Do students really care about the modality of their learning? We asked some experts in Higher Ed  

As a sector, we have offered flexible study modes for students – on campus/in-person, online/distance, blended, hybrid/hyflex. But do students really care which mode they are learning? Are students modality agnostic? What do they really mean when they say they want flexible study modes? Does the mode impact students’ learning outcomes? We asked some key players in Higher Education.  

(Panelists Georgina Barratt-See (UTS), Emily Oquist (UTS), Lauren Downs (UTS student appearing on-screen), Simon Feros (ANU), and facilitator Anna Stack (UTS) in front of an audience discussing whether students care about the modality of their learning)

The LX.lab hosted an in-person panel and networking event at UTS on Thursday 18 May for the ASCILITE Special Interest Group TELedvisors to ask just this. Our knowledgeable panel provided a wealth of experience and perspective including, Emily Oquist, Head of Learning Design Post Graduate Learning Design, UTS, Simon Feros, Manager, Education Design Team, ANU, Lauren Downs, student Graduate Certificate Learning Design, UTS, and Georgina Barratt-See, U:PASS Manager, UTS. As colleagues from across Sydney and Canberra braved the cold, we gathered to meet each other, build connections and to hear some compelling arguments.  

Simon Feros, ANU 

“Generally no, students don’t care about the mode, BUT…”, a strong start and a bold statement. Simon talked us through some of the unique context at ANU (with most students having an on-campus living experience), but also highlighted the need for learning experiences to meet student expectations for what that design entails. Blended, he argued, is probably the future, but we as an industry and a sector need to ensure learning is actually designed for blended.  

Lauren Downs, UTS student 

Demonstrating the flexibility and affordances of hybrid learning, Lauren joined us over Zoom from Brisbane, giving some insight from her experience as a post graduate student, but also as an experienced teacher and parent. Lauren was adamant that modality matters, and that flexibility is key especially from an inclusion and diversity perspective. But, all the flexibility in the world doesn’t help a poor learning experience, and she made the point that good learning design trumps modality every time, but whatever the modality, human connection is the key. We are built for relationship.  

Emily Oquist, UTS 

Firmly supporting Lauren, Emily was also championed choice of modality for students. She cited our diverse student groups and the impacts of life and family responsibilities as well as the rising cost of living. Not surprisingly from the lead of a learning design team, Emily was also keen to highlight our roles as designers in meeting the emerging needs and demands of our students across their lifetimes. Her knockout blow was a list too long to present here of all the different terms for modality she could list in an afternoon, from hyflex to live and online, semi-synchronous and blended, Emily insisted what we really need is to agree on a meaningful shared terminology across the sector so that students can make informed decisions about how they want to learn. 

Georgina Barratt-See, UTS 

To round out the discussion, Georgina rebutted that yes, she agrees students care about their modality, but that we still need to insist on some face-to-face learning, especially when it comes to early-stage undergraduate students. Through rapid emergency remote teaching and the pandemic Georgina saw many lonely students disengaging, distracted (though weren’t we all!), and with vulnerable mental health states. Some things are just really difficult to learn online (such as learning to pipette over video) and it is easy to miss some students entirely.   

From the audience 

Following our thought provoking and generous contributions from the panel the audience posed some questions of their own, where we discussed hybrid delivery, incorporating mature aged students in undergraduate courses, and a call to strip it all back to revised blended learning – aligning an appropriate mix of modes.  

So, what’s next? 

We touched on Tim Fawns’ recent blog post, Entangled pedagogy: why does it matter to educational design? argues that “educational outcomes are not caused by the kinds of methods or technology used, nor by whether teaching is online, on campus, blended or hybrid. Rather, they are contingent on the interplay between a range of factors (Fawns, 2022).” We asked ourselves if we are actually too late to think of any kind of learning separated from technology and blended approaches? Particularly post-remote teaching, we see more and more blended learning, but I think we tend to also see the value in the coming together and the benefit in certain activities still occurring in physical space. Whatever the mode though, we all agreed that learning design is critical in providing a rewarding and stimulating student experience.  

We certainly believe that some things are better in person and so we also have another TELedvisors Sydney networking event planned very soon looking at GenerativeAI and its intersection with accessible practices. Keep an eye out for details and we hope to see you there. 

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