Blended learning partnerships for international education in post-pandemic universities

Li Yuan and Stephen Powell

The sudden transformation from the traditional face to face campus-based education to online distance education, due to COVID-19, has forced Higher Education Institutions (HEI) worldwide to rethink the existing operational models more than ever before. Most universities have adopted a ‘hybrid/blended’ model, combining remote/online teaching and small group face-to-face teaching on campuses as their response to the disruption caused by the pandemic. Inevitably, universities are facing significant financial challenges in terms of the loss of revenue from international students; in particular students from China. There is an opportunity for universities to take advantage of digital technology and online learning and explore new models and approaches to deliver their on-campus programmes in a more flexible, effective and efficient way in a post pandemic world.

This blog post explores some of the context described above and then shares an approach, which that has been developed over the past 10 years and whicht has enabled University partnerships between the UK and China to continue throughout the disruption caused by the pandemic through a Collaborative Blended Learning Partnership.

Some background – we have been here before…

Arguably, digital technology has been the key driver in education transformation and teaching and learning innovation over the past three decades, from the introduction of personal computers and the Internet, to the development of the open access movement for educational resources, and more recently, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). There is growing interest in how to improve the quality of face-to-face and online provision using technology, and to how to open up access to higher education for underserved groups of students. For example, the UK Open Educational Resources programmes have made a significant amount of new and existing teaching and learning resources freely available worldwide, with copyright licences that promote their use, reuse and repurposing. However, a criticism of OERs is that they have not yet affected traditional business models or daily teaching practices at most institutions. MOOCs promised to expand access to a high-quality university education at scale and transform higher education worldwide. It is argued in articles (here & here) that MOOC platforms have failed in their promise to disrupt universities, but have instead had a more incremental impact by helping colleges and universities to move programmes online. Doug Lederman pointed out that many new educational technology innovations, in this case MOOCs, are rarely disruptive but instead are domesticated by existing cultures and systems. A common complaint in HE is that academics are resistant to change and that institutions adopt technology too slowly. Many educational technology and online learning innovations are implemented as project-based experiments with a few innovators or early adopters at universities, but with little take up at scale or rolling out to the mainstream.

Large scale remote and online learning experiment

In response to Covid-19, universities around the world had to close campuses to students and move to remote teaching and online learning. The changes took place very quickly, with little time for planning and preparation, and with limited organisational and technical resources and support. It posed many challenges to HEI, their staff and students, in terms of provision of effective learning platforms, the development of appropriate instructional designs, and the skills and capabilities of teaching staff and their students to teach and learn in this new way. In a survey conducted in 2019 by the Irish National Forum, 70% of the academics indicated that they have no online teaching experience. This may be extrapolated to many other higher education systems and the Jisc Digital Insights Survey (2019) supports this picture of inconsistent support and take up of TEL, albeit with a considerable base of staff enthusiasm for it. It is remarkable how remote teaching and online learning have been adopted by academics at a greater speed and pace than we have ever before experienced.

We are now moving beyond the initial response, and for the new academic year (2020-21) social distancing restrictions are compelling universities to further develop their online, blended learning approaches (Times Higher Survey of HEI). In this global remote/online teaching and learning experiment, OERs and MOOCs have played important roles in supporting online teaching and learning in many countries. For example, to overcome the problem of limited time to prepare online learning content and online courses, Chinese universities have provided training for teachers to reuse and repurpose OERs published by the Ministry of Education and available in other national and international repositories. The Chinese MOOC platform xuetangX has provided 1600+ free credit-eligible courses for universities. Blended or hybrid learning models, flipped learning approaches, asynchronous or synchronous learning, social learning and mobile learning and various technology-enabled pedagogical approaches have been used and explored to improve the quality of teaching and learning remotely. Institutions have had to reorganise their teaching and learning activities on campuses following the social distance regulations and explore innovative ideas to deliver their programmes and support and help academics to find new ways of engaging their ‘new’ online learners. It is hard to predict how online and blended learning will transform university teaching and learning after Covid-19, but previous educational crises, where technologies have been often used as “the solution”, may offer some useful insights .

Impact on international education

According to UNESCO, there were over 5.3 million international students in 2017, suggesting that the potential disruption to international education globally caused by COVID-19 is and will be of a magnitude unseen before, where students either cannot or will not leave their home country due to health concerns. There is no question that the internationalisation of education will continue, but institutions will need different approaches and models to reach international students that engage them with their learning through a dramatic and changing set of circumstances. The existing Transnational Education (TNE) activities, such as overseas campuses, joint and dual degree programmes, double awards and ‘fly-in’ faculty will seriously curtailed due to the travel constraints imposed. Universities need to design and deliver affordable, flexible and effective international education programmes through online or blended provisions. One of the options for intuitions is to reuse and develop open online courses and MOOCs to promote and market their higher degree programmes and recruit new students who are better prepared to study on-campus in the UK, or through fully online degrees without leaving their own countries. In this way, universities could offer a low-cost, flexible alternative for those ‘glocal‘ students, who choose to study in universities in their home countries but also gain an international experience (something that is highly valued) through studying courses online that are integrated into their own university curriculum. Arguably, therefore, it is a priority that universities re-visit their online learning strategies and international education in the current crisis and post pandemic world.

