Active Blended Learning at the University of Northampton

Since 2013, the University of Northampton has seen a process of large-scale pedagogic transformation towards what we refer to as Active Blended Learning (ABL). ABL is Northampton’s new normal. It is not something we do in addition to our regular teaching duties: it is our standard approach to learning and teaching. The notion of ‘blended learning’ in general, and ABL in particular, is far more complex, multi-faceted and exciting than the mere combination of face-to-face with online components, as I have argued before. At Northampton, a module follows an ABL methodology if it:

  • Is taught through student-centred activities to develop knowledge and understanding, independent learning & digital fluency.
  • Has a core, collaborative face-to-face component, explicitly linked to learning activity outside the classroom, within a single, consistent, highly interactive and student-centred pedagogical approach.
  • Helps to develop autonomy, Changemaker attributes and employability skills.

A course is not taught in ABL if one or more of the following statements is true:

  • It makes regular use of non-interactive lectures.
  • The VLE (or LMS – Blackboard in Northampton’s case) is primarily a content repository.
  • Online activity is merely an add-on to the face-to-face sessions.
  • There is no evidence of regular, systematic enhancement.

New ABL arrow Jan 2018

CAIeRO (Creating Aligned Interactive educational Resource Opportunities), referred to as Carpe Diem in the literature, is Northampton’s workshop of choice to support staff in the design of modules and programmes for ABL. In short, CAIeRO is a team approach to learning design. One of the key areas of focus during CAIeRO is the second box in the above diagram, often neglected in higher education teaching: the tasks for sense-making. The principle behind this focus is that what matters is not so much the content itself, but what learners do with it to achieve outcomes.

Over the years, research, case studies and blog posts provide evidence of the suitability and effectiveness of CAIeRO as a lever for building institutional capacity in student-centred learning design. To support staff in the deployment of ABL (i.e., teaching in an ABL-friendly way that capitalises on the design work done through CAIeRO), there is a range of other workshops that focus on teaching practice, as well as opportunities to engage in peer observation of teaching. All these activities fall under the auspices of C@N-DO (Changemaking at Northampton: Development Opportunities), which is the university’s HEA-accredited academic staff development scheme. By taking part in these activities (all of which are aligned to the UKPSF), staff can be considered for professional recognition as Associate Fellows (D1), Fellows (D2) or Senior Fellows (D3) of the HE Academy.

To establish the impact of the shift to ABL in different academic settings, the Institute of Learning and Teaching in HE at the University of Northampton has funded a number of project over the past two years. Some have already produced research outputs, such as Overcoming barriers to student engagement with ABL. Seven additional projects on aspects of ABL are being funded in the 2017-18 academic year. These projects will report their findings by July 2018.

Prof Alejandro Armellini
28 January 2018

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Changemaker Attributes at Northampton for Graduate Employability (Ch.A.N.G.E.)

A Draft Framework of Graduate Attributes


As an AshokaU Changemaker Campus, the University of Northampton is looking at ways to ensure that all our students have an opportunity to understand for themselves what it means to be a Changemaker and opportunities to explore ways of actively engaging with Changemaking through their degree programmes. This is happening through the Changemaker in the Curriculum project (EmbedCM). At its simplest, ‘Changemaking is simply where someone spots a social problem and does something about it.’

Alongside our work on Changemaker, the University Centre for Employability and Engagement (UCEE) launched its Employability Plus initiative to all students in September 2014. Employability Plus is a blended employability offering that encourages students to actively and consciously develop their lifelong learning skills through extra- and co-curricular experiences including paid work, volunteering and reflections on their curriculum-based work and projects.

Both these strands are coming together in our ChANGE Project. ChANGE (Changemaking Attributes at Northampton for Graduate Employability) is a student-centred project that looks at the skills, capabilities and behaviours we want to help our students develop during their studies at Northampton in addition to gaining core subject knowledge and understanding. It seeks to enhance our existing key skills framework by aligning our articulation of Changemaker attributes in our curriculum framework with those from Employability Plus, thereby providing a consistency for students in the attributes they develop whether within or beyond our curricula.

The Graduate Attributes Framework

The Institute of Learning and Teaching at Northampton, the Learning Design Team, UCEE and our school-based Learning and Teaching Co-ordinators, have developed the following draft graduate attribute statement and framework:

The University of Northampton is committed to developing knowledgeable graduates, who are socially responsible, digitally proficient and highly employable global citizens – the Changemakers of the future.

Graduate Attributes Framework

Northampton’s draft Graduate Attributes Framework

Each of the bullet points on the diagram, as well as the central ‘positive work ethic’ area are our core employability skills. We have drafted statements at Level 6 (undergraduate honours degree award level) for each of the coloured groupings as well as more detailed statements for each attribute. The statements themselves not only define the attributes, but also incorporate previous work defining what it means to be a Changemaker at Northampton. This is crucial if we are to develop attributes rather than skills and to genuinely engage our learners with social innovation and Changemaking activities.

