Blended Learning: Finding the Right Blend for University Students

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, many educational institutions, including Heriot-Watt University, adopted blended learning to overcome the challenges of lockdown restrictions and the sustained need for social distancing.

While the lockdowns have largely been lifted, safety concerns remain. Blended learning, which combines digitally enabled dynamic learning experiences with traditional classroom teaching, is one option for dealing with them.

Blended learning is the new buzzword of the education industry. Many educators see it as an absolute necessity, helping students and educators cope with the demands of the new normal.

Understanding Blended Learning

The overarching goal of blended learning is to combine the most interesting aspects of traditional classroom teaching and direct interaction with the advantages of online learning.

Programmes, learning materials and student experiences developed based on this model have made education more accessible to all kinds of students, especially adult learners, who can benefit from the flexibility to tailor their studies around their work commitments and family obligations.

While blended learning has been around for a while, it gained momentum during Covid-19, accelerating a transformational trajectory that higher education has been on for some time.

While blended learning has been around for a while, it gained momentum in the wake of Covid-19, accelerating a transformational trajectory that the higher-education sector has been on for some time.

Heriot-Watt University formulated and adopted a forward-thinking approach called Responsive Blended Learning.

The Responsive Blended Learning (RBL) model combines active, supported online learning with contextually appropriate face-to-face learning opportunities. The approach we have taken has been designed to respond to the changing circumstances. For example, we need to anticipate the possibility that one, or more, of our campuses may be required to go into a new Covid-19 lockdown at short notice at some point in the future.

This approach also enables us to respond to the requirements of students whose learning has been disrupted, and to the ongoing well-being needs of our staff and students.

Heriot-Watt’s virtual learning environment (VLE) is the hub for interaction and engagement. The courses are packed with live sessions with lecturers and classmates, and the opportunity to discuss and share insights from practical activities.

Our library, study skills support, careers and well-being support services are all available to students, both on campus and virtually. The on-campus learning spaces such as labs and studios are a safe space, reserved for group work and collaboration with peers, when absolutely necessary.

Impact on Student Skills

As an innovative and critically essential teaching approach, blended learning creates many learning possibilities, allowing students to choose the mode of interaction to suit their circumstances.

For some students who face travel difficulties and social responsibilities, online learning may be the only option. Moreover, it can open up educational opportunities to a bigger group of international students, who are unable to access quality education in their home countries.

Critical to the success of blended learning are the steps needed to create an active learning community which students feel a part of, wherever they are located and however they engage with their learning.

Under these challenging circumstances, it is even more important to integrate collaboration into the digital classroom, which contributes towards strengthening the student’s resilience.

Blended learning facilitates asynchronous learning. That is, students can learn independently and gain additional support provided by the instructor and peers. During group sessions, students have the opportunity to track and evaluate their progress and improve their areas of weaknesses. This has resulted in deeper levels of student engagement than before, as they can afford to design their learning schedule to a certain extent around their work and play.

But an ability to demonstrate social and emotional skills, or soft skills, is as important as measurable learning outcomes. Blended learning offers students an opportunity to connect and interact with their peers who are otherwise unavailable, either due to conflicting schedules or geographical distances.

Heriot-Watt’s Responsive Blended Learning model offers students the chance to interact with classmates from campus locations in three continents and a chance to be a part of a truly global community and to grow their social capital.

Strengthening Students’ Resilience

With the onset of Covid-19, students were faced with a wave of new challenges. Numerous studies have shown that prolonged isolation could lead to heightened depression and other mental health challenges.

The current crisis has seen students draw on their reserves of resilience and adaptability, steered and supported by educational institutions, academics and families.

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Under these challenging circumstances, it is even more important to integrate collaboration into the digital classroom, which contributes towards strengthening the student’s resilience. Student collaborations via group discussions, debates, and breakout sessions offer students both a shared experience and interpersonal communication – vital for maintaining their overall well-being.

Paul Hopkinson is associate head of Edinburgh Business School for Heriot-Watt University Dubai and academic lead for Heriot-Watt Online.

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