Blended learning is not new - but now it's here to stay

Jackie Galbraith was first involved with online teaching 25 years ago – but she believes colleges are now on the cusp of significant change

Jackie Galbraith

The college sector is now on the cusp of significant change when it comes to digitally delivering learning, says this college principal

"Blended learning" became common parlance during the Covid-19 pandemic, along with phrases like "lockdown" and the "new normal". But it is not a new idea, it took hold in the late 1990s following the adoption of the internet and digital technology to support learning.

As most people are now aware, blended learning is where people learn through a combination of online and traditional face-to-face teaching. Done well, it combines the strengths of traditional and digital teaching methods to give students a more engaging learning experience.

The ability of the college sector to flexibly and quickly retrain and upskill people and provide employers with the skills they need will be at the very heart of the social and economic recovery and digital learning will play a significant role.


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Background: What should colleges focus on in the coming months?


I was a lecturer in the nineties working in a specialist unit at the University of Paisley. As well as general teaching, we were responsible for delivering training to college lecturers on emerging technologies, and on the application of these technologies in learning and teaching.

At that time, the big emerging technologies were browsers to access the world wide web and HTML to create content for the web. Twenty-five years ago, I created an online course for college lecturers, "using the internet for learning and teaching".

The delivery of the course was asynchronous as there was no capacity for live streaming, so content was largely text-based and engagement with participants was limited to email.

In the late 1990s, I led a team of software developers to create one of the early virtual learning environments trying to integrate the provision of learning materials with opportunities for group work. These were rudimentary and the features available today in platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams were the stuff of dreams back then!

My biggest learning point from those experiences was that the success of using technology in teaching depends on the ability of the lecturer to design a learning experience that is right for their students, takes full advantage of the tools available, and allows students to be able to access the technology and use it effectively in their learning.

I still hold these views today.

When lockdown forced colleges to operate completely online, I was concerned. Until that point, almost all our courses were delivered face-to-face. However, our lecturers threw themselves into remote delivery and worked hard to help their students complete their learning entirely online.

There was no blend during lockdown, only online delivery.

During lockdown, I held virtual meetings with over a hundred colleagues, mainly lecturers, who asked for time and resources to be available on return from their summer break to help them prepare for the blended learning approach required by the pandemic.

I delayed the start of the academic year to allow lecturers time to prepare, we standardised on Microsoft Teams as our online platform for students, bought new laptops for all lecturers, and provided access to training.

Lecturers have told me how useful this training was in becoming familiar with features that support engaging learning activities. Many are excited by the possibilities for adapting their learning, teaching and assessment practices to get the most out of the blended approach. To support them, we have seconded a lecturer into a new role advising on how to adapt pedagogy to support a blended approach to learning.

Blended learning is here to stay. But have we achieved the right blend?

This year the balance of delivery will, of necessity, be more online than face-to-face here in Scotland. Beyond that, we will fine-tune it for our students, determined by the level and practical content of their courses.

In the 25 years I have been around technology in learning, for the first time I believe we are on the cusp of significant change. Although digital poverty is a reality that needs to be addressed, most of the population now has access to the internet through a wide range of devices.

Young people born in this century have grown up with digital connected technologies that they use naturally in all aspects of their lives. The pandemic forced their older siblings, parents and grandparents to use online tools to maintain social contact with families and friends, to have consultations with GPs and hospital consultants, and to do their jobs where they were able to work from home.

The pandemic has accelerated digital learning and teaching in the college sector and it will be to the benefit of our students and lecturers.

Jackie Galbraith is principal and chief executive of West Lothian College

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Jackie Galbraith

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