What is digital learning for campus-based students?

What do we mean by digital learning? As someone whose role it is to be Head of Digital Learning, it is perhaps understandable that this is something that keeps me awake at night. I’m used to introducing myself at the proverbial bar as a chemist and getting the response about Breaking Bad or CSI or how my fellow drinker didn’t really like chemistry at school. With digital learning, it is usually a response relating to something technical – how platform X (no not that one) is terrible or something about virtual reality – or to be honest, a polite squinting smile and offer of another drink and move on.

Let’s get digital

And much like chemistry, or indeed history too, there is much variance in the perception of what it is that the subject digital learning is, or tries to be. The term varies wildly across universities in function (and pay scales). In some places it is the person that makes things work: a kind of super-techy who knows their plug-ins from their, well, plugs?, and understands the service demands of the modern learner and ensures that the university provides them. The emails and heavily sponsored digital learning conferences about all the latest whizz are immediately relevant to them, as they continue to improve the types and nature of digital interface that is provided to students. A modern university couldn’t function without this kind of person, but is this digital learning? It is certainly digital, and it facilitates learning, so maybe I should just agree and go back to sleep.

But something is nagging me still. On the first day of my job, I said something along the lines that I didn’t really understand ‘digital learning’, nor how it distinguished from just ‘learning’. Because all learning in the modern university embraces digital, or at least entangles digital. To separate it out as a thing resonates with Sian Bayne’s superb critique of the term “technology enhanced learning”, which – briefly summarised – argues that dissociating technology from the social and interactive sphere it is located in is technocentric rather than human-centred (see also Gravett & Ajjawi, 2022); that it assumes whatever was there in the first place can be ‘enhanced’; and that most of the ‘learning’ considerations are in reality teaching (or administration) considerations (Bayne, 2015). Luckily I wasn’t fired on the spot, and have some more time to reflect on my position and what it entails.

Blended learning and the campus-based student

If we imagine the modern campus-based university student, they will – in the main – come to campus to engage in timetabled activities, and use the virtual learning environment to support those activities. We can assume that the majority of that virtual work in UK higher education will be accessing any associated materials for timetabled activities, and submitting assessments and obtaining feedback. All very 2007. But in the rush to get on to the more exciting topics discussed at the tech-evangelic conferences, I fear this component – which I confess is as mundane as thinking about lectures and timetables in terms of its novelty – is too quickly assumed or overlooked. But just like lectures and timetables, it is absolutely at the core of students’ learning experience and will involve extensive time on their part, and is something that needs much more love and attention.

The lecture-capture saga is a recent example of this. A lot of effort and work over the last half-decade went into moving from opt-in to opt-out, and policies to ensure that they could be used for the purposes of inclusion practices, leading us to a point that the idea of lecture capture now is (or should be) universal. Not nearly as much attention (noting some exceptional, laudable examples) went into schemes to support staff or students in their use or otherwise as digital tools for learning. Terabytes of resource and years of time were added to the digital learning landscape with less clarity of purpose for students or staff. The lecture capture bandwagon moved on and the assessment bandwagon arrived.

We could replace this example of lecture capture with ‘virtual learning environments’ introduced more than a decade before; we are certainly expecting their presence, but I think less clear about what staff or students should do with them. When working with colleagues I draw on Nuala Harding’s (2015) work demonstrating that VLEs are in the main used as teaching administration tools and Gilly Salmon’s (2011) five stages of engagement with fully online modules to devise a framework for mapping out administration and pedagogic functions of the VLE at different stages as a prompt to think about what the virtual learning environment can be used for to augment, complement, or substitute the in-person experience: a VLE learning purposes framework.

These kinds of considerations and consequent actions focus less on the VLE as a content repository, and more on it as a (digital) place for supporting learning. The extent of actions – especially in the lower section of the grid – will take students’ time, and the more time it takes, the less time we should devote in our allocation of hours to the in-class experience.

Blended learning as digital learning

This is at the core of our understanding of what we mean by ‘blended learning’. The recent OfS Expert Panel Review report, which drew on the work of Barber (2021) and Garrison and Kanuka (2004) to define blended learning as ‘teaching and learning that combines the ‘thoughtful integration’ of in-person delivery and delivery in a digital environment’ and that seems a useful working definition, albeit with some friction around the focus of ‘delivery’ and consequent agency of students. It combines two major headlines in thinking about blended learning:

  • what is going to be in person and in digital mode;
  • how will these modes be ‘thoughtfully integrated’.

This prompts us to think about what we do in-person as guided by a timetable, and what variety of potential extents of digital learning materials could be incorporated. That’s exciting, but also potentially chaotic. One early recommendation in the Expert Panel Review is regarding coherence and consistency, and this is where a substantial and clear policy framework on virtual learning environments and their component parts – including lecture capture – is required.

