As time passes since the initial programme and module redesign process started back in 2014, it is inevitable (as well as highly desirable) that our knowledge and understanding of Active Blended Learning at the University of Northampton continues to develop and mature. It is also clear that designing for ABL has meant a significant shift to some colleagues, and much less so to those who were already deploying practices akin to those that typically characterise ABL.
The definition of ABL has not changed since the start of the redesign process:
An ABL module or programme is taught through student-centred activities that support the development of subject knowledge and understanding, independent learning and digital fluency. Our face-to-face teaching is facilitated in a practical and collaborative manner, clearly linked to learning activity outside the classroom. Opportunities are provided for students to develop autonomy, Changemaker attributes and employability skills.
Active blended learning is therefore a pedagogical approach that combines sense-making activities with focused interactions (with content, peers and tutors) in appropriate learning settings – in and outside the classroom. ABL focuses on engaging students in knowledge construction, reflection and critique, on the development of learner autonomy and of course, on the achievement of learning outcomes. It is worth noting that the term ‘online’ does not feature in this definition.
In ABL, what matters is not so much the content, which is often the tutor’s primary focus in traditional approaches, but what students do with it and why. Following a huge joint redesign effort involving faculties and central services over almost five years, ABL is Northampton’s institutional approach to learning and teaching. This table contains an illustrative, non-prescriptive list of examples of what one might generally consider ABL and not ABL practices. The term, principles and rationale are embedded in institutional documentation, from Transforming lives, inspiring change, to programme and module documentation, quality documents and public-facing material.
Over recent months, in conversations with colleagues, including discussions at our Learning and Teaching Conference 2019, it has become clear, however, that not everyone is on the same page in respect of the concepts, features and rationale associated with ABL. Having reviewed these issues with many colleagues within and outside Northampton, in this post I attempt to address some of those misunderstandings and concerns.
1. AL, BL, ABL and DL
Bonwell and Eison (1991, p. 19) claim that Active Learning (AL) refers to a pedagogical approach that “involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing”. That notion is still valid and useful today. Much of the early literature on Blended Learning (BL) defines it as combinations of face-to-face (f2f) and online learning. Today, we can view BL as a sophisticated, multi-layered, challenging and exciting concept than the mere (and arguably simplistic) combination of f2f and online. Blends encompass multiple variables, of which f2f-online is just one. Figure 1 shows some of the dimensions that play a part in BL. ABL, defined as above, attempts to capitalise on what we know about AL and BL (figure 2).
Figure 1: Illustrative dimensions of the blend
Figure 2: ABL
ABL is distinct from Distance Learning (DL). At no stage has the University of Northampton attempted to become a ‘mini Open University’ or launch a large-scale online or distance learning strategy. Northampton is a campus-based institution, where f2f contact time is highly valued. We would not have built a brand new campus with student residences if the plan was to deploy a full DL operation. In short, through designing and implementing ABL, we have made an explicit attempt to capture and combine the best of what is known about active learning and blended learning, and apply this for student benefit in the specific context of the University of Northampton.
2. ABL and technology
Successful ABL relies on fluent, purposeful and thoughtful use of technologies for learning, as indeed do other pedagogical approaches. The absence of digital fluency (figure 3) could put colleagues and future graduates at a disadvantage. That said, ABL does not, and should not, purely rely on digital technologies. Printed material, flashcards, physical artefacts, the traditional whiteboard and any other non-digital technology or teaching aid should also be considered as part of the blend, as long as it meets a clear pedagogic purpose. What we said about content before applies to technology for learning: what matters is not the technology itself, but what staff and students do and create with it – and for what purpose.
Figure 3: Staff digital literacy, competence and fluency
3. One size does not fit all
A common misunderstanding is the belief that a single ‘prescribed’ model should fit all learning and teaching scenarios. It won’t. There is an institutional direction of travel in learning and teaching, as captured in the definition of ABL, towards personalisation, student-centredness, time on task and interactions for sense-making (learner-tutor, learner-learner, learner-content). Figure 2 attempts to capture these principles. How they apply on the ground (in class, in the field, in the lab, etc) is a matter for the tutor to decide. No one is better placed than the tutor to determine the extent to which these principles and practices are appropriate in each teaching context. We can think of ABL as a flexible, guiding framework for good, student-centred pedagogic design and teaching practice.
4. What ABL is not
As a general rule, when one of the following statements is true about a University of Northampton module, then the module fails to capture the essence of what ABL intends to achieve:
- It makes regular use of broadcast (non-interactive) lectures.
- The virtual learning environment (NILE) is primarily used as a content repository.
- Online activity is an optional add-on to the face-to-face sessions (in other words, rather than a blend, f2f and non-f2f work run as two separate tracks).
- It has not been through a redesign workshop (CAIeRO) or equivalent in-depth intervention in the past three years.
5. ABL is not new
Staff at the Institute of Learning and Teaching, along with the Learning Technology team, have never portrayed ABL as ‘something new’. As stated above, ABL is an approach to learning and teaching, encompassing both pedagogic design and teaching practice, which puts meaningful, focused student activity and sense-making (inside and outside the classroom), co-creation, reflection, autonomy and critique at the centre. It draws from different theories as they apply to a modern, teaching-focused higher education institution like the University of Northampton. What is perhaps innovative and different from other approaches to strategic, pedagogic change, however, is that the university adopted an explicit, deliberate and evidence-based approach to curriculum redesign and innovation at scale, as described in Transforming Lives, Inspiring Change. The UMF assessment review was launched in 2017 to increase academic ownership of assessment practice and to ensure that assessments are based on sound pedagogic principles within the broader ABL framework.
Many colleagues have asked: “change to ABL? What change?” These tutors are often well versed in approaches, methods and techniques that align perfectly well with the principles of ABL. For example, valuable classroom time is seldom, if ever, used to ‘deliver information’ to students in a non-interactive manner. As part of our work with tutors, it was always clear that most of them were already applying ABL principles in their practice. No need to change that, which is highly valued.
6. Contact time
A common concern is that ABL could reduce contact time. This should not be the case. ABL is not about putting content online and doing less teaching. On the contrary, just putting content online would be highly problematic, as explained in section 4: what matters is what students do with content to achieve good outcomes. Tutor-facilitated activities (i.e. activities where learner-tutor interactions are prominent), in and outside the classroom, synchronous and asynchronous, count as contact time. Putting content online doesn’t. Teaching in smaller groups than before the move to Waterside, with no large lecture theatres, provides an ideal opportunity to enhance personalisation and support, and to promote quality contact time. The multiple support channels for students within the Integrated Learner Support Model, in place since September 2018, means that overall contact time at the University of Northampton has actually increased.
7. Staff development
Within C@N-DO, there are many staff development workshops aimed at helping staff with their course design (such as CAIeRO), teaching and assessment practice. Some workshops are designed for those who are new to teaching in HE, others are for more experienced tutors. A few of these workshops focus on practical ways of deploying ABL with students. Peer observation for development is another useful, collegiate way of learning with and from colleagues, as well as one of the elements that Fellowship applications require staff to engage in prior to submission.
Further information, discussion and advice
A study into the impact of ABL on practice and outcomes is currently underway in ILT. Its findings will be available later this year. For a discussion on any aspect of ABL at the University of Northampton, please feel free to contact me, a member of the ILT team, the Head of Learning Technology or a Learning Designer.
Prof A Armellini
Dean of Learning and Teaching
Bonwell, C. C. & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning; Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf