Blended Learning

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Adapting a previously effective scheme of work to better suit a new cohort of HND students who did not all initially engage and/or make effective progress.

The HND Independent Research Unit at Guildford College achieved excellent student feedback, achieving 90% Distinctions with the 2015-17 cohorts.  Therefore, the initial reluctance to start choosing topics from the 2017-18 cohorts, had not been anticipated.  All three sets of students were aged between early twenties to late thirties and it was assumed that they had previously gained relevant HNC’s, were in full-time work and attended College one day a week in term time.  However, the new students were a mixed group of year one and year two part-time HND’s.  The purpose of this action research was to identify the issues and then provide interventions/blended learning material which would effectively assist all the students in the timely completion of their research projects.     

Previous students, staff and external feedback, to blended learning initiatives, had been acted upon.  For example, the list of viable research topics had been shortened, and more time allowed in class to read and assimilate the recommended sources.  This did not prove successful for all the 2017-18, cohort leading to issues such as those in table one below with their interventions: 

Identified issues for 2017-18 Yr. 1 - 2 part-time HND Interventions
50% missed 2 or 3 of the first six weeks due to pre-booked holiday, mandatory work-based training or a combination of these two factors.  Year 1 & 2 Re-worked scheme of work & tutorial rota to allow more time for absent students when they were able to attend.  Encouraged use of a student focussed WhatsApp account to help maintain interest & deliver class notes.
Previous cohorts had selected topics in week’s 1-3.  40% took up to 8 weeks. Year 1 Re-scheduled & repeated one-to-one research topic selection tutorials.  Re-worked some previously approved topic choices.
Some students commented they had not been sufficiently encouraged to acquire key transferable academic skills in: reading for meaning, report-writing, gaining work based permission for assignments, and sourcing as part of their HNC. Predominantly Year 1 Booked extra LRC skills workshops, previous class handouts were adapted to better suit a blended learning approach – below & overleaf. A weekly class overview with integrated sourced hyperlinks & worked examples was introduced in week 6 & amended over the year to reflect stakeholder feedback.
It transpired that 60% had not fully completed their HNC’s, & were at times reluctant to engage in the necessary administration/assignment completion to resolve this issue. Year 1 Time was set aside in Research classes to enable the Programme Manager to meet with relevant students to put individual study plans in place.

Table 1

By Christmas all the students had chosen a topic but progress on their Literature Reviews was inconsistent, with up to 40% not taking full advantage of formative advice.  The interventions described in table one above were also cross referenced into individually tailored formative assignment feedback, which was noted as good practice by the HND External Examiner.  For instance, the Literature Review Tree model overleaf was introduced in class with time for Q & A and commencement, prior to being deployed as a progress tracker in Tutorials.

Literature Tree Model

Literature Tree Model

 

A text analysis of the modules support notes, email transactions and formative feedback, was undertaken in February, 2018.  This revealed that 30% had to make significant amendments to, and 20% requested extensions, for assignment one.  These findings were then plotted onto a combined model of both Tarling’s (2018) and Challco et al’s (2016) HE models, see below.

FLOW Model graph

 

End of year stakeholder feedback from staff focussed on the need to reduce the amount of time taken to produce the weekly reviews, and with HNC students having dedicated study skills workshops.  Most of the interventions were well received by year two, who were perceived to have prepared for class, could build on their existing skills, and more quickly assimilated topic specific knowledge. 

The introduction of a colour coded index for the weekly overviews in week 14 of 32 was popular with 70% of students, leading over time to some lively in-class discussions and increased use of the students group WhatsApp account.  These findings broadly reflected the opinions of: CILIP, 2017; Nash, 2014 and Stevenson et al, 2018.  They also supported Tarling (2018) and Challco et al’s (2016) views on the impact of FLOW in education, as the year one HND students were demonstrating lower: interest, focus and/or higher anxiety when required to look into three selected potential topics, prior to commencing their projects.  This in turn led to delays in making progress in their time critical Literature Reviews and the need to repeat some of the research skill building activities/workshops.   

