UGent Goes Blended

What is Blend@UGent?

Definition

Blend@UGent is a well-considered and well-aligned mix of online and on-campus education. This means students actively work with learning contents, both individually and in interaction with each other and lecturers.  

Ghent University transforms its learning environment into a blend of activating, evidence-based education, learning opportunities and evaluation methods, both online and on cam

Opportunities and challenges

Ghent University transforms its learning environment into a blend of activating, evidence-based education, learning opportunities and evaluation methods, both online and on campus. In doing so, Ghent University aims to: 

  • stimulate student engagement 
  • offer optimal learning opportunities 
  • optimally develop students’ competencies
  • obtain a higher programme success rate

Given that, in a blended learning environment, students are pushed more towards independence and self-management, additional attention and care should be given to: 

  • support of students’ learning process
  • promotion of interaction
  • creation of a warm(er) learning environment

The crucial role of lecturers

Lecturers will not only take on the role of content experts, but also the role of developers/facilitators and supervisors/coaches. Lecturer orchestrate students’ learning process by offering them content and structure, by monitoring and guiding their learning process and by aligning all learning activities. 

To this end, educational technology will be used as a well-considered tool, but it will not replace the lecturer. On the contrary, “the best app is the lecturer”. In turn, the study programme (i.e. all actors involved in education such as (the chair of) the Study Programme Committee, all lecturers, members of the Education Quality Control Unit, schedulers, members of the Faculty Educational Services, student representatives, etc.) monitors the cohesion within the organisation of the education and the quality of the design process. 

Blended education, learning and evaluation activities 

In a blended learning environment, both synchronous and asynchronous learning activities are possible:

  • Synchronous learning refers to learning activities in which students participate within a fixed time slot. During these activities, students can engage in interaction simultaneously, both with the lecturer and with each other.
  • Asynchronous learning refers to learning activities in which students participate at their own time and pace. They do not interact simultaneously with each other or with lecturers. 

The ratio between online and on-campus activities is dynamic and always depends on subject-specific and educational, socio-psychological, practical and technological factors such as the competencies that you are aiming to achieve, the composition of the student group, safety measures, classroom capacity or the available technology. 

Blended education offers lecturers the possibility to deploy a multitude of educational, learning or evaluation activities, always in function of the intended competencies (cf. constructive alignment). 

This table offers a number of examples by way of illustration: 

 

Online

On campus

Synchronous

Livestream with possibilities for chat, virtual classrooms, online Q&A, workshops, etc.

Practicals, seminars, supervisions, discussions, etc.

Asynchronous Online texts, recordings of synchronous classes, knowledge clips, assignments (possibly with automated feedback), FAQ, online tests, online individual or group assignments, announcements, blogs, vlogs, e-mails, etc.

 

Blend@UGent: 8 principles

Blended learning at Ghent University starts from eight basic quality principles:  

1. Align the blend of online and on-campus educational, learning and evaluation activities in a thoughtful manner

Blended education requires a well-aligned blend of online and on-campus activities that reinforce each other. As study programme or lecturer, you should guarantee a well-considered mix of online and on-campus activities, both synchronous and asynchronous. 
 
The study programme:  
  • determines for which programme-specific competencies on-campus activities remain necessary (e.g. practicals, lab classes, research for bachelor’s or master’s thesis) and add value for students (e.g. discussions, interaction, collaboration, community-forming).
  • ensures a balanced ratio between synchronous and asynchronous activities.
  • takes specific student groups into consideration (e.g. first-year students or vulnerable groups)
  • takes into account the workload for lecturers
  • aligns the use of educational technologies at faculty level, as students use different devices (e.g. smartphones, laptops, tablets). 
  • plans the academic calendar logically (e.g. choice of semester or year-full course units, modular education, etc.).
  • ensures an alignment of ‘blends of course units’ within a model year, both within the curriculum and across educational years. 
For the lecturer, a well-considered blend means: 
  • an optimal mix of individual and group activities aligned with students’ learning outcomes.
  • a good combination of synchronous and asynchronous education, learning and evaluation activities within the courses 
  • blending in an integrated manner, which means, for example, that students prepare a theoretical chapter independently and send their questions to the lecturer in advance, and that the teacher then answers these questions and focusses on difficult parts of the chapter with specific examples in an online Q&A or a workshop. 
  • learning materials that are aligned with the selected educational and learning activities, available on time and usable in the long term (and therefore: durable). The creation of qualitative knowledge clips about basic knowledge that does not change much over time (e.g. anatomical structures) are a good investment of time.

