Finding the perfect blend

The expectations of the modern student are high. Many of today’s learners have round-the-clock access to the internet wherever they go, on their mobile phones or on laptops.

They demand a system of learning which recognises they may need to fit their studies around a part-time job or family commitments.

Students want to access their learning, their peers and feedback from lecturers electronically, whenever and wherever they like. But the need for, and an appreciation of face-to-face interaction has not disappeared, and support from teaching staff is a key approach to encouraging students to learn, develop, and grow.

The University of Wolverhampton has for a long time recognised and championed the need for a combined approach to learning.

The task of ensuring that such an approach is successfully delivered lies with the Blended Learning Unit. Part of the Institute of Learning Enhancement, the team has expertise in designing curricula that blend e-learning with face-to-face education. This has been a particularly important aspect of the Learning Works project, which has seen the University refocus its curriculum to prepare students for the world of work.

The choice and uses made of technology vary depending on the subject and learning outcomes, but examples of widely-used blended learning include providing all module related documents in an electronic format; students collaborating using WOLF, PebblePad or even their own sites such as Facebook or via blogs; interactive materials in podcasts and vodcasts and submitting and returning coursework online with electronic feedback.

Success on a global platform

The success of the Blended Learning Unit was recognised by two awards recently. The team beat off tough international competition to clinch a platinum award at the IMS Learning Impact Awards. Held this year in California, the awards recognise highly successful uses of technology to support learning and where they have had a significant impact on achievement.

The University teamed up with Pebble Learning, the company behind the e-portfolio  PebblePad, for its submission, which focused on the use of electronic personal development planning (ePDP) in the curriculum. In winning this prestigious award, the University was acknowledged as a world leader in the area.

Emma Purnell, Blended Learning Advisor,  describes the award as a real team effort.

“The IMS Learning Award has given us the opportunity to bring together and recognise the impact of our ePDP innovation and the range of best practice that exists across the University,” she says.

“It celebrates and recognises internationally the institution-wide achievements in the area of ePortfolio-based learning.”

The second achievement was a National Teaching Fellowship for Dr Paul Brett, Head of the Blended Learning Unit. The award from the Higher Education Academy recognises Paul’s outstanding contribution over his career to student learning. He has led the successful integration of e-learning into the curriculum, and will receive £10,000 for his professional development in teaching and learning.

Dr Brett said: “It is a great honour to have gained this award and I am absolutely delighted. It could not have been achieved though without the support of many, many colleagues at the University who have worked with me over the years.”

Paul’s research illustrates the opportunities that are opened up to students by blended learning. His recent work has included the use of text messaging to support module-based learning through the Mobiles Enhancing Learning and Support (MELaS) project. With all aspects of blended learning, there is a need to investigate research 9 what does and doesn’t work for  students, and this project looked at the learning potential of text messages.

More recently his research has centred on the potential of student-led and controlled e-learning using Web 2.0 applications, which may assist staff with their workloads and better support fellow students.

Facing the future

Providing a curriculum that is interesting, diverse and challenging is important, but essentially the University wants to equip graduates with the skills they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive job market.

At the heart of the Learning Works project are three key graduate attributes which are the skills required to meet the needs of future employers. As well as being knowledgeable and enterprising and having an international outlook as a global citizen, graduates will be digitally literate. This means they will be confident using advanced technology, understanding the latest professional software and creatively using digital information sources.

In order to achieve this, the Blended Learning Unit has been instrumental in helping staff across the University to redesign the curriculum. They have provided ideas about what works in e-learning tasks and assessment and have offered staff practical advice. They also organise a continuous programme of workshops in the academic Schools and on all campuses, and can provide bespoke sessions on specific aspects of blended learning.

Combining and aligning face-to-face and online  learning opportunities can be a challenge, but one that is worth the work. Education becomes more interactive and exciting, and meets the expectations of learners who have grown up with the internet and do not see technology as something separate from their lives.

With such skills at their fingertips, University of Wolverhampton graduates will stand out in the crowd as people who can make a real difference.