Last week, I got the chance to take part in BILT’s annual Hackathon, which focused on students’ blended learning experience. For better or worse, this new way of learning is something all students have had to adapt to very quickly, so it was great to speak to likeminded students about their experience and to brainstorm solutions to problems we’d encountered during the first term.
I approached the Hackathon thinking that problems, as I’d experienced them, could be identified within two separate categories: the structure of blended learning and the effect on our wellbeing. However, as discussions began to branch out, I soon realised that the student experience is far more complex than that. As I reflect on my experience of the Hackathon, I will expand on some of the issues and solutions that emerged and how this altered my thinking about what the student experience is.
Our first activity was to talk in small groups about the positive and negative aspects of our blending learning experience so far. From my discussion, it was evident that many students enjoy the flexibility that online classes allow them. The choice to attend in person or carry out asynchronous work means that students with part-time jobs find it easier to maintain a work-study balance. Additionally, feedback from the group suggested that smaller class sizes work well because students get to spend more time with the lecturers and feel they get a more personalised session.
However, our discussion also brought to light the concerning emotional and mental toll that blended learning is having on many of us. A major point of discussion was that online seminars can be anxiety-inducing. We may think that online classes reduce the pressure of public speaking as we attend these sessions at home, in a familiar and comfortable environment, yet many of us agreed that online classes cause more anxiety than in-person sessions. Much of the fear around online classes comes from having your face on camera for the rest of the class to see, which triggers some of the pressure to appear ‘put together’ and ‘photogenic’.
Additionally, sharing ideas can be uncomfortable as we may not have met everyone in the class before, a problem that first year students are likely to face, so the process can become nerve-wracking for some. Far from surprising, these challenges were familiar to me as I’ve found myself facing all of them during the first term of my Masters degree, so it was reassuring to talk through the issues with other students to know that I am not alone.
Solutions & improvements
The fact so many of us feel blended learning, in its current form, is having a negative impact on our wellbeing means that it is imperative to try and improve it, which made the second part of the Hackathon all the more engaging, as we split off into smaller groups once more to come up with workable solutions to some of the challenges discussed. Having talked through some of the emotional and mental consequences of blended learning, I wanted to get a sense of how effective blended learning is for students in terms of their ability to stay engaged with their courses, so I joined a group tasked with finding solutions to some of the organisational challenges that arise through blended learning. From talking to students in this group, I learned that many find it easy to disengage as the increased amount of asynchronous study provides less of a structure for students. Therefore, the criteria for asynchronous study needs to be better established to make blended learning more effective.
We wanted to come up with ways to help students manage their time and be productive individually whilst feeling a part of the cohort. For example, module ‘to do’ lists that consist of the weekly tasks that students need to complete for their modules, to be ordered in terms of priority. This could be easily established and maintained by module leaders and is a simple way for students to know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing and keep on top of their work. It could be made interactive so students can ‘tick off’ completed tasks and pose questions to both their course mates and lecturers about the work so they feel supported.
Something that became evident throughout the event was that although I’d originally categorised blended learning challenges into two umbrella terms: structure and wellbeing, these things are not mutually exclusive. If students are struggling to organise their time through asynchronous learning, this can make them feel stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious. So, part of the emotional toll blended learning can take stems from the way it is carried out.
Overall, I thought the Hackathon was a great success. From the innovative and realistic solutions we came up with, it was clear to see the students were really engaged with the event. This can only mean that students value the opportunity to get involved with how their teaching is carried out. Students should have regular opportunities, like the Hackathon, to give feedback on their learning experience. Not only is this valuable for the university but it also serves to help students feel connected to one another and to the university.
Finally, a major consideration for me is that although students are all experiencing blended learning and we express similar challenges, our experiences are not identical. There is no overarching ‘student experience’ because students have different educational and personal needs. Throughout our conversations, students raised issues, such as mental health and learning disabilities, that can affect a student’s experience of blended learning. When looking to improve blended learning for term two, the university needs to consider a variety of individual factors affecting blended learning to ensure that it is as inclusive as possible.