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Have big university lectures gone out of fashion?


Louise Tickle

The Guardian

8 April 2014


Increasing numbers of universities are using blended learning on degree courses. PA’s Mike Boxall, a higher education expert, is extensively quoted in an article where he explains what blended learning is, what it means for students and whether it can help students learn any better than previous methods of note taking.

Mike shares the basics of a blended learning approach: “Blended learning involves using a diverse range of teaching methods and resources to offer more effective learning experiences. Each activity will ideally be designed around the circumstances and learning styles of different student groups.”

Mike goes on to explain how the term is used and which aspects of the learning process are classed as ‘blended learning’: “In practice, the term gets applied to a wide range of approaches from the Open University model – consisting mainly of online courses supplemented by face-to-face seminars in local centres, access to personal tutors and self-organising support groups – to "flipped" classroom models where students are expected to master the content of courses in their own time and then attend small group discussions and seminars to consolidate understanding and application of the course materials.”

Mike explains why blended learning is more suited to some subjects and types of people than others: “It demands more active engagement from the students themselves, which may be unwelcome to those looking for a spoon fed educational experience.”

He goes on to say that it’s not just students who need to adapt: “It certainly involves big changes in styles and skills from academics, who are less the authoritative providers of knowledge and must become more like learning coaches and mentors for their students … Not all academics welcome this, but the best relish the challenge.”

Mike explains that there is clearly a world of difference between the contact time that involves sitting with 250 others in a lecture hall while a teacher presents, and personal and small-group sessions where students are encouraged to develop their understanding and skills in developing and testing their own arguments.

He says: “The growing emphasis on contact hours – without discrimination as to the modes, quality and group sizes involved – risks becoming counter-productive as institutions might tend to "manage to the measure" and fill students' weeks with rote lectures delivered by junior staff rather than encouraging and supporting more individualised learning models.”

Mike comments on the cost of blended learning and doesn’t see it as the cheap option: “There is no evidence that blended learning, or even fully online learning, is cheaper to provide or less demanding of tutor inputs,” he says.

Mike continues: “If anything, blended learning that substitutes big lectures for more small group work and individualised feedback is actually more demanding of tutor time and other resources – such as space – than conventional modes. So blended learning is not a cheap option or a cop-out for reluctant academics, but should only be used to improve the quality and effectiveness of students' learning experiences.”

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