Blended learning enhances inclusion, but social interaction remains key to a positive college experience

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To Times Higher Education webinar, hosted in partnership with Salesforce.org, Maëlle Lavenant, Salesforce.org Senior Product Marketing Manager for Higher Education, shared early insights from the third edition of the Connected Student Report.

Qualitative interviews conducted as part of the research revealed that rebuilding the student community was “the number one priority” for institutions.

Kai Peters, professional vice-chancellor for business and law at Coventry University, told the panel that during the pandemic students have complained about their fees. “But the education was the same, it’s all the extra social elements that are gone,” he said.

Coventry University has since abolished traditional lectures and has students work in small groups to provide “genuine and meaningful engagement,” Peters explained.

Louise Naylor, director of education at the University of Kent, mentioned reports of increased loneliness among students. Its staff now integrate social interaction into the curriculum, with opportunities for group work and peer-to-peer interaction a priority.

Support for students has also diversified, but this has led to the need for more resources and training, the panel agreed. Sarah Sweeney, head of student support and wellbeing at Lancaster University, said offering online counseling has increased uptake.

“There is a skills challenge for some of our employees to transition their in-person activities into the online arena,” Sweeny said. “What you don’t want is for the online experience and online support to be inferior to the in-person offering.”

The panel heard how staff training and access to technology are essential for hybrid models to work. Hybrid models should be used selectively, Naylor warned. “It can work, but no particular audience gets the most out of it,” she said. “It’s hard for the teacher, the people in the room and the people online.”

Quality for All was a priority for the panel, who discussed plans to develop inclusiveness in their institutions. Rather than adapting to individual needs, programs should be redesigned to be naturally inclusive, Sweeney suggested.

Inclusion must also take into account the availability of technology and broadband access. “We’ve had to donate or loan handheld laptops during the pandemic,” Peters said. “We had over 1,000 students who were just technologically poor.”

A low-bandwidth commitment should also be prioritized, Peters added, distinguishing between an academic’s home office and a student without a workspace, sharing bandwidth with others at home.

Early findings from the report also highlighted employability as a major concern for students. Jacqueline McCormack, vice president of EDI and online development at Atlantic Technological University (ATU), said her institution had developed work-based learning courses that allow students to be integrated into the workplace and study part-time online.

Technology has enabled easier connections between employers and students, Naylor said, explaining that the Kent business school had benefited from short digital walk-in sessions with industry leaders.

Peters told the panel that Coventry University has improved its employability offering by centralizing its resources and using its staff to develop relevant MOOCs.

Similarly, McCormack said the ATU plans to offer “a range of micro-certificates” to make learning skills demanded by employers “as accessible and flexible as possible.”

The panel:

  • Alistair Lawrence, Special Projects Editor, Times Higher Education (Chair)
  • Maëlle Lavenant, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Higher Education, Salesforce.org
  • Jacqueline McCormack, Vice President of EDI and Online Development, Atlantic Technological University
  • Louise Naylor, Director of Education, University of Kent
  • Sarah Sweeney, Student Support and Welfare Manager, Lancaster University
  • Kai Peters, Professional Vice-Chancellor for Business and Law, Coventry University

Watch the on-demand webinar above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

Learn more about Salesforce.org.


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