Providers should ensure their approaches to blended learning offer a coherent learning experience to students, including ensuring coherence at a course level if decisions about the blend are decided at a module level.

Campus students and ‘thoughtful integration’ – deemphasising ‘delivery’

Now of course as soon as the term ‘blended learning’ is mentioned, people quickly start worrying about ratios, and how much content will be delivered in either mode. I’m not sure even I can argue that a module where the virtual component consists of the lecture notes are available in advance is blended learning. In fact, I wish conversations about ‘ratio’ would go away. However we live in a world where these things are important for regulatory and other reasons.

I read a blogpost recently which criticised the OfS Expert Panel for not looking instead to the US for inspiration on what blended learning is, so as to “[allow] for a blend of modalities of learning, face-to-face and online, potentially leading to a reduction in face-to-face seat time in class.” It’s a good blog, summarising where things are at in the current landscape, but I think suffers from the perspective of emphasising the ‘ratio’ concept in terms of delivery proportions, and bases its emphasis on flexibility, rather than learning. And this is understandable: post-pandemic, and the consequent cost-of-living crisis, discourse has increasingly centred about ‘delivery models’ being increasingly ‘flexible’. I agree that blended learning might result in less time sitting in a lecture theatre, but that is not necessarily the goal (for me). Such a model divides up our learning into packets, where packets delivered digitally can be banked somehow in students’ own time, so as to reduce the time needed for students to come to campus. With that intent, the digital component of blended learning can be becomes what can be easily banked, and so we could see models emerge where packets of the (more boring?) content are delivered online, with material requiring discourse and interaction being in person. This seems appealing at first glance, and would certainly deliver flexibility in terms of reduced campus time. But is it an appropriate means of learning?

Avoiding TEL 2.0

The ‘flexible delivery’ driver is akin to a rewashed, upcycled, post-pandemic version of ‘technology enhanced learning’, and draws parallels with what Bayne rightly critiqued about that term in that it is trying to enhance something that was inherently not good in the first place. One of the reasons I like my little VLE purposes framework is that it is emphasising the ‘thoughtful integration’ rather than discrete packages; blending rather than bits online and bits in class. In their assignment working with this framework, staff have to thrash out how what the students will do online will be built on in class, and how what will be done in class will be built on online. For students, these worlds are integrated, even with the most basic arrangement, and our task is to integrate them thoughtfully (and coherently). As we would require students to do more in the virtual place and in a highly structured – and thoughtful – way, the hours we begin to allocate for that work increase, and the time they are with us decreases. The purpose and nature of that time changes too, as it builds on from, and builds into, the virtual activity, in a manner that is clear to students in terms of the rhythm of delivery. Drawing another recommendation from the OfS Expert Panel report (my emphasis):

Providers should ensure that sound pedagogic reasons underpin the blend approach adopted, and that these principles are communicated to students so that they understand the rationale for approaches adopted.

The Physical-Digital Estate

Bayne’s article on TEL reminded me of when I – as the swot of the class – would be tasked with begging our German teacher to spend our class time watching an episode of Heimat. While I’m sure Ms Fitzgerald saw through my supposed desire for wanting to immerse in German culture, she probably also just wanted a break from conjugating verbs, and on occasion would agree. Off she went to the TV cupboard and wheeled back the enormous trolley with TV and video player. After half an hour, the technology would be turned off, and we’d be back at the copy and text books: ich lerne, du lernst, er lernt, sie lernt

Digital technology in our estate is now much more complicated. If models of blending digital and physical work are to be meaningful, our physical spaces need to facilitate that blend as well. We need to concern ourselves not just with sufficient plugs and Wi-Fi, but spaces that allowed for different modes of delivery in a manner that allows digital incorporation. At Edinburgh someone – and I wish I remember who – had foresight to insist that a building refurb included two 90-seater spaces, with students sitting around tables of six and each station having a monitor. It came up against fierce resistance, but the plans prevailed. Of course, it immediately became one of the most popular teaching spaces on campus, with pedagogies reforming to make the most of the active, technology-connected spaces. I think this is the kind of thing Fawns gets at when he talks about entanglement of technology and pedagogy as being a more realistic viewpoint than pedagogy before technology as a worldview (Fawns, 2022), but the example only emphasises in my view that you have to have a really clear perspective of the pedagogies you want in practice and ensure that the estate aligns with this vision. Using the OfS Expert Panel report:

Providers should ensure that appropriate provision is made on-campus to support blended learning, informed by consideration of how students engage with online elements of their course while they are on campus.

Now the task is to convene these thoughts into a sensible strategy.