For example, our four draft headline statements at Level 6 are:

Direction and Strategy – Do the right things
On completion of Level 6, our students use evidence, analysis and critical reflection to achieve and encourage others to generate positive, values-driven impact for themselves and their communities.

Change Generation – Do things right
On completion of Level 6, our students are socially responsible problem solvers, who apply knowledge of their chosen field to identify, create, promote and manage opportunities for positive change.

On completion of Level 6, our students learn and create effectively and collaboratively through meaningful professional connections with others, in physical and digital contexts.

Positive work ethic, integrity and values
The actions and behaviours of our Level 6 students are driven by an awareness of personal values motivating them to achieve sustainable social impact.

Next Steps

We are in the process of developing the framework further to provide outcome statements at each of the remaining academic levels (4, 5, 7 and 8) as well as develop a toolkit to assist staff in writing programme and module learning outcomes that reflect Changemaking at Northampton in an employability context. We also seek to develop suggestions for learning activities and assessments at each level that would make learner engagement with Changemaker focused on transformational learning, leadership and positive change.

Dr Rachel Maxwell
Prof Alejandro Armellini
Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

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Learning, teaching and digital transformation at Northampton

The following sources have either informed the approach we’re taking in relation to learning and teaching and digital transformation at the University of Northampton, or are the result of our extensive discussions on those matters:

  1. This short video summarises our direction of travel in learning and teaching.
  2. This article by Scott Freeman and colleagues offers the results of a meta-study on active learning in STEM subjects.
  3. NUS’s Radical Interventions in T&L report.
  4. The NUS Student Experience Report.
  5. The following blog posts by Northampton’s Learning Technology Team: Getting Waterside Ready, Designing a flipped module in NILE (NILE is our virtual learning environment), and What is the flipped classroom.
  6. The Vice-Chancellor’s view on our new approaches to learning and teaching (video) – as part of his opening address to the 2015 Learning and Teaching Conference.
  7. 2015 Conference highlights.
  8. This this video by Adair Richards (TEDx).
  9. The Waterside Campus website.
  10. The Institute of Learning and Teaching in HE’s recently published papers (see bottom of this page).
  11. The Assessment and Feedback Portal.
  12. The Changemaker in the Curriculum Portal.
  13. Northampton’s approach to Quality Enhancement in learning and teaching.
  14. The learning enhancement and innovation fund – current and past funded projects.
  15. How we (re)design our courses: my own blog post on Carpe Diem and CAIeROs on Prof Gilly Salmon’s website.
  16. My own blog, covering a range of issues relevant to our approach.
  17. Northampton’s C@N-DO accredited CPD scheme.

Prof A. Armellini
2 August, 2015

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Dazzled by pedagogical innovations

At recent events in the UK and overseas, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the concept of pedagogical innovation in higher education. In particular, I focused on whether certain initiatives (often carrying flashy names) constitute pedagogical innovation and if so, against what criteria.

The key message of this blog post is this: many of such initiatives are not pedagogically innovative. They can be described in many other ways, including technologically innovative and sometimes disruptive. However, most fail to meet a basic criterion for innovative pedagogy: evidence that they improve (or have the potential to improve) student learning:

“Adapting to characteristics of students and responding to their development is an inherent aspect of pedagogy. […] These adaptations can be considered innovations if are based [sic] on a new idea and when they have the potential to improve student learning, or when they are linked with other outcomes […]”

(Vieluf, Kaplan, Klieeme & Bayer, 2012. Emphasis added).

The inclusion of a ‘technology layer’ does not imply change to a teaching method, never mind to pedagogy as a field of study. In other words, incorporating technology into learning and teaching does not mean that we are being innovative, although many seem to tempted to believe that it does. Diana Laurillard wrote in 2008 that education was on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies, but it had been on that brink for decades. Indeed, the learning technology literature is packed with over-promises and under-delivery. In our case, linking pedagogic innovation to the incorporation of technology alone is a poor approach to positive and lasting change in education.

A number of today’s practices demonstrate how teaching can make use of new tools. While those practices can sometimes be effective, very often they’re implemented within yesterday’s mindset and logic. Indeed, we seem to forget -for example- decades of lessons learned from distance education as we become dazzled by the floodlights of so-called innovations.

I have referred to these recent initiatives as old wine in new bottles. A few examples, with their sexy names, can be found below. The list is by no means exhaustive.

old wine new bottles slide

I have indicated that while old wine is generally good, so are some of these new bottles. This article is not against such initiatives. On the contrary, I invite colleagues to critique them while stressing the importance of researching them in different educational settings. These initiatives should not be described as pedagogically innovative, particularly before sufficient evidence emerges, so let’s not get dazzled by new names to describe old practices with a bit of tech mixed in.

Prof Alejandro Armellini
University of Northampton

Vieluf, S., Kaplan, D., Klieeme, E. & Bayer, S. (2012). Teaching Practices and Pedagogical Innovation: Evidence from TALIS. OECD Publishing.

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Northampton’s online and blended learning offering

As part of its Learning and Teaching Plan, the University of Northampton is making a deliberate effort to boost its online and blended provision across all six schools. The following are among the top academic programmes undergoing design or re-design processes:

School Programmes
MA Dance
MA Media & Journalism
MA Design
MA Education
MA Leadership & Management
MA SEN & Inclusion
Social Sciences
MSc Psychology
MA International Relations
BA Prof Investigative Practice
Science & Technology
HNC Wastes Management
BSc Computing
MSc in Public Health**
BSc Global Nursing (top-up, 1 year)
Business School
MSc International Marketing Strategy
MSc Management (International)
MSc Accounting & Finance


The school-based Learning and Teaching Excellence Coordinators, in collaboration with the relevant academic course teams and Programme Leaders, the Learning Technology Team, the Quality Office and the Institute of Learning and Teaching, have started activities on the above programmes, with the aim of offering flagship online and blended learning opportunities to a variety of audiences, globally. In addition, the Centre for Achievement and Performance (CfAP) of the University of Northampton has launched the University’s first MOOC on Academic Skills on Coursesites. Others are in preparation.

The forthcoming incorporation of three Learning Designers (Robert Farmer, Rachel Maxwell and Julie Usher) will provide additional momentum to this exciting and challenging process.

Prof A Armellini
Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

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Quality, innovation and risk in HE learning and teaching

How can we (safely!) enhance the quality of learning and teaching in HE, while taking risks by deploying innovative (and often unexpected) approaches? At Northampton, we have addressed the issue in a number of ways, which boil down to the following mutually reinforcing strands:

– Criteria and templates, including design targets for NILE (our Blackboard VLE)(Figure 1) and templates to help course teams design and structure appealing online modules easily, flexibly and consistently.

– Support & interventions, including the CAIeRO designing for learning process (based on the Carpe Diem approach) and the Collaborative Learning Experiences Online (CLEO) workshop, in which participants are online learners for a day. All interventions are part of Northampton’s CPD framework, called C@N-DO: Changemaking at Northampton: Development Opportunities. Additional support and guidance is regularly offered by the Learning Technology team.

– Evidence, coming out of quality audits conducted within each school, and learning analytics, obtained from NILE usage.

NILE design targets

Figure 1

(click on the figure to enlarge it)

This approach enables us to focus on enhancement, but it also provides a safe environment to take risks and pilot new approaches in consultation with course teams across disciplines. If successful, ideas are transferred and adapted to meet the requirements of other courses. The journey continues!

Professor Alejandro Armellini
Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

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Student expectations, personalisation and online provision

“Contact with tutors”, not surprisingly, is one of the top responses from students when asked about what they value from their university. Given our biographies as learners, the type of contact we are normally most familiar with in educational settings is face to face: we know how it works and what to expect.

Easy and regular access to tutors (and peers) can, however, take different forms, as can learning experiences on a university campus. A lecture, for example, can be incredibly inspiring. Some of my most memorable ‘learning moments’ happened during lectures. Equally, a lecture can be the most impersonal, disengaging and even alienating experience. An online learning environment can also be gripping or isolating for participants, depending on variables such as the quality of the design and the skill of the online tutor. However:

Student-tutor contact can, in many senses, be more individual and personal in an online module than in a campus-taught one. Moreover, ‘asynchronous’ student-tutor interaction allows the tutor time to think, come up with more succinctly formulated answers to questions, and has the great advantage that both parties have a written record of the communication.

Maria Schilstra, n.d., University of Hertfordshire

It may well be that by “contact with tutors” students actually refer to “personalisation”. We can achieve higher levels of personalisation and individualisation in a number of ways, not necessarily by increasing our demands on physical space. In other words, it is possible to teach better and teach smarter, even on a smaller campus. The new Waterside campus will make a more effective and efficient use of space.

Waterside is an additional lever to make us think now, together, about what our teaching and learning practice will look like in a couple of years’ time. We need to redesign, pilot and refine things well before we move. Will our teaching be better and smarter? For example, what would happen to our provision, our students and ourselves if we:

… gradually reduced the amount of face-to-face teaching?
… took deliberate steps to increase the quality of what we do in face-to-face settings?
… developed our competencies as designers of excellent, fit-for-purpose online courses?
… became highly skilled in online teaching, assessment and e-moderating?

Would this mean the disappearance of the traditional lecture, seminar, lab or studio-based session? Absolutely not. We need to identify what blends of approaches and modes of study are appropriate in each case. However, we must be prepared to address our students’ needs and enable them to succeed in the 21st century – with or without Waterside. Yesterday’s logic will not suffice to tackle this challenge.

The University of Northampton is well placed to pursue the above agenda: many colleagues have the knowledge, skill and motivation to scaffold and promote this change, increase learner personalisation and thrive in the new environment. There are support and development interventions in place. We have opportunities to inform, shape and benefit from the changes ahead: let’s engage with this process now.

Professor Alejandro Armellini
Director, Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

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