Collaborative blended learning partnership

The failure of UKeU provides valuable insight in developing and delivering international online programmes. Lessons learned include insufficient market research, lack of a demand-led approach and failure to form effective partnerships. In the last decades, there has been a growing emphasis on developing partnerships for international education among institutions in order to address the internationalisation agenda, both in enriching the student and staff experience and from an income generation perspective. However, due to differences in scale and governance structures, aligning two separate institutions is a significant undertaking even under normal circumstances, never mind in the current crisis. In the last 10 years, the UK government and universities have invested in the development of open educational resources and MOOCs but there has perhaps been disappointment with the outcomes. Content driven courses are often inadequate for successful learning, especially where new concepts have to be grasped. Preparing and providing courses free of charge with no return is a crucial sustainability concern. Through our work at Cetis, we have helped UK universities to address the financial, technical and pedagogical challenges in developing and delivery international education through digital technology. This collaborative blended learning partnership model has been developed and tested with academics and universities in the UK and China. as discussed by Yuan and Powell in this paper. The key features of the support are:

●      A China-based platform – to make UK MOOCs/Open Courses easier to find and more accessible through adaptation to the local context;

●  Services have been offered to broker partnerships between UK institutions and Chinese institutions, who in turn want to offer an affordable international educational experience for their students by integrating open online UK courses into their programmes, and for UK institutions to expand their markets in China; and

●  A collaborative blended delivery model has been developed to create an interactive, responsive and pedagogically effective online and face-to-face experience linking UK academics with students using conferencing software. Students study online content provided by UK academics and guided by their own lectures as an integral part of their own curriculum.

Over the past six years, more than 20 courses in different subjects, including Computer Science, Physical Chemistry and Educational Technology have been delivered through these partnerships. They were delivered online in collaboration with Chinese universities by academics from the University of Manchester, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Southampton and the University of Glasgow. Over 10,000 students from Beijing Normal University, HuaZhong University of Science and Technology and Central China Normal University studied these courses, supported online by UK academics. Many reported benefits from this international collaboration with Chinese learners accessing the open courses (or MOOCs) produced by UK academics on the Wolearn platform.

During the COVID 19, the collaborative blended learning courses have continued to run during campus closures and academics and students have become very familiar with the blended learning approach, technologies and online engagement through various social media and tools.

Final thoughts

The generally slow pace of change in academic institutions globally is a drag on technology adoption with content-based approaches continuing to dominate classroom teaching and learning practices – despite the proof-of-concept successes of blended learning/hybrid model as Cetis and Wolearn. However, COVID-19 has become a catalyst for educational institutions worldwide to search for innovative solutions in a relatively short period of time.

With universities moving courses online in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the rapid transformation to remote teaching and online learning may help establish a ‘new normal’ in the post-pandemic era for the HE sector. Blended learning, which combines online learning with traditional classroom methods, a hybrid model, is expected to witness dramatic increased usage at many universities around the world.

For international education to move effectively to a blended model involving both online and physical campuses, it is not just teaching approaches that need to be considered and met but also financial, technical and pedagogical challenges that need to be addressed in order to provide high quality and flexible learning solutions that are sustainable.

Post-pandemic collaboration between universities is required more than ever before in order to provide more accessible and flexible international education. There is a need to develop partnerships between institutions in different countries, to share content and resources and to connect classrooms and curricula in new and creative ways.  In meaningful partnerships, institutions have the potential to achieve their own international education agenda and provide better support to “glocal” students through this hybrid learning model across institutions.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Li Yuan is a Professor at the College of Education for the Future, Beijing Normal University (BNU), China, having over 15 years experiences in educational technology research and supporting online learning innovation in Higher Education institutions. She has worked at the Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards (CETIS) to provide strategic advice and technical support for JISC funded e-learning programmes at UK universities. As a senior researcher, working in a number of large EU-funded technology enhanced learning projects, she has investigated the role of technology and innovative approaches in education. She has set up a China-based open online learning platform (Wolearn) to facilitate UK universities and academics to explore new models of online and blended learning for international education through effective use of digital technology.

Stephen Powell is Associate Head of the University Teaching Academy (UTA) at Manchester Metropolitan University, England, having worked in education for over 25 years, initially as a teacher in the compulsory school sector, and then in Higher Education (HE). He has particular experience in applying systems thinking to curriculum design and development of online distance learning.

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