UP blends virtual with real learning

The University of Pretoria (UP) has adopted an innovative approach to teaching and learning – hybrid or blended learning that consists of face-to-face and virtual (or online) interactions with students.

  The blend provides the best of both worlds. The face-to-face model is used where it is most suitable, but is is enriched by the wide range of virtual learning tools and products that are becoming available.

  A key feature of the hybrid learning is that online learning activities are introduced to complement face-toface work and that online and faceto-face components of the course are designed to interact pedagogically to take advantage of the best features of each.

  There is substantiating evidence from research in education, particularly tertiary education, that an optimal blend of face-to-face and online delivery promotes student success more effectively than delivery by either face-to-face or online modalities alone.

  A plenary speaker at a recent conference hosted by UP, Professor Sue Rigby, previously vice-principal for learning and teaching at the University of Edinburgh and now the University of Lincoln’s deputy vice-chancellor, made the bold statement that “blended learning is not the trend, higher education going virtual is”.

  UP is a leader in South Africa in terms of embracing and implementing the hybrid learning approach to enrich student experience and enhance student success.

  Hybrid does not mean that material is dumped online and left for students to digest by themselves. It means engaging students in online activities and enriching their learning through activities, materials and support that cater for their individual needs and preferences. It also does not mean that lecturers will lose their footing, but that their prowess is strengthened through technology.

  As Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, says: “We’ve seen that online resources can be very important, but at the same time they don’t substitute for lecturers being there.” Personal contact with faculty or the sense of community that residential undergraduate institutions provide remains critically important for student success.

  The first Hybrid Fair was recently hosted at UP to great acclaim. It featured the various facets of hybrid learning and showcased the multitude of possibilities. The science teaching and learning forum of the faculty of natural and agricultural sciences at UP took the lead by organising this fair.

  Its purpose was to celebrate diverse teaching styles and approaches that enhance the student learning experience and student success.

  The fair allowed for the role-players in the field of teaching innovation to engage and network with each other and to showcase the university’s commitment to harnessing a range of technology-mediated teaching methods in the service of student success.

  The enthusiastic attendance by UP staff and from across tertiary institutions in the region reflected the interest in and endorsement of this shift in tertiary education provision.

  Highlights of the fair included a display of the locally used learning management system Blackboard with all its functionalities. Blackboard forms the backbone of most courses and offers an ideal platform for hybrid learning activities such as e-tutoring using the Collaborate function, discussion boards and use of badges to motivate students.

  Audience response systems such as clickers featured strongly (Turning Point Technologies) as well as plagiarism detecting packages (Turnitin). Other technologies for hybrid learning included YouTube videos, narrated Powerpoint presentations and the use of multimedia such as simulations and the use of virtual reality for learning.

  Assessment tools that are embedded in the learning management system (QuestUP) were featured with reference to optimal use.

  Mobile learning for underpinning hybrid learning is particularly topical and the fair featured a number of mobile apps. From UP’s own stable, the department of education innovation showcased the support it offers to lecturers in terms of embracing hybrid learning. The library’s Makerspace drew attention as a place where creative ideas come to life. The Makerspace gives students and staff access to 3D printing, among other innovative facilities. From the electronic textbook side, publishers Cengage, Pearson, Wiley and McGraw-Hill participated in a panel discussion on what is available or being planned by the industry.

  There is recognition that students require and benefit from more support, and that the hybrid model could answer this need. Regular online quizzes provide opportunities for students to measure their progress and through multiple attempts assist in scaffolding their learning.

  More recently, learning technologies have been designed to provide adaptive learning opportunities where the performance of the student is assessed with the first few exercises, which is then followed by the provision of additional exercises and learning material pitched at the student’s level of mastery but with a development trajectory.

  The hybrid teaching and learning experience is in line with current learning trends as described by international experts in the field. Susan Henderson, the vice-president of Queens College responsible for institutional advancement, argues that “technology, which is a core component of the hybrid approach, allows students to become much more engaged in constructing their own knowledge”.

  Chris Proulx, chief executive and president of eCornell, observes that, within the framework of the hybrid approach, lecturers can still interact and assess their students directly, while leveraging the benefits of technology. Within the hybrid approach individually paced learning is more achievable and it makes expanded access to educational resources infinitely more possible, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

  The hybrid model is more attuned to inquiry-led pedagogics than traditional models and the hybrid approach, through its integration of online modalities, puts students on the road to lifelong learning, which will certainly become increasingly important in the future.

  Hybrid learning benefits all parties involved – students, lecturers and the university itself. Factors that make hybrid learning attractive to students include more opportunities to interact with course material and resources and the convenience of getting access to these from any location and at any time. This leads to greater engagement and enhanced opportunities for success.

  It promotes self-directed learning that students can do at their own pace and in their own time.

  Lecturers also experience a more flexible schedule and better ability to work in different locations. They expand on their online pedagogical and technology skills while still retaining the valued face-to-face interaction with students.

  The university benefits from being seen to be at the forefront of educational development, actively advancing student success by catering better for individual student needs.

  Professor Marietjie Potgieter is the deputy dean, teaching and learning, in the faculty of natural and agricultural sciences at the University of Pretoria and Professor Ansie Harding is a researcher in mathematics education in the department of mathematics and applied mathematics   at the same university

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