Making the transition to blended learning as an educator for the first time? Some tips to ease the transition

Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney, School of Nursing and Human Sciences

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There has been large growth in the availability of programmes of Higher Education (HE) via remote means over the past 10 years with the aim of facilitating an “anytime anyplace” approach to learning.  This is driven by the need for the HEIs to provide flexible learning opportunities as well as a desire to attract students from wider pools. In theory this should require fewer resources and les campus facilities thereby easing the burden for institutions with shrinking budgets, fewer staff and more students.

In keeping with this agenda the School of Nursing and Human Sciences (SNHS) at Dublin City University offered a new blended learning Bachelor of Nursing Studies (BNS) Programme in 2011.  The students who take this programme are qualified nurses, many of whom are very experienced in clinical practise but are returning to education after a prolonged gap in classroom style learning, and some have limited IT skills. Hence for many of these students the return to learning was daunting and a steep learning curve ensued.

The students were not alone in their apprehensions however as the programme team who had to transition the programme from fully class room delivered teaching to a blended learning format were also feeling somewhat apprehensive with one staff member admitting that “I was frozen at the thought of making a video with myself in it”. It occurred to me that a stint in the Gaiety School of acting might have come in handy for the preparation ahead but I had never envisioned a career in “television”. As it turned out I had to become adept at filming, lighting, sound and editing before the year was out.

The programme team and the students who were based in Ireland and further afield including the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Tanzania survived the first year however and afterwards we reflected on the entire process, how well it had worked, what specific issues emerged, how we dealt with them and moved forward and in this blog we share those experiences in order that others making the transition to blended learning for the first time can benefit from our experiences. It is noteworthy that there is a paucity of published literature providing advice for educators embarking on the process for the first time.

Student engagement, student readiness as well as staff readiness were identified as important considerations in the successful execution of the programme. Initial apprehension and anxiety about engaging with technology enhanced learning were identified as barriers, in addition to tight timelines and existing heavy workloads. This time commitment involved not only developing the materials and front loading of work but also getting to grips with the new technologies and finding innovative ways to deliver material and get comfortable with it. In addition designing new smaller activities to both assess learning outcomes and engage students remotely required additional time and planning. These activities had to be conducted at the same time as existing or on-going programmes were being delivered and the usual workload allocation was in place for these staff members. Arising from this we recommend that consideration be given to staff involved in making programme transitions from traditional face to face to blended format within workload allocation to allow adequate time for the amount of work required.

Fears and apprehensions and hence staff readiness to use the new technology emerged strongly in our data. The idea that a staff member would be “frozen at the thought of making a video with myself in it” is a concern and indicates a training requirement which should have been addressed prior to this point where the programme was about to be rolled out.

It was also apparent that the transition required considerable input from our “technical” and “learning innovation” colleagues at all stages of the process which should be ongoing even after the programme has been launched. This will greatly enhance the quality and presentation of the materials as well as helping with ideas to deliver content and design assessment strategies.

Student ability/readiness to engage with technology enhanced learning was an important determinant of success. Insufficient IT skills resulted in some attrition from the programme in this first year. An orientation programme was subsequently developed in later years of the programme to capture and support struggling students as early as possible in the semester to reduce attrition from the programme. This took the format of “designated times” when students could phone/skype in and get technical support up to week 3 of the programme. Going forward we recommended that all prospective students should have a basic level of competency in IT prior to embarking on the programme and that upskilling was necessary prior to starting.

Face-to-face time with academic staff emerged as being very important to our students, evidenced by the fact that they turned up for the few tutorials offered even though some of them were as one colleague put it “the graveyard shift” which might have taken place in the early morning/late evening and even at weekends. A similar high participation rate was observed in the remote tutorials for the students who lived outside of Ireland.  We scheduled these remote tutorials at 2pm Irish time to try and accommodate those around the world at different time zones. It was obvious that students had saved up all of the questions/queries they had for the face-to-face sessions rather than submitting them electronically and this prompted us we to make sure that we took a more pro-active approach on line in the future to encourage students not to be afraid to submit their queries electronically early on and to not wait until the face-to face/remote sessions.

During the face-to-face and even remote classrooms we noticed that students shared their contact details with each other and we observed how important peer support and peer learning were for them. Some students reported feeling rather isolated up until that point but thereafter contacted one another if they needed support in some way (morale or in academic matters). We concluded that activities that enhance regular engagement between students are important considerations which should not be lost in the process.

It quickly became evident that placing large chunks of course material on the VLE (eg moodle/loop) did little to engage students actively and that measures to promote active student participation were required, such as using smaller activities (quizzes), writing discussing forums and inviting replies, making short Camtasia files available, making pod casts or using open source ones, recommending ebook chapters and providing URl links to interesting articles.

Another issue raised by some of the team related to when there were periods of apparent lack of activity on the VLE and it lead one colleague to ponder “sometimes you wonder if there really are any students out there”. Early, regular and timely feedback to students was identified as critical for student engagement but also for student improvement particularly amongst the weaker students; this can also help to identify students who are particularly challenged in the online environment.

The retention of some element of online examination was considered desirable in order to reduce the reliance on 100% course work and subsequent risk of plagiarism, but this would be a concern for all educational programmes and is not unique to online / blended learning. Reservations about whether transitioning the programme to an online format encouraged students to engage in additional practices of plagiarism were expressed by some. Others felt that elearning was no more likely to encourage plagiarism than other forms of learning/assessing. There was agreement that quality of content should remain the core consideration for the programme team and that ongoing work should be undertaken as the programmes progress into subsequent years to improve not only the content and delivery but also the sustainability. The need for a global content is important, after all the very idea of elearning is the prospect of reaching wider audiences.

The positive aspects expressed by the team involved included the new learning opportunity and experiences afforded to them in setting up the programme, the feeling of satisfaction now that it has been delivered, the peer sharing of experiences/content and assessment strategies between those on the programme team, which is not normally how we work as academics, which tends to be more solitary in nature rather than working together in groups.

In the field of nursing elearning is a relatively new and emerging field which will require huge cultural shifts for staff and students alike. It is clear that students value face-to-face time with their educators though so we should be careful to strike a balance between the tools used and the personal input and presence, otherwise we might be throwing the baby out with the bath water. The learnings from our experiences are likely to be transferrable to other fields of study as they are unlikely to be unique to nursing students/educators – hopefully you can use some of them to inform and ease your transition to blended learning.

 baby bath

 

Image sourced on google images at

https://facultydiary.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/73909-baby-with-the-bathwater.png

A peer reviewed publication entitled “Transition to blended learning: Experiences from the first year of our blended learning Bachelor of Nursing Studies (BNS) Programme” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Contemporary Nurse. If you want to see further details of the evaluation contact maryrose.sweeney@dcu.ie  for a copy of the paper.

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