On the other hand, year two/more academically experienced students were able to move more quickly into the more positive aspects of the Flow Model.  They received affirmative formative feedback and, spent less time making corrections, being identifiable as a critical success factor in maintaining good progress.  Meanwhile the students who had struggled to choose a topic/missed initial classes, were more likely to show signs of ongoing anxiety, lower efficacy and were at times disinclined to make effective use of formative feedback.  This resonates with Healey et al’s (2014) recommendations and Hartland et al’s (2017) metaphorical approach to encouraging students when producing their Literature Reviews.  Overall, seven of Healey et al’s nine recommended strategies to scaffold relevant research skills were addressed.  The main negative FLOW issues stemmed from an initial hesitancy, resulting from a lack of understanding of the relevance of research skills in employment and the need to acquire key skills at the outset (Hartland et al). 

The additional Research Workshops and “Weekly Overviews” were demonstrably effective over time in increasing skills.  The students end of unit feedback and research questionnaires were broadly divided between the good attenders and more able year two students grading the blended learning initiatives ‘very good’ to ‘excellent’, and those with attendance/ submission issues who relied more on WhatsApp, being less enamoured and grading them as ‘I don’t know’, or ‘good’ to ‘very good’. 

All agreed that the two most beneficial interventions were the updated multi-coloured index of the overviews and individually tailored assignment feedback, including how to improve formatting/writing style (Healey et al, 2014; Tarling, 2018; Hartland et al, 2017).  Conversely, repetition of previous content in subsequent overviews, to support students who had missed classes, was perceived by the majority as confusing and unnecessary.  The submitted assignments met the Pass criteria, with the 70% who prioritised improving their skills and actively engaged with the blended learning content, gaining the higher grades, compared to those who repeatedly missed classes/overly relied on the non-staff access WhatsApp.  Consequently, only 50% of this cohort gained Distinctions compared to the previous two years’ aggregate of 90%. 

Therefore three specific actions are recommended to enhance the delivery and outcomes from this individual research project unit:

  • it is restricted to year two part-time HND students, as they will have benefitted from a year of higher level HND skills workshops and assignment feedback, prior to commencing this Unit.
  • the current weekly overviews are reduced to three pro-active pages with clear links to specific Learning outcomes, assignment Tasks, definitions of key terms, in-class activities, and a range of topic specific You Tube clips and secondary sources
  • ICT support/training for staff, with a clear time bound plan for the execution of enhanced, flexible blended learning materials, including a staff facilitated WhatsApp account to encourage critical thinking and engagement when part-time students are off site.    

Authors:

Sarah Grace, Tutor Higher Education
Amanda Martin, Subject Librarian

For more information contact Sarah on sarah.grace2626@gmail.com.

References:

Challco, G. C. et al. (2016) ‘Toward a Unified Modeling of Learner’s Growth Process and Flow Theory’, Educational Technology & Society, 19(2), pp. 215–227. Available at: http:// search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1097221&site=eds-live (Accessed: 19 January 2019).

CILIP - Information Library Group (2017) Feed forward feedback to improve academic performance Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/infolitgroup/golden-ticket-glitch-help ing-students-to-use-feed back-to-improve-their-academic-and-information-literacy-skills-howard  (Accessed: 28 July 2017).

Hartland, J., Flanaghan, A. and Helps, A.  (2017) ‘Brian is Dead… Long live Brian and the Balloon. Critical Thought in Undergraduates’.  AoC HE in FE Conference Birmingham April 2017. (Accessed via email from Hartland (August 2018) The University Centre North Lindsey john.hartland@northlindsey.ac.uk.   

Healey, M. Jenkins, A. and Lea, J. (2014) Developing research-based curriculum in college-based Higher Education:  HEA.  Available at:  https://www.thescholarshipframe work.co.uk/ resources/developing-research-and-scholar ship-rich-curriculum-higher-edu cation-students-college  (Accessed: 1 August 2018)

Nash, C. (2014). Take AIM and Keep Your Students Engaged. Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 18(2), 45-57. Distance Education Association of New Zealand.  Available form  https://www. Learntechlib.org/p/150741/.  (Accessed: 4 August 2018).  

Stevenson, S., Kazik, J. and Thoxter, H. (2018) SMILE Bye Bye Blackboard.  AoC Birmingham HE Conference, April 2018 University Centre Doncaster College.   Available at: Simon.Stevenson@doncaster.ac.uk  (Accessed: May 2018).   

Tarling, J. (2018) ‘I’ve Got Your Back! How notions of trusteeship and flow psychology can be used to promote collaborative learning, ‘healthy learning’ and ownership of ‘progress’.  AoC Birmingham HE Conference (April, 2018), Exeter College.  Available at:  jamestarling@exe-coll.ac.uk   (Accessed: September 2018).