Choosing appropriate learning activities for blended and digital learning

montage of words associated with blended and digital learningThe move to online delivery for the majority of our teaching means that we need to consider how best to support students’ learning, whether they are 'on campus' and having a blended learning experience, or are fully digital learners.

While this presents a considerable challenge in terms of logistics, including, and not least, staff workloading, there are also some positives: many aspects of good practice translate readily to online learning, with programme level approach’s concentration on the student experience, its conception of a 'whole programme' and its intention to streamline assessment being just three.

This guidance explores the types of learning activities you can select to best meet the needs of all your students.

For more in-depth guidance, you can also watch our video on Planning Activities For Digital Teaching

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The value of synchronous and asynchronous activities

While synchronous (set time) activities have the advantage of building a sense of community and belonging and of offering instant feedback, asynchronous (any time) activities are more flexible and familiar, with better accessibility. Asynchronous learning also supports a wider range of 'types'* of learning. The following table compares the four main learning environments we will be able to offer -with examples, and notes which types of learning are best supported.

Synchronous and offline

Examples

Face to face teaching: lectures, seminars, tutorials, lab work, practical work

Features

Less demanding, semi-flexible. Good social aspect and community building for those present, instant feedback for those present. Provides structure for students learning. Excludes those not present.

Main types of learning supported

acquire, collaborate, discuss, practice

Synchronous and online

Examples

Webinars, streaming, presenting, screen sharing, proctored or invigilated examinations, chat, Q&As, multiplayer games, quizzes, polls and group work, proctored or invigilated examinations

Features

Provides structure to student learning. Possible social aspect and community building for those present. Instant feedback for those present.
Most demanding of learner and teacher. Inflexible, accessibility issues (bandwidth and timing, difficult for students with English as a second language), least familiar.

Main types of learning supported

acquire, collaborate, discuss, practice

Asynchronous and offline

Examples

Independent study, project work, revision, reading, watching, listening, programming, writing, drawing, music / audio, rehearsing, building, creating, open-book assessments, downloads of synchronous sessions.

Features

Least demanding, most flexible, familiar, accessible.
Little social aspect.

Main types of learning supported

investigate, acquire, produce, practice.

Asynchronous and online

Examples

Research, searching, browsing, discussion forums, messaging, email, social media, online courses, independent study, project work, revision, reading, watching, listening, programming, writing, drawing, music / audio, building, creating, open-book assessments, recordings of synchronous sessions.

Features

Less demanding, semi-flexible, accessible.
Possible social aspect. Workload implication for staff (preparing and interacting)

Main types of learning supported

investigate, acquire, produce, practice.

Adapted from FutureLearn resources

*There is a longer list of learning activities based on the * ‘ABC’ types of learning: investigate, collaborate, discuss, