Blended learning: the changing face of teaching in the digital age

Blended learning is becoming increasingly common in higher education. Advocates suggest educators use digital tools to be more responsive to students' needs and more imaginative in their delivery of knowledge.
Blended learning: the changing face of teaching in the digital age

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and its associated lockdowns, education was in a slow evolutionary process. A few early adopters were making massive online open courses (MOOCS) or using video as a teaching tool but exploring technology options for teaching remained an exception to the norm. Lockdowns, however, forced teaching and learning to go digital.

“Because of COVID-19 we went from face-to-face teaching and learning to online practically overnight,” says Dr Paula Barnard-Ashton, Assistant Dean: Teaching and Learning at the University of Witwatersrand’s (Wits) Faculty of Health Sciences. “These were emergency measures, but the value of the experience was that so many of us had to learn how to use the digital tools available to us to change the way we teach, and to change the way we interact with our students.”

Now that students are back in lecture halls, many educators are advocating to keep the momentum going and be more intentional and more imaginative in how they are delivering their knowledge content. Barnard-Ashton is one of these. To help inspire and advocate for blended learning she produces a weekly podcast, the BlendEDBeat Coffee Grab, and has a YouTube channel which provides informative videos on how to effectively implement blended learning techniques.

For Professor Shabir Madhi, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Professor of vaccinology, and one of the guests on Barnard-Ashton’s show, the shift towards greater blended learning needs to happen now.

“We are living in a world that is changing exponentially, just since the end of last year we have seen what incredible changes ChatGPT and artificial intelligence can bring,” he said. “We are seeing fundamental changes in terms of how knowledge is being delivered, and we must ask ourselves, are we using the best tools available to us when it comes to teaching our students?”

What is blended learning?

Blended learning strives to pull together the best of both face-to-face and online learning. The goal is to provide a more interactive learning experience, moving away from the traditional model of a lecturer speaking ‘at’ a passive group of students.

“I think the pandemic was a huge wake up call,” said Professor Diane Grayson, Senior Director of Academic Affairs at Wits, on the BlendEDBeat podcast. “It really made us stop and think, what are we doing when we teach? Who are we doing it for? And how can we do it better?”

She spoke of how in the traditional classroom model, as a lecturer it is so easy to stand in front of a class of 300 and imagine that the sea of faces is some kind of homogenous group who are taking meaning from what you are saying. But this is simply not the reality. Blended learning tries to focus more on learning from the student’s perspective.

“It is about having a greater sense of intentionality and using more imagination in our teaching,” says Grayson.

How students learn

Education experts have known for a long time that learning does not happen in a direct transmitter (lecturer) to receiver (student) flow. For many students, active participation, solving problems in groups or engaging in a discussion, can result in more meaningful outcomes.

Students bring their own experiences, diverse backgrounds, and creative ideas to the learning environment. When lecturers harness what the student brings to the learning journey to craft how the student engages with the course content, the students become motivated by an authentic, real-world, and personally relevant experience. Blended learning creates the flexible opportunities for students to explore their own interests within the scope of their academic courses. Learning becomes less about what you remember and more about how you access information and what you do with it.

Curriculum planning for the South African context

For Grayson, an important potential for blended learning is to make the resource demands of higher education less onerous for students.

“There are a lot of students who have to make the decision, will I eat today, or will I pay for transport to get to campus,” said Grayson. “Asking students to come to campus every day, sometimes just for a few hours, is really not very fair.”

Grayson says lecturers can be more intentional about when they need students in class.

The idea is to bring students together when they need to be. Students may be able to stream a 40-minute lecture from home, but only need to come onto campus for more interactive work.

“There is value in bringing students together into the same space to interact, collaborate and bounce ideas off each other,” says Grayson.

Expanding the eduroam footprint to support blended learning

Access to the Internet is of course the big stumbling block for many South African students for blended and online learning. But eduroam, the secure world-wide roaming Internet access service developed specifically for the research and education community, has huge potential to bridge the digital divide for South African students.

“eduroam has a very open model, any Internet service provider (ISP) who wants to, can become an eduroam service provider,” says Guy Halse, head of Trust and Identity at TENET. “And TENET will happily support anyone who is interested in providing eduroam.”

Recently, thanks to the efforts of Wits Chief Information Officer, Dr Stanley Mpofu, a private public partnership between TENET, Wits and Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) resulted in the successful rollout of eduroam at all ACSA-controlled airports in South Africa.

eduroam is also available at all public libraries in the City of Cape Town as well as several libraries and a community centre in Makhanda.

Efforts are continually underway by universities, and TENET, to work with as many partners as possible and expand the eduroam footprint so students can have reliable and secure Internet access from as many public points as possible, reducing the expense of travel to campus.

Keep track of the eduroam access points through this interactive map or the eduroam companion app in the apple and google apps stores.

Barnard-Ashton sums it up, “While eduroam may not reach the students in their homes, our learning management systems allow students to download many course activities and resources for ‘off-line’ engagement, so a students can potentially visit a local library, community centre or shopping mall to work there or download what they need to finish in their own time.”

“Reliance on mobile service providers is a risk to the quality of learning materials a students can access as many areas are underserviced,” she adds. “eduroam access in the proximity of the students’ homes is a gamechanger for quality blended learning.”