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28 October 2021

The Future of Blended Learning: A Student Perspective


Becky Ricketts
NUS Wales President

Shawn Shabu
Swansea University Student - Applied Medical Sciences BSc (Hons)

Becky Ricketts (NUS Wales President) and Shawn Shabu were student panel members at the Higher Education Investment and Recovery (HEIR) Fund: QAA Sharing Practice event on Wednesday 15 September. In this blog, we invited them to discuss the future of digital and blended learning.

Blended learning has been one hot topic since the beginning of the pandemic, and rightly so. Following the unprecedented onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions (HEIs) across the country made an immediate and unplanned move to a fully digital delivery of teaching and learning.

Students experienced rapid changes in learning environments and had to adapt to new circumstances. For many, this has brought long-sought flexibility and ease to education - allowing everyone from working parents to learn when their kids have gone to bed, through to students with chronic illnesses being able to catch up when their health takes priority. However, it must be said that this move hasn’t been celebrated by all, with many disabled students struggling to adapt without face-to-face interpretations, teachers and medics missing crucial placements, and leaving so many asking the question: ‘is this really where my £9k is going?’.

It would be remiss of us not to commend the effort of every staff member, officer and student that has made the last year work. In the most unexpected and extraordinary of circumstances, education across Wales continued. It could have been so easy to descend into chaos - to claim, ‘It’s just too difficult!’ and we will try again later after all this has calmed down. But we didn’t! We saw the challenge coming, and we faced it head on. For many students, the use of online learning is one that for years they have been crying out for, with the benefits continually emphasised: more flexible for parents or those with other full-time commitments; easier to catch up if you are sick; familiarity with new programmes and software; and, for some, less daunting than full lecture halls. Although worries regarding attendance were raised, this was not a noted problem. In fact, attendance at several institutions increased as students realised their education was finally being personalised to their requirements.

The biggest struggle felt by many has been the secondary effect of isolation that was accompanied by virtual learning. How do students form communities, social groups and friendships if they’ve never met? Whilst the boom of Zoom quizzes seems a distant memory of spring 2020, the fact remains that for so many, their formative experiences at university are that of those whom they share those experiences with. And for the experts in the field of student experience, we turn to our students’ unions. They have been pioneers in student activities for decades, and that only stepped up through the pandemic. They too had to get used to new tech, new ways of working, and new ways of supporting students overnight, as well as the added pressure of being the only real place within an institution that offers students the opportunity to meet one another socially, which we know students craved. And so, for that, we thank them!

Another key area surrounding the future of blended learning is its affordability and feasibility. For hundreds of thousands of students, their experience of online learning involved sharing weak wi-fi, bedrooms and even devices with those that they were locked down with - none of which contribute to a conducive work environment. Other students felt enclosed and constrained to the four walls of their rooms, in which they ate, studied and slept. These difficulties, we know, have disproportionately affected low-income families and although funding was pumped into providing students with devices to help address some of the issues, the root cause ultimately needs significant work and investment, to ensure that no student is left behind simply because of their background.

So, whilst the overall future of blended learning is positive, and allows education to be accessible and flexible for anyone who wishes to enter, there are considerations that must be met by our institutions and governments if we are to make this a permanent feature. For those that are looking to hear 'students think x', you’re going to have to be disappointed. For many, blended learning is the answer to their prayers, whereas to others it is not good value.

The reality is that this is coming - our message to sector leaders is to make sure that students see the value, not just in person but digitally as well. It is no good for the system to be accessible for most when it is open to all - every student must be equipped to thrive throughout their time in education and failing to do so will not create the Wales that we know that we deserve. As uncertainty still remains regarding the return to traditional face-to-face, it is imperative that we have as much information as possible, to inform the next steps in the delivery of ongoing educational programmes, with student voice needing to be a critical component which must be consulted at national level to shape the future direction of digital learning approaches.