2. Activate and motivate

Activating education remains one of the basic principles of qualitative education within Blend@UGent. In other words, students should participate actively throughout the courses and interact with the learning contents, study materials, peers and lecturers. Activating is possible using synchronous and asynchronous learning activities: 
  • Synchronous learning activities are used to stimulate direct interaction, collaboration and discussion e.g. via a voting system, the Think-Pair-Share-method, the one minute paper, etc. 
  • Asynchronous learning activities allow students to actively process learning contents, e.g. via specific assignments, application on a case, a self-test, interaction via a discussion forum, etc. 
Activating blended education offers powerful learning opportunities which promote competence development and allows students to acquire learning contents in a more autonomous manner. The activating blend thereby contributes to the engagement, the involvement and the motivation of students. 

3. Structure students’ learning process 

Blended learning requires a lot of independence and self-management from students. In order to support students, structuring their learning process is crucial, both within the separate course units as well as at the level of the study programme. 
A lecturer provides structure by: 
  • offering a good lay-out and planning of online and on-campus educational and learning activities
  • providing clear, timely instructions
  • creating clear expectations 
  • providing regular deadlines, intermediate evaluations and feedback moments throughout the semester or the year
Structuring the learning process of student means that students receive regular incentives (e.g. intermediate assignments or (self)tests) to engage with the learning contents in time and to start, plan and organise their learning process. 
 
Moreover, at the level of the study programme, a good structure and planning of the education is also crucial:
  • The Study Programme Committee shapes the programme as a whole and defines general agreements for lecturers with regard to the organisation of blended learning. The study programme (Committee) provides, amongst other things, a feasible and clear schedule that mentions online and on-campus educational activities.
  • The study programme also provides a timely, clear planning of online and on-campus (student) counselling and aligns the planning among all lecturers in function of the planning of online course units. A particular point of attention in this is the distribution of deadlines across courses, in function of an achievable workload for both students and lecturers.

4. Communicate clearly and transparently

Clear instructions and transparent communication are a must in the context of blended learning, both as lecturer and as study programme. 
As lecturer:
  • Inform your students about: 
    • the course objectives and how they are blended;
    • the relations between the different educational and learning activities;
    • the form and the timing of the evaluation (deadlines, moment of evaluation) and the expectations in terms of content-specific evaluation.
  • Give clear instructions and use clear language in the descriptions of assignments.
  • Make agreements about how students can communicate with you, which is even more important for blended education than for ‘regular education’.
As a study programme too, clear communication about how the blend will be achieved is crucial. For example, make sure the timetable is available in a timely manner, offer counselling across courses (student and learning path counselling, a transparent study guide, etc.), etc. 

5. Offer sufficient guidance

The lecturer has the important task to monitor the students’ progress, to actively involve students, to detect possible group misconceptions and to maintain a dynamic interaction process with the group. In this regard, being present and being approachable (digitally) are crucial: record a video message when posting an announcement or (group) feedback, participate in group discussions, organise a digital office hour, etc.
 
Less face-to-face contact does not mean that students must process the learning contents 100% independently, without any guidance. Online learning requires time and extra support to motivate students to process the learning contents, especially at the start of the process, in order to be able to work with the materials (more) independently. Over time, the form or the intensity of the guidance can change. 
 
The support and guidance can be visible through the choice of education and learning activities at individual or group level (e.g. by allocating student rolls with different responsibilities), but also through the choice of the learning materials and digital tools (e.g. via automate feedback, self-tests, etc.)
 
Online education offers opportunities to visualise students’ learning process and their progress by means of student data, for both students and lecturers. The use of these data must be well-considered. Data collected and aggregated (i.e. at group level), used with respect for the students’ privacy, can form an additional source for student counselling. For the lecturer, data is also a source for the promotion and adjustment of the quality of the education offered. 

6. Blend learning and evaluation

Blended learning requires adapted online and on-campus evaluations. Evaluations and educational activities can alternate more frequently or even coincide completely. As a result, the difference between both activities becomes less clear and there are more opportunities for intermediate evaluation. Instead of lectures with a classic examination at the end of the course, evaluations can be organised throughout the semester by using assignments, online tests, peer assessment, etc. If the competencies are sufficiently assessed throughout the course, the lecturer might consider leaving out a specific number of competencies from the final evaluation or even cancel the final evaluation all together. 
 
Evaluations provide proof of students’ achieved competencies and visualise students’ learning process, both for students and for lecturers, so that students can adjust their learning process and, lecturers can adjust their instructions. In doing so, intermediate evaluations, graded or not, and intermediate feedback form powerful catalysts in the learning process of students. For example: 
  • A short assignment after an online class can provide information about what students have learned during the class. In a following class, the lecturer can then focus on learning contents that appeared to remain difficult for students, or students can watch the video recordings of that specific class topic again.
  • Besides feedback from the lecturer, self-feedback and peer-feedback are also very valuable. Students take an active role in this by focussing on their own learning process and that of their peers, after which they process the information from intermediate assessment and feedback in order to adjust their learning process. 
The content of both intermediate and final evaluations should always be focussed on the intended final and programme-specific competencies (validity). Students should be made aware of these competencies and expectations prior to the evaluation via e.g. rubrics or example examination questions (transparency). The evaluation provides an accurate image of students’ achievements (reliability) by, for example, using sufficient and clear examination questions and by using answer keys. 
 
At study programme level, too, a coherent and qualitative blend of evaluation forms is crucial. Internal alignment within the study programme in terms of the nature, content, coherence and location of the evaluations is of utmost importance. In order to realise and monitor the appropriate level and content of the evaluations, third parties will also be involved by means of benchmarking.

7. Create an accessible and warm learning environment with attention to the sense of community 

In the context of blended education with a large online component, students need accessible study materials and a warm learning environment that feels safe and that stimulates the sense of community, even more so than in the context of on-campus education. This is the shared responsibility of lecturers, staff responsible for the study programmes, student counsellors and all employees with a supportive role that come in contact with students.  
  • (Digitally) accessible learning materials, meaningful and authentic assignments that are aligned with the prior knowledge and the background of students and the use of examples, audio-visual materials, cases, applications or research with which students with different profiles can identify themselves are hereby important.
  • The online learning environment must feel secure for students. Moreover, online learning also requires lecturers to create a welcoming learning environment. Especially at the start, extra interventions such as a warm welcome and an online meet-and-greet with the team of lecturers and peers is recommended. 
  • Online interaction also entails possible obstacles. It is important to explicitly stress that it is all right to make mistakes and that doing so even offers learning opportunities of its own. In addition, make sure to welcome all ideas and viewpoints (as long as they are expressed with mutual respect), which is inviting and reassuring for students. 
  • Connection between students amplifies their involvement and stimulates their learning process. Stimulating the interaction between students and providing opportunities for focussed and gradual collaboration are crucial aspects of online education. 

8. Create shared responsibility 

Blend@UGent is supported by different actors who collaborate and who each take their own responsibility to implement blended learning successfully. The development and implementation of qualitative blended education is an iterative process with a shared responsibility at the level of study programmes, lecturers and students. As  such, participation of all stakeholders is important, e.g. via semester reviews, the Study Programme Committee or a student survey. Via Ghent University’s Self-Directed Quality Assurance System 2.0, actions are planned, executed, evaluated and adjusted. Because of this, constructive feedback from students and external stakeholders are an absolute must.
 
The development of blended education poses a major challenge. Therefore, Ghent University stimulates collaboration between lecturers, students, faculty or central education support staff in which inspiration, exchange and co-creation are central elements. The ownership of every ‘blend’ lies with the lecturers and the study programmes, seeing that they can assess the shape of the education the best in function of the intended competencies.  

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Last modified Sept. 17, 2020, 6:24 p.m.