Alejandro Armellini, Professor and Dean of Digital and Distributed Learning at the University of Portsmouth
Confusions between “teaching” and “content delivery” are not new in higher education (HE) settings, particularly among those who have not studied or researched learning and teaching as a discipline. I have heard statements like “we should be able to find effective and efficient ways to deliver content” many times. I have a number of concerns about that view and its implications.
The phrase “deliver content”, often as a substitute for “teaching”, is problematic on a number of levels. It conveys a sense of transmission, of shifting information (not knowledge) from teacher to students. This view of learning and teaching in HE must be challenged at every opportunity. Content delivery devalues teaching. Incidentally, there are many things we can do with, in, on and about learning. “Deliver” is not one of them. To be clear: you cannot “deliver learning”.
For Netflix, Disney or indeed for a big publisher, probably content is seen as king. A University, however, should enable successful learning through quality teaching. In HE, content is not king. Context is. What matters is what students and tutors do with that content, why they do it, how they do it and who they do it with. Designing effective scaffolds to enable learners to make sense of, critique and apply that content is key to successful learning experiences across different modes of study. We should spend more time designing such scaffolds, central to good teaching, and less on content - much of which is already available and up to date. It can be identified and curated from a wide range of sources under suitable licences. Delivering content is one thing. Teaching well, in its many forms and guises, is another. We should steer clear of devaluing the latter into the former.
The quality of pedagogic design and teaching practice is central to a successful learning experience. Good teaching practice can often rescue poor design, but no design, however good, will compensate for bad teaching practice. A proven way to design for effective learning is to redesign - regularly, iteratively and in teams. Expertly facilitated Learning Design workshops provide an opportunity to model teaching practice. The evidence suggests that such workshops, involving the course team, learning designers, learning technologists, students and employers, constitute time well invested and enable academics to plan and design for student-centred learning.
Finally, the term “blended learning” traditionally suggests the combination of face-to-face teaching with online learning, usually supported by a range of digital technologies. Current campus-based university provision is de facto blended. However, the integration of face-to-face and online components is just one dimension of pedagogic design. In other words, “face-to-faceness” and “onlineness” offer a narrow perspective on what blended learning is and entails. At the University of Portsmouth, we use the term “blended and connected learning” to describe our institutional approach to learning and teaching. We expect our students to engage with their studies
• through activities that enable them to take ownership of and critique new concepts, ideas and feedback;
• in and outside the classroom, synchronously and asynchronously, individually and in teams;
• for the development and application of subject knowledge, professional and digital skills.
Bombarding students with content without context-sensitive scaffolds is not conducive to successful blended and connected learning experiences. “Read this, watch that and come back with three key points” will not cut it. If we are to excel in pedagogic design and teaching practice, we need to be far more creative than that.