An update on Active Blended Learning at the University of Northampton

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

 

Reference

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

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Course design, teaching practice and the learner experience

Much effort, creativity, resource and research has gone into devising transferable processes to enable course teams to design for effective learning in HE. CAIeRO has been Northampton’s approach for the past 10 years. The Why CAIeRO research report, released in May 2018, captures some of the key findings from the perspective of participants. The process itself is an adaptation of Gilly Salmon’s Carpe Diem model. Other approaches include UCL’s ABC learning design workshop and Oxford Brookes’ Intensives. A strapline we often use in association with CAIeRO is design for engagement, deliver for participation.

What these learning design processes have in common is an explicit intention to enable staff, in collaboration with students and other stakeholders, to design student-centred, participative, engaging and inclusive modules and programmes for different modes of study. Our Learning Design team has produced a number of very useful blog posts about the process and its practicalities. At Northampton, CAIeRO has been a key tool that has enabled us to redesign our modules to Active Blended Learning (ABL). At the time of writing this, 97% of our modules have been designed following the principles of ABL.

The question that arises is this: does the team-based (re-)design exercise predicated by these approaches translate into student-centred, collaborative teaching practice? Academic teams may have completed thorough and arguably successful design or redesign processes, but when it comes to “making it count” for the student, teaching practices may not always reflect the core principles agreed during the design phase. In other words, in Northampton’s case, despite the team’s best efforts during a CAIeRO workshop, some colleagues may not capitalise on the benefits of this design in terms of their teaching practice, rendering that effort of limited value for the students.

Our Twitter #LTHEChat on Wednesday 20th June from 20:00 to 21:00 hs BST will invite participants to reflect on six key questions focusing on the interface between course design and teaching practice, how to address the gaps between the two and what getting this right means for students and staff.

 

Prof Alejandro (Ale) Armellini
Dean of Learning and Teaching
University of Northampton
@alejandroa

 

CAIeRO research report 2018

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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

Background

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.

Collaboration
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
@alejandroa

Vieluf, S., Kaplan, D., Klieeme, E. & Bayer, S. (2012). Teaching Practices and Pedagogical Innovation: Evidence from TALIS. OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264123540-en

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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
Arts
MA Dance
MA Media & Journalism
MA Design
Education
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
Health
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
Director
Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

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