Blended Learning Landscapes

Richard Francis and John Raftery

Introduction

Lecture theatre, seminar room, laboratory, library—the form and function of conventional teaching and learning spaces are derived from long-standing teaching and learning models. However, these models are changing and, with them, the demands on physical space. The embracing of a broader, more diverse student population has created the need for greater flexibility in curriculum design and course delivery, accompanied by innovations in teaching and learning methodology. The principle of flexible distributed learning (FDL) is being applied right across the academic portfolio, giving greater and more varied opportunities for students to engage with higher education in increasingly diverse circumstances.

At the same time, however, pressures on physical and human resources have been increasing. As Figure 1 shows, growth in student numbers in the last 15 years has not been matched by a corresponding growth in the availability of teaching and learning spaces, while the pro capita unit of funding for teaching has actually decreased.

Fig. 1: Current funding realities in Higher Education

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One response to this situation has been a rise in popularity of virtual learning environments (VLEs), which, if properly integrated (blended) into the design of the curriculum, can extend and enhance existing facilities, by increasing opportunities for communication and collaboration, improving access to information and resources, and giving the learner greater choice and control over how, when, and where they study. The physical corollary of this is more active and varied student engagement in learning outside the conventional spatial and temporal confines of lecture theatre, seminar room, library, study/bedroom, etc. As the use of time and space becomes more fluid and dynamic, so the need to stay in touch, to be networked with people, information, and resources, increases.

Designing learning space

When, as is currently the case at Oxford Brookes, opportunities arise for new buildings to be erected and existing buildings refurbished, architectural designs must harmonise with these learning trends, to produce more flexible, learner-centric spaces supporting a range of learning models. “Real and virtual learning environments are complementary and it should be possible for students and tutors to move between the two in a seamless way.” (Bulpitt,2003) The process for creating these spaces needs to bring together many interested parties, including Estates Management, Computer Services, the Library, Student Support Services, staff developers, learning technologists, academic staff, and students. Brookes’ success in attracting HEFCE funding for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs) provides just such an opportunity. One of these awards involves the establishment, together with the University of Warwick, of a ‘Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research’, an important aspect of which will be the design of appropriate learning and research facilities for undergraduates. The other award will involve the construction of a new building within the Business School on the Wheatley campus to provide “a dedicated social learning space for students”.

What will students and tutors need to be able to do in these new learning spaces? What does the blending of the real and the virtual involve? Certainly, blended learning at Brookes has moved beyond distribution of lecture notes via a VLE and is becoming more and more sophisticated; at the time of writing it is an integral part of the learning experience in over 1,200 modules and courses at Brookes. To guide the integration of e-learning into the curriculum Brookes has developed its own pedagogic framework for e-learning known as the ‘Modes of Engagement’ (E-learning Modes of Engagement), as detailed in Figure 2. This is used to keep the focus of e-learning on effective learning design by codifying the types of pedagogic enhancements that are thought to be effective.

Fig. 2: E-learning Modes of Engagement

Mode 1Baseline course administration and learner support
Use web to distribute course information and carry out course administration (chosen from the following): aims and objectives, assessment criteria/pro formas, past exam questions and model answers/assessment sheets, timetabling announcements, reading lists, tutor contact details, course evaluation tools, FAQs, additional web resources, links to field level resources, course/module handbook, lecture notes.
Mode 2Blended learning leading to significant enhancements to learning and teaching processes

Communication

Provide improved tutor-student, student-student communications, mainly using discussion boards or email. Enable students, especially in disparate groupings and locations, to exchange information, ask questions, and discuss issues relating to the course.

Assessment

Provide improved feedback to students on their learning via computer-assisted assessment for either formative (self-assessment and monitoring of progress) or summative (examination and grading) purposes or both. May involve electronic setting, submission, and return of student assignments using digital artefacts and pro formas where objective testing inappropriate.

Collaboration

Provide a platform for collaborative student projects, involving shared responsibility for resources and outcomes. Students use communication tools and shared directory to collaborate on task processes and outcomes.

Learning content

Develop flexible access to high quality, reusable learning content, which may include structured gateways to web and other resources with accompanying self-paced independent learning activities, interactive tutorials with feedback, simulations, study and learning skills resources and activities fostering independent learning.

Mode 3Online course/module
Develop module/course incorporating all or most of the above that can be delivered flexibly to allow learners to learn at times and places of their choosing. Likely to include presentation of course materials, communication between tutor and students, self-assessment, and monitoring of progress.

The Modes of Engagement framework also serves as a frame of reference for Brookes’ e-learning strategy, which aspires to “excellence in the application of Learning Technology to the provision of flexible, active, collaborative and professionally authentic learning”. For example, an intended strategic outcome for 2005-8 is that: Programmes and modules will provide more opportunities for students to engage with their studies through blended and flexible distributed learning (FDL) at Modes 2 & 3 where e-learning is used for communication, assessment, collaboration and/or content delivery (Mode 2) and allows learners to learn at the time and place of their choosing (Mode 3) (Centre for e-Learning , 2005). As a result, blended learning in many undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, whether experienced on campus or remotely, is characterised more and more by the extensive use of online communication, collaboration, and assessment, with flexible access to, and interaction with high-quality, reusable learning materials.

Learner collaboration

From the point of view of the design of space, the feature of blended learning on which we would like to focus is the increasing emphasis on ‘learner collaboration’. As pressure on teacher contact hours intensifies, peer-group working is increasing as a proportion of the student timetable and this is beginning to have a major impact on design for a new learning landscape. We need to understand more about how people learn collaboratively and how learning spaces can best support them. At a fundamental level, collaboration involves working with others to gather and analyse information, solve problems, and communicate results. These skills are popular with employers, so in designing learning environments which promote collaboration we are aligning ourselves very well with one of this institution’s primary aims: to produce highly employable graduates by providing them with professionally authentic learning experiences.

It is not difficult to come up with some real examples of the kind of collaborative learning activities we are referring to:

  • preparing a group seminar presentation
  • reporting on a field trip
  • editing the video diary of an artistic performance
  • processing group survey data for a small-scale, community-based research project
  • role playing a business scenario
  • taking part in a virtual reading group

All these tasks require flexibility and organisational ability of the learner; they involve making decisions about group working and the utilisation of information and resources. When students are able to ‘meet’, they should find themselves in an adequately resourced environment. In such a context, distinctions between face-to-face and online working, between ‘conventional’ and e-learning become blurred; any of the scenarios outlined above can benefit from a seamless movement between the two.

Successful online learning environments, i.e. ones in which students are actively engaged and motivated, are often characterised by a high degree of social interaction. Message boards with relaxed, informal names like ‘Café’ and ‘Lounge’ are often well-frequented. So is a café a model for real learning spaces? Resoundingly yes. In 2000, the Foresight group, making forecasts about the future shape of learning, advised the government that “effective learning takes place in a social environment” (Foresight, 2000). Reporting the observed norm for student activity in recently built university Learning Centres, Bulpitt (2003) characterises it as “group work and conversation, aided by regular intakes of drinks and snacks and mobile phone conversations” (p. 207). Learning is more likely to be fun, and motivation greater, in a relaxed environment created by students working together and respecting each other.

Learning from others

How can we foster this form of learning? Clearly it is part of the thinking behind the opening of the University of Warwick’s Learning Grid in August 2004, which describes itself as “an innovative, integrated and flexible 24-hour learning environment” (The Learning Grid), whose physical ambience seeks to be a “blended learning landscape, focusing not only on independent study but also for group working, team building, problem solving and presentation skills” (ibid.). There is no question that this is a learner-centric environment: staff may neither teach or hold meetings there, nor book its facilities. Students must be in control, if they are to feel empowered to “explore new ways of working and develop innovative responses to their courses and course assignments” (ibid.). The principle expressed in these statements, of giving the learner more freedom and with it more responsibility, mirrors the mature, active and democratic response required of the learner in a collaborative on-line learning environment: the real and the virtual aligned.

The Learning Grid illustrates an approach to the design of learning spaces which supports and facilitates desired organisational and pedagogic change and suggests new ‘rules’ of space ownership, while working with existing building typologies.

Where else have the requirements for effective collaborative learning environments been explored? At the Stanford Learning Lab, now the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning (SCIL), it was observed that “social engagement and informal contact are essential between participants in collaborative and distributed learning environments” (Stanford Learning Lab). Principles such as this are reflected in the design and use made of the Wallenberg Hall, opened in 2002, which contains state-of-the-art learning spaces and facilities for research in learning and education. These spaces are described as capable of supporting “a myriad of learning activities” (Wallenberg Hall). Lightweight, mobile furnishings offer flexibility of teaching modes; rooms contain “sophisticated collaborative computing environments, the ability to record activities for later use, large wall displays that can be used as recording whiteboards, as well as for videoconferencing and presentation, and adjacent breakout spaces for group work” (ibid.). There are media authoring facilities; furniture is configured to enhance interaction and communication, and project teams seeking private meeting spaces can reserve what are referred to as ‘boxcars’. A photographic gallery on the SCIL website offers visual evidence of this highly configurable learning environment supporting real-life collaborative learning activities (SCIL). For example, we see a collaborative multimedia presentation by students, students collaborating on writing assignments using laptops and electronic whiteboards, and groups of economics students working through online economics simulations.

The University of Chicago’s USITE concept—an acronym of computer users, site—prioritises improving the collaborative work environment over maximizing computing seats. As illustrated in Figure 3, the USITE/Crerar Computing Cluster & CyberCafe combines a general computing cluster with “other technology-equipped spaces”(USITE) such as a seminar area with collaboration booths, a ‘multimedia wall’, a visualization classroom and video conferencing facility, and a cybercaf̩é, into a single space open to any member of the University.

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Fig. 3: Crerar Computing Cluster (Reproduced from: Web Link)

Drawing on these and other learning space designs, as well as such non-academic spaces as cybercaf̩s, bookshops, and the open-plan, cross-departmental workspaces favoured by many companies, it is possible to outline some of the key characteristics of the physical landscape of a blended learning environment.

Student ‘ownership’ of space:

  • Behind the examples given is a design and management principle which allows learners to take shared responsibility for the use they make of the space provided. A major driver towards the implementation of this principle at Brookes is the Reinvention Centre, which aims to blur “boundaries between the formal, informal and extra curricular […] to create a holistic student learning experience”, reflected in architecture
  • Access: a holistic learning experience implies that learning is a round-the-clock activity, requiring access that is as close to 24/7 as possible

Regulation:

  • Noise: encourage talking, tolerate mobiles
  • Food and drink: a café and refreshments area should be located nearby; food and drink should be allowed
  • Security: swipe cards for entry and exit; a sense of security is the necessary complement of light-touch regulation
  • Give students responsibility: the aim is to build a sense of mutual respect for the needs of different users
  • Layout and equipment:
    • Light and space: create a sense of openness and accessibility with high level of diffused natural illumination; it is quite possible to reconcile the apparently conflicting requirements for reading print materials and on-screen materials
    • Furniture and equipment:
    • choice and layout of furniture and equipment should support group work and individual study mobile interlinking/curved tables (on castors)
    • moveable privacy panels
    • flexibility: design for habitual on-going small-scale re-organisation.
    • convenient table-top data and power connections for wired and wireless connectivity
    • some desktop PCs are necessary but students can be encouraged to bring their own laptops
  • Learning Technology:
    • over and above provision of network access for student-owned laptops, the choice of technology should be informed by the requirements of networked collaborative learning, e.g. for informal and formal seminars, group and individual work, video conferencing, networking, preparation of presentations, etc.
    • PC workstations for multimedia authoring
    • mobile AV facilities, large screens for group viewing of video material/presentations, interactive whiteboards

Support:

  • co-location of a range of student support services, for example, Warwick’s Learning Grid houses the Careers Centre
  • student support: student advisors should always be on hand for advice and training. This is a relatively new category of support, requiring practical help-desk skills but also a deep understanding of collaborative blended learning pedagogies, probably gained from their own student experience.
  • monitoring student usage: Monitoring of students’ use of the Learning Grid, for instance, indicates that the majority of students bring in their own laptop and access network wirelessly; students make long and frequent visits to the Grid, which becomes a home-from-home (i.e. their study-bedrooms) and use becomes habitual. Usage data also indicate a mix of group and individual usage patterns which change during the year (individual study is prevalent ahead of exams, for example). Timetable patterns are changing with growth in courses that fall outside ‘traditional academic structure’.
  • printed materials: At the Learning Grid, key course texts are made available for reference.
  • networked printing and scanning facilities should be available

Conclusions

With its two Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning awards, Brookes is set to embark on a building and refurbishment program which can help shape the learning experience of its students for years to come. The challenge, as we see it, is to create a blended learning landscape which facilitates collaborative, student-centred, technology-enhanced learning and provides a test-bed for pedagogic research. In this article we have focused on the principles applied by other institutions to the design of collaborative learning environments and on the contextual foundations for such environments at Brookes. We end with an invitation to explore this challenge in this journal and other forums. We need to hear the views of interested parties, such as staff developers and learning technologists, Estates and Management, Computer Services, the Library, and Student Support Services. What are the views of those with direct experience of teaching in a blended environment? What are the implications for the curriculum of giving students increased control over and responsibility for their learning environment? Brookes has a reputation for innovation in teaching and learning and for flexible, blended course delivery enhanced by a Virtual Learning Environment; building on these strengths we should seek to maximise the potential gains for learning of the proposed redevelopment of our existing real estate.

Biography

Richard Francis is the Head of Media Workshop and a National Teaching Fellow. John Raftery is Pro Vice-Chancellor (External) and Dean of the School for the Built Environment.

References

Bulpitt, G. (2003), ‘Looking Over the Horizon: A Future Perspective’, in Oyston, E. (ed.) Centre on Learning. Academic case studies on Learning Centre Development. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Centre for e-Learning (2005), E-learning Strategy, 2005 – 2008: Embedding e-learning. Internal post-consultation document, Oxford Brookes University.

E-Learning Modes of Engagement, (Available from the world wide web: Web Link).

Foresight (2000), The Learning Process in 2020 task force: Point and Click; Learners in the ICT Driving Seat, (Retrieved on 16th May 2005 from the world wide web: http://www.foresight.gov.uk/default1024ns.htm).

Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning, (Available from the world wide web at Web Link).

Stanford Learning Lab, Lessons Learned, (Available from the world wide web at Web Link).

The Learning Grid, University of Warwick, (Retrieved on 16th May 2005 from the world wide web: Web Link).

USITE/Crerar Computing Cluster & CyberCafe, University of Chicago. (Retrieved on 7th May 2005 from the world wide web: Web Link)

Wallenberg Hall, Stanford University, (Retrieved on 7th May 2005 from the world wide web: Web Link)

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