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/

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/

Does Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) actually enhance learning?

A few weeks ago, someone posted the following request to the ALT Mailing list that I am on:

‘…who on the list could point me to evidence of TEL enhancing learning/teaching.’

Women using a laptop, with chalkboard behindThe request kick started a very good debate and discussion about the weaknesses of research in this area, the merits of learning technology, and various other asides, and without taking this blog post down the same direction as the discussion, I want to focus purely on the wording used, and its strategic significance.

The term TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) has a clue in it’s name – in that it is where the use of technology has enhanced learning – and therefore the simple answer to the title of this blog post is ‘Yes – TEL, enhances learning’. The problem is that people use the term TEL, to describe any use of technology within education – not just the uses that enhance the learning. People that are anti progress in this area, often cite examples of negative impacts of using technology: ‘I used the interactive whiteboard, but it wasn’t calibrated, so nothing worked, I would have been better off with a whiteboard and pens’, ‘I uploaded my PowerPoints to the VLE, but no students accessed them’ etc. But these are not examples of Technology Enhanced Learning, these are simply examples of bad learning (or bad teaching if being technically correct).

Some may accuse me of getting hung up on simple semantics, or even being flippant here, but I can assure you that this post is written in up-most sincerity, and is an issue that I feel very strongly about. If we are going to use the term TEL – then we have to be prepared to differentiate the difference between good use and bad use. Yes there is a retort that ‘how can one make the judgement without empirical evidence based on academic research’ – but at the simplest level, if a tutor has used technology, and they know that it hasn’t improved the learning experience, then it wasn’t TEL – it doesn’t require research to determine that. Yes there is another possible scenario, where they think the use of technology has enhanced the learning, but in fact it hasn’t, and this is where research does come in – but the research has to avoid getting itself warped by only looking at TEL – instead it has to look at all uses of technology.

There are two main morals to this story:

  1. If organisations are going to use the term TEL as part of their strategies, objectives, etc. are they somehow able to differentiate the genuine TEL from just bad practice?
  2. If people are going to research what evidence there is that technology enhances learning/teaching – then they have to look at the wider use of technology, not just the ‘Enhancing’ use.

As usual, I expect my blog post to upset or unease a few people, but I think there is value in posts like this, which if nothing else, will make people think a little bit about the language used, and its significance.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/learn-school-student-mathematics-1996845/

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 importance of Leadership vs Management in FE when implementing #FELTAG

FELTAG (Further Education Learning Technology Action Group) has been around now for about three years, and in some areas there has been significant progress, in other areas the progress has been slower. One thing that has become apparent to me in my travels around the country and numerous organisations, is the ‘elephant in the room’ that is recognising the difference between leadership and management.

Leadership is about have vision, ideas and long term objectives; then inspiring people to follow those visions and ideas. A good leader will (usually) be an inspirational speaker/presenter, will be someone that is prepared to challenge the norm, and will seek new ways to achieve the goals they have set.

Management is about making sure that steps required to realise the vision and objectives are followed correctly. A good manager is someone that is organised, can break big problems down into more manageable steps, follows and applies protocols, and makes sure that things get done.

Image of a duck leading other ducks.

A leader, and many managers

So the skills and personality requirements of the two are completely different to each other – and herein lies the problem. Further Education in the UK is not very good at separating the two out. Quite often the principal (or equivalent) in an organisation, will be a ‘leader’ – but they will be supported by a SLT (Senior Leader Team) made up of managers. We then get managers making leadership decisions or leaders trying to manage projects – neither of which working well, due to the wrong personality types doing the wrong things. In larger organisations such as universities, or in the private sector – it is much clearer that some people are employed as leaders and some are employed as managers – but that clarity is lacked in FE, where the terms leadership and management are often used interchangeably to describe the same people.

From my perspective, I am often brought into organisations to run staff development in the area of blended learning. I always try to identify the organisations position, and then deliver a bespoke session based on this. Quite often the SLT has identified some totally arbitrary objective for all teaching teams e.g. they have to make 20% of their provision online. There is often no consideration of what that actually means, or why they are doing it, or what is in it for the teachers (or students). Sometimes it is obvious, that there isn’t a clear understanding of what the SLT want, which is problematic. In other situations, the SLT are clear what they want (or they think they are clear), but they haven’t articulated this down to the team leaders and teaching staff who have to implement this.

One of the things that I try to ascertain when working with clients, is ‘which model(s) of blended learning are you working towards?’, the response often being ‘blah blah 20% online blah blah’. There are many different models in which blended learning can be applied, and to be successful, the starting point for any organisation has to be identifying which model(s) are to be used for which situations (and a one size fits all/none approach isn’t a good model) – each subject area, and different courses within that subject area will have different ‘best’ models that they could use, but sadly I am often running training sessions for teachers, where they don’t know what model they are working towards, which makes the chances of success very remote.

And so back to the title of this post. I cannot pretend that I have a magic answer to this situation, but if there is a recognition that there is a difference between leadership and management – and the leaders do the leading and managers do the managing, then this is certainly a step forwards. From a blended learning perspective – the key is that the leaders have a clear long term vision for the organisation that they articulate well, and the managers have the autonomy and confidence to identify and implement the different models of blended learning in the teams that they support.

On the 6th December 2016, I am running a session titled ‘Effective development and management of blended learning‘ at EMFEC in Nottingham. A large part of the session will be looking at some of the different models of blended learning, and how the development of these can be strategically managed by an organisation.

