Last week I attended a two-day Blended Learning event in London, which brought together senior managers and heads of e-learning services from UK higher education to discuss institutional strategies towards blended learning provision for their students.
A shared focus in all of the presentations was on how we foster a culture of innovation in technology usage within our institutions – specifically how we encourage teaching staff to embrace new tools and support students’ formal and informal learning through the medium of learning technology. The bridge between formal and informal learning spaces and the connected and unconnected worlds indeed reflect one of the most immediate challenges facing universities, as reported in the most recent NMC Horizon Report. This relates to how we design for learning and support our students in structured and unstructured activities, with consequences for institutional course design and delivery approaches, as well as staff development initiatives.
Peter Bryant (Head of Learning Technology and Innovation at the London School of Economics) in his opening address provided some thought-provoking statements on the current educational context and profile of contemporary learners. Highlighting the pervasive use of technology in students’ ‘connected’ lives and the expectations of 21st century learners as active participants in learning, he maintained that students now draw on technology as a matter of course in learning tasks. In his estimation ‘technology denial’ in course design and delivery is no longer a relevant or a sustainable position for teaching staff to adopt; the digital world is here to stay and underpins the contemporary learning environment. Institutions need to grasp this reality, and academics should be encouraged to focus on collaborative and active learning designs which develop students’ skills as digital citizens and engage them as participants and co-creators of learning.
Subsequent presentations – including my own on the York Pedagogy implementation (slides here) – focused on institutional strategies for supporting pedagogic innovation and student engagement, which may help to foster active learning and digital skills development.
Gavin Brown (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Liverpool) outlined the focus of the University’s new 2026 institutional strategy – a ‘top down’ change agenda supporting innovative models of partnership, including educational partnership with students. One such example of how this is being pursued is through student engagement with an IT innovation hub, where students are encouraged to propose and program research projects, collaborating with IT staff. The University is also establishing a new academy for staff development and will be setting up a central course development unit to assist programme teams in the design of new courses, building in technology advice and support to new programmes from their inception to their subsequent design and delivery.
Ian Myatt (Director of Educational Enterprise, University of Birmingham) reported on another top-down initiative – the impact of the University’s partnership with the academic publisher John Wiley on distance learning developments within their College of Social Science. Partnership managers have been embedded within academic teams to advise on the development of online courses, which draw on rich media and infographics, but also support active learning through the design of self-paced and synchronous communication activities. Ian observed that there has been a discernible transfer of learning from fully online design to campus-based teaching practice, with academic staff less reliant on slide decks and more willing to use multimedia content to ‘flip’ learning and maximise contact time with students for learning activities.
Fiona Harvey (Education Development Manager, University of Southampton) tackled the themes of partnership and pedagogic innovation from a different angle, reflecting on ‘bottom-up’ innovation through their ‘DigiChamps’ internship programme. The programme has empowered students to work with academics on the adoption and embedding of new technologies in course design. Interns are typically engaged in 140 hour contracts over a semester to champion digital literacies projects, with a focus on promoting curriculum innovation and employability outcomes. ‘Digichamps’ have helped to develop interactive videos and resources to prepare cohorts for lab work. They have also acted as mentors for fellow students, advising on how to engage with social media and manage online identity.
Irrespective of the strategy that is adopted, the key question relates to how universities can sustain this level of pedagogic innovation and in Peter Bryant’s words, support pedagogic change ‘from the middle out’ across the institution. The London School of Economics is promoting its change agenda through support for cross-disciplinary technology-enhanced learning projects which can be scaled across the institution. The York Pedagogy implementation offers a similar opportunity to showcase active learning designs for programme delivery, which are supported through the use of learning technologies. The focus for the E-Learning Development Team moving forward will be to continue to capture case studies of innovative practice in the use of technologies which can be scaled across programmes and disciplinary boundaries – which may inspire programme teams to innovate and embed digital technologies in as sustainable way in support of their learners.