The abrupt closure of colleges and universities at the outset of the pandemic came with a steep learning curve for students and lecturers. After two years, online learning is not a panicked knee-jerk response but a practiced pedagogy.
“The pandemic has brought online learning to the forefront in many respects,” says Veronica Thompson, vice-president academic and provost at Royal Roads University (RRU), where blended learning was first introduced in 1996 and has since evolved to define RRU’s approach to education.
“This approach increases access for people who want to earn a credential while they continue to work and live their lives anywhere in the world, and creates a rich learning community from the very beginning.”
Striking a balance between the flexibility of blended learning and the benefits of a busy campus is tricky. For some institutions, it is now encouraged, but not required, to attend lectures in person.
At Camosun College, two surveys undertaken during the pandemic revealed a majority of students want hybrid options. Remote attendance can’t replicate the social experience but can better prepare students for work and can also benefit students for whom travelling to classes poses physical challenges.
Online learning brings with it complications, challenges and risks. Globally, teachers have reported increased workloads. Video conferencing and using third-party platforms raises questions about copyrighting issues, data and privacy, and may increase legal complications. Camosun saw COVID bring into focus the digital divide, with the library stepping up to offer laptop loans and space to work.
“We believe that hybrid or blended approaches provide the flexibility that quality teaching needs,” says Sybil Harrison, director of Learning Services at Camosun. “Choice is at the core of this approach. Choice allows for multiple modes of presentation, engaging learners of all types. Choice supports students’ personal and cultural needs and realities.”
At its best, virtual learning and online activities do not replicate face-to-face teaching but engage students through experimental, learner-centered experiences. One example from Camosun shows how delivering a hands-on clinical-practice unit virtually added a new dimension to the project. Instructors weren’t able to observe every demonstration, so students worked in pairs to film and critique each other — both of which became part of their grade.
“These [pedagogical strategies] were so successful that we are looking at possibly continuing this approach for some programs to make them accessible to more students,” says Thompson of RRU’s post-pandemic shift to offering more online options.
When delivering learning in the classroom, digital fluency has had a positive knock-on effect. Although digital tools like MyMedia, Moodle, D2L and Padlet were in use before the pandemic, they are now essential.
“Our on-campus instruction makes better use of the systems we used during COVID,” says Harrison. “For example, many instructors have embraced the ‘flipped’ concept. Much of the content is delivered online, and on-campus time is used for the learning experiences that are best done in-person — discussion, hands-on learning, presentation.”
Hybrid learning has shown students what is possible, with flexibility quickly becoming a distinguishing factor in education.