#FELTAG – Considerations when buying off the shelf resources

In my previous post, I introduced the idea of ‘to buy or not to buy resources’. In this post I will be looking at considerations if you choose to buy resources. The next post will look at the considerations for not buying.

There are certainly potential advantages to buying resources, but I have experienced a lot of places wasting a lot of money on the wrong resources, or buying them for the wrong reasons – I hope that this series of posts will help organisations to make a more informed decision before deciding one way or another.

There are two very strong arguments in favour of buying in resources:

  1. The quality of resources should be of a much higher quality than what an average teacher could produce as part of their average working week.
  2. It doesn’t make financial sense for every teacher in the UK (and beyond) to produce what are in essence the same resources to cover the same criteria, for the same qualifications. Pooling resources and letting a content creation company produce these for all providers, and people then pay for what they need, on the surface seems to make financial sense. If we look at the non-technology analogy, each teacher doesn’t go and write their own text book, we buy a selection of core texts from publishers, and fill our libraries with them, the teacher then uses their skills to signpost to students the key pages and activities at the appropriate time during the course.

From a practical point, some organisations simply don’t have the skills and support mechanisms in house to support teachers to create the standards expected. Or if you have a teaching team that is very small, there may not be the capacity or skill within that team to develop the online elements, and in these cases buying in may become more attractive.

So, if an organisation chooses to purchase off the shelf resources, there are generally two options:

  1. Buy the resources outright with a single payment, and then own them forever.
  2. Pay an annual fee for the right to use the resources.
Image of a book case with lots of different coloured books

Resources

Method 1, is akin to buying books upfront, and is the easiest to account for and plan ahead (there are no unexpected increases in price in the future), however at some point in the future the resources will become out of date, either due to qualification changes, changes to the topic, or the technology used becoming defunct (e.g. Resources produced in Flash). This then requires further purchases down the line.

Method 2, will benefit from resources being constantly updated, but financially once you have used the resources for a few years, the provider will be able to increase the annual fee, so difficult to plan ahead, and overall the cost long term will become significant. Usually with the annual fee model, the resources will sit on their server, which means users either need different login details to their usual logins, or the resources need to come with an integration mechanism into the organisation VLE, (which some provide) however these are sometimes not as straight forward as you would expect, and the ways that the resources can be used may be restricted by this mechanism. Another problem is that quite often they will only work when online, which again isn’t ideal for teaching rooms that aren’t connected, or students wanting to work in an offline environment.

If an organisation is thinking of buying off the shelf packages, there are some considerations or questions to ask:

  1. Ask to see a sample of the resources before buying. Each provider of resources will have demo units or similar available, but these will be the best quality ones they have to offer. Ask to see a unit of your choosing, and make your judgement from that – you will be very surprised how much difference there is between the two at times. If they refuse to give you access to a unit of your choice, walk away – they are obviously embarrassed by the quality of that unit.
  2. If you are going for the annual licence option, check where the resources are actually stored, and what would happen if the publishing company went bust next week. The ideal scenario is for the resources to be hosted by a specialist hosting company, and one which has been paid for at least 12 months in advance. This way if the publishing company goes bust, you still have access to the resources for the duration of the contract.
  3. Check the accessibility of the resources – many of the resources being produced are sadly very poor accessibility wise, and because the resources will be ‘locked’ by the seller it will be almost impossible to adapt them – resulting in the teacher having to recreate all the resources again, which defeats the purpose of buying the resources in the first place.
  4. Check what format the resources are in. Any resources that are produced in flash or with flash elements are not going to work on iPhones, iPads, many Android devices and in the future possibly other devices, so flash based resources should be avoided altogether. If resources include other file types such as Word or PowerPoint these should also be provided in alternate formats (e.g. PDF, Open Office etc.) and if videos are included, these need to be tested on multiple device types and shouldn’t be excessively large.
  5. Check the subject accuracy of the resources. I recently reviewed some anatomy resources for the teaching of sport, and was horrified by the number of errors the resources contained even though the resources had been proof-read by teachers and endorsed by one of the major awarding bodies. I wasn’t specifically looking for errors, but these jumped out at me, so I expect there must have been many less obvious mistakes as well.

One disadvantage (which many don’t consider) of using the entire courses or units that can be purchased off the shelf, is you actually make it very hard to ever become ‘outstanding’ – as the term outstanding means ‘standing out’ from the rest. If you have bought such a course or unit, you are unlikely to stand out from all the other people who have bought the same course or unit. Obviously there are things that the teachers could do to enhance or enrich the use of these courses, to get up to outstanding level, but reality is that the attraction of these purchases, is managers can then reduce the amount of money spent on teachers time, and even if teachers have the desired amounts of time, many will find it very hard to enhance or enrich an already ‘complete’ unit or course.

And finally – make sure the right people in the organisations are making the decisions – e.g. the teachers need to be involved to make sure they are appropriate academicaly, technical people need to be involved to ensure they will fit into organisations systems/VLEs etc. and strategically the budget holder has to make the decision as to not just the initial purchase, but on going maintenance, updates, CPD requirements etc.

The next post in this series, will look at the considerations of not buying in external resources.

Whereas I welcome comments on my blog posts, please don’t use this blog post as a way to either promote or criticise any particular companies or products. Any such comments I will delete.

Image source: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/925347