Active Blended Learning: Northampton’s Stance On A New Normal In Higher Education

Kate Coulson, Ale Armellini and E-Learn Team
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Active Blended Learning

The Institute of Learning & Teaching in Higher Education’s (ILT) efforts paid off. Years of research have taken place at this core University of Northampton unit. Today, ILT is a global thought leader in Active Blended Learning (ABL). Northampton’s mission factors excellence and innovation into “transformational learning” and “inspirational teaching”.

But their recognition as teaching and research pioneers ―boasting a long list of peer-reviewed research since 2008―, seems insufficient for all its merits. Last March’s Blackboard TLC Milan provided an excellent opportunity to continue to promote ABL as “the new normal”. On exchanges with Professor Alejandro (Ale) Armellini, Dean of Learning and Teaching at the University of Northampton and Director of ILT, and Kate Coulson, Northampton’s Head of Learning Development and presenter at TLC Milan, we discussed outcomes, challenges, and the case for ABL advocacy today.

Why is it the time for ABL now?

Forms of blended learning have been around for a long time, particularly since the late nineties. It’s time to be explicit about ABL’s learning and teaching practices and the evidence base that underpins them, to further research and enhance them. It’s time to conceptualise ABL as our standard, our modus operandi. It’s time to make a success of it for our students and staff.

Will the practice of ABL in Northampton increase in the coming years? Will it get the necessary support and funding?

ABL is not something we do in addition to our job. It is our job. And again, there’s nothing fundamentally new here. Funding for initiatives like ours, explicitly aligned to the enhancement of learning and teaching agenda, will continue to be available.

Has Northampton used ABL as a strategy to secure funding? Or did the projects secured sustainability despite your commitment to ABL?

We cannot say we have had funding because of, or despite ABL. At Northampton we are explicit and transparent about ABL, why it’s appropriate, timely, and beneficial to our students.

What are the attributes of ABL that enabled these benefits?

First of all, student-centred design. With good design in place, we need to focus on excellent teaching, i.e. the delivery of programmes where there is an appropriate and meaningful integration of offline, online, classroom-based, remote, individual and group work.

What makes it “Active”, unlike other blended learning approaches?

The clear focus on student activity, which involves focused interactions between students and tutors, as well as student-student and student-content. ABL combines different forms of “contact time” with independent learning. It does not mean “independent study”. In an ABL context, students are expected to gain autonomy and agency. Tutor mediation and visibility are central.

Does the ILT provide teachers with templates?

The University provides evidence, support and guidance for the successful implementation of ABL. If a tutor requires a template for a specific purpose, that can be discussed and worked on in collaboration with them. Here is a possible, non-prescriptive scenario for ABL learning and teaching. What matters is not so much the content, but what learners do with it to achieve outcomes.

Online & Face to Face, Face to face, small groups, Online & Face to Face

Active Blended Learning: Case-Based Advocacy

In 2018, Northampton will move to a “new, purpose-built” campus in the city centre. During TLC Milan, Kate Coulson framed the move as a symbol for the departure, by Northampton, from “traditional lecture-seminar delivery”, decidedly into ABL. This optimistic outlook comes with a tall challenge: the smooth transition of faculty and academic staff, often without a deep technological background.

Has the University experienced resistance in relation to ABL?

For many colleagues, zero or very little: these are the ones who were already “in the zone” of ABL, i.e. deploying practices aligned to ABL. This is mostly true of trained teachers with substantial experience in higher education. For others, ABL has been an opportunity to expand their teaching repertoire, acquire new skills and explore a very different way of doing things, both in terms of design and delivery of courses. Most colleagues were keen to experiment with ABL and use a range of techniques that are known to work well within this approach. Yes, some colleagues disliked the change and provided reasons – namely time implications (e.g. the need to embark on some level of course redesign) and shifting practices away from what they perceived to be traditional teaching, which they saw as meeting their students’ expectations.

Have you shared your approach outside of Northampton? How do handle educators who are not familiar with ABL’s history?

Yes. We have shared it with institutions globally though academic visits, conferences and consultancy work. We have also had numerous delegations of institutions worldwide visiting us with the purpose of learning about our approach to learning and teaching. We wanted to demonstrate to colleagues beyond our institution how we were approaching ABL. For these reason, and among other strategies, we introduced three case studies: the “Active Blended Early Adopter”, the “I’m a Little Unsure But Happy To Take The Risk”, and the “I Really Don’t Want To Engage With Active Blended Learning”.

Let’s break them down. The first case sounds like the most preferable one, and the one most commonly found across Northampton’s halls.

Yes. As early adopters and advocates, we have a range of experiences we want to share. We are always keen to be open and honest. Things rarely go according to plan, and outlining where things have worked, and where they have been more challenging, has proven to be very useful for our peers outside Northampton.

Logo of University of Northampton

Case number two sounds promising, and highlights the role of peer encouragement…

For us, it is about working together in a collegiate way. We always try to harness the skills and knowledge of the larger network. Some colleagues may lack the technological skills, and need to acquire them as they go. But on the flip side, a lot of what we all have learnt was purely by trial and error. If we have questions, we ask colleagues who know more. If anyone wants to try something new, we encourage taking a few risks. We promote honesty and to always ask for support and expertise.

Finally, on case three, is there something to do in the face of direct opposition against ABL?

We lead by example. We use evidence and advocacy, but also empathy, so they understand that we shared the same concerns when we started to apply ABL.

We are aware of the concerns and the difficulties associated with any form of large-scale organisational change. We can use an evidence and support-based approach to show key benefits for students, in flexibility, autonomy, digital fluency, leading to better employability prospects.

We try to get across that a lot of what our model advocates include approaches that institutions may have been using for years, like small group teaching, and online tools to facilitate learning.

To close, what do you envision for the future of ABL?

ABL plays a key role in enabling excellent teaching. Excellent teaching attracts students. At Northampton, a major management change has been taking place over the past 2.5 years. As we speak, we are working on enhancing teaching practices, student preparedness and expectations. For ABL to become a true “new normal,” we must provide staff with evidence and support, and give colleagues the agency to make the right choices for the benefit of our students.

*Professor Alejandro Armellini, Dean of Learning and Teaching and Director, Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, University of Northampton

*Kate Coulson, Head of Learning Development, University of Northampton

*Photos by: AFP Chris J Ratcliffe

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