers.

Second year delivery

In the second year of delivery, the teachers allocation was reduced to more closely match the actual face to face delivery time, but they were still given a one third allocation for the online elements (e.g. for every 3 hours equivalent of online element, they were allocated 1 hour of teaching time). They also changed the pay mechanism, so the basic pay was effectively less, but the teachers were paid for marking on a per assignment basis – e.g. if a teacher has a particularly large cohort, they are paid more for marking than another teacher who has a much smaller cohort. This payment was again relatively small, but an essential part of the whole mechanism, as a long term objective of this process, was to increase the student numbers on the courses, which wouldn’t be possible if teachers are paid a flat fee for the marking.

Subsequent years delivery

Once set up and working, the model then becomes financially attractive for the organisation – even by paying the teachers to support the online elements, and changing the assignment marking element (neither of which were huge additional costs anyway) – the overall staff cost was less than before, but where the real financial gains came in, was in the courses where they were able to increase the student numbers – in some cases significantly, and easily offsetting the initial financial investment required in development and years 1 and 2.

Result

This model worked, as it met the needs of students (who preferred this way of working, and the reduced travelling times/costs). The teachers were happy, as although their work had changed, they didn’t feel like their workload had been increased. At first some teachers were apprehensive, but they recognised that this was happening whether they like it or not, so got on board. Many of the teachers involved in the initial development, found that as well as being paid for this extra work, they actually reduced their overall preparation time that they would have done anyway. And of course the college was happy as this became a very lucrative source of revenue for the college, as well as overall raising the quality of the provision.

Key points

This worked because the college had the ability and foresight to invest sufficiently in this area. They then approached this strategically, by planning, engaging with appropriate advisers, and then following this through. The initial driver for the change, was not financial, but was about raising the quality of the product/service being offered. The financial benefits although expected were secondary, and I think helped to make more money in the longer term. Yes, the college had a model whereby they could change the pay mechanisms for the staff involved, which was essential for this project, and some colleges will say they don’t have that flexibility, but if providers want to survive in these difficult financial times, then they will have to start to do things differently, or rephrasing this – be more business-like. And finally, they picked areas that they were confident they could increase their student intake, which was essential for the longer term sustainability.

Can other providers use this model?

Simply put – yes, of course they can. Many organisations will come up with reasons why they cannot adopt this model or a similar one, but most of the ‘reasons’ will be self-imposed, and if unpicked can be resolved. The key is to identify a small number of areas to do this initially, areas where it is most likely to work, and where there is potential to increase student numbers over time (which gives the financial benefit of economy of size). Once these areas have been set up, and are into years 2,3 and onwards (and thus bringing financial benefits for the organisation) – then start to roll this out to other areas within the organisation.

A different organisation that I worked with, when implementing a similar approach, we developed a model which started with investing in a single area initially, then the next year expanding slightly, and building up bit by bit, until after 7 years, all areas would have been ‘converted’. This required an initial investment in years 1 and 2, but after that, the financial savings of the early adopters, funded the development of the other areas, and from year 4 on-wards, as well as funding the development, would also return a ‘profit’. I am aware that organisations will tell me they ‘don’t have the funds to make the initial investment’ – but this is where the strength of the organisation leadership comes in – in that strong leadership will find that investment somehow, and then commit fully to make this work, to ensure that they get a return on the investment.

I have made reference on a few occasions about the financial benefits of increasing student numbers (which gives economies of scale), obviously there is a finite number of students out there, so all organisations cannot increase their numbers in all areas. I think providers will have to carefully identify which areas they are strong in, and which areas they are weaker in. They will increase their numbers in the strong areas and reduce the numbers in the weaker areas (probably getting rid of that area of provision). Ideologically I don’t like suggesting that organisations should cull entire areas, but the sad reality is that we live in difficult financial times, where education is grossly under-funded and if we want to survive, we have no option but to make these harsh business like decisions.

Image Ref: https://pixabay.com/en/background-british-budget-business-20126/

Will blended learning end in tiers?

Regular followers of this blog, or my work in general, will be aware that blended learning is probably my main focus of work at the moment, and has been for the last few years. As I have conversations with people about blended learning both in FE and HE, I am starting to realise that a 2-tier approach to this area of work is forming, as I will try to explain here.

Image of a tiered cakeTier 1:

Within FE in particular, as a consequence of FELTAG, many providers are now starting to do more blended learning, but in most cases this is taking the form of taking existing face to face provision, and introducing bits of online, to create the blend. There is no problem with this approach per se, however quite often we are experiencing a simple replacement mechanism, where a face to face activity is replaced with an online activity.

Tier 2:

In contrast there are some providers across the spectrum, who rather than taking existing courses and replacing bits of it, are designing (or totally redesigning) courses as blended learning courses, to take the full advantages that Blended learning offers. This means that the face to face elements and the online elements are designed to both go hand in hand with the other (rather than one being a subservient bolt on of the other), and we aren’t just replacing face to face activities with electronic equivalents.

Conclusion

This second approach often requires reasonable up front investment, so is currently mainly in the realms of HE, private training, and (interestingly) some voluntary sector provides – but it is clear that the quality of these products is far greater than the tier 1 approach. In FE at the moment the tier 1 approach works best in the short term, as cheaper to develop, and many FE learners don’t have the skills and discipline to cope with the higher quality tier 2 type courses, but the problem that I foresee is it isn’t a case that people can start on tier 1, and then over time they gradually morph into tier 2 – in order to move from tier 1 to tier 2, there has to be a major shake up and redesign of the course, and I don’t think that people are aware of this.

This makes me wonder whether FE organisations (and to a lesser extent HE), as well as (or even instead of) trying to manage the mass migration that is taking place to force all courses to have some online bits in it – should they be prioritising a few key areas or courses, ideally the ones that they are strong in and have a good potential captive audiences for, and trying to get those to go for a tier 2 approach. Yes this requires an upfront investment, that is an issue – but is not doing this a risk that organisations will have a problem down the line that in four or five years, we will end up in a similar place to where we are now, trying to manage a mass migration from tier 1 to tier 2?

Image Source: Source: https://morguefile.com/p/846201

The 4 stage model for use of a VLE

A major part of my work at the moment, is working with and around VLEs, either by creating content and activities, or providing training to teachers or learning technologists in the effective use of the VLE. As part of my work in this area, I have identified that there are different steps to go through for the effective use of a VLE, which I have simplified into the following diagram, and which (I think) has huge significance strategically for organisations that are trying to get teachers in particular to make better (or at least more) use of the VLE.
Set of steps, which are labelled from bottom to top as; Managing, Designing, Building, RepurposingThe 4 steps are:

1: Managing

Many of the clients that I work for, hire me to design and create the various activities that form the backbone of a course on a VLE. The teachers then become skilled at managing these activities – e.g. pointing the students to quizzes at the appropriate times, moderating and encouraging forum based activities, providing constructive feedback for formative assessment activities etc. These teachers in the main are not involved in the design process, and certainly not the building/creating process.

2: Designing

Once a teacher has worked with and managed activities that has been created by someone else, they start to understand how such activities work, what the important ingredients are, and why and when the activities are used. They can then start to design new activities – this may be sketching out the ideas or concepts on paper, it may be creating source information in Word, PowerPoint or Excel – the information then goes to a learning technologist who turns their ideas and content into the actual activity.

3: Building

The third step is the actual building or creating of the activities, i.e. using the VLE tools to actually create the books, quizzes, assignments, forums etc. from this content.

4: Repurposing

Once someone has become proficient at building activities, they can then start to repurpose existing content, and hand in hand with this, build content in a way that makes it easy to repurpose in the future (either by them or someone else).


Some organisations have a centralised learning technology team, which is great, as they can help teachers gradually work their way up through the steps. When a teacher is new to this area of work, the learning technology team can do the building for them, allowing the teacher to concentrate on managing and designing. Then as the teacher becomes more proficient, they may start to do some or all of the building, and later repurposing.

However, there are many organisations out there that don’t have such a support mechanism, or the team is too small to be able to effectively meet all the building and repurposing needs of the organisation, and this then forces steps 3 and 4 onto the teaching staff, often without them having worked through steps 1 and 2.

I don’t have a magical answer to this problem, as money is tight, and organisations cannot just create large support teams out of nowhere, but if we think about this 4 step model, and identify the necessity for teaching staff to work their way up it, it is possible to rethink a little about how we do things. I have worked with some organisations recently where I have been asked to come in and run training, where I have had a few hours to try and get teachers jumping straight into step 3, and without any central support for the staff once I leave at the end of the day. This is always going to be tough for those staff. What would be really good is, if there is a mechanism where staff can manage some existing content first, then design some basic activities which someone else creates for them, and then they receive the training in how to build/create content etc.

Within FE and HE at the moment, there are huge pushes to get people using learning technology more (and in many cases the VLE)  – and what is very noticeable is the very different approaches that organisations offer in the way of support, and more significantly the different levels of understanding from the decision makers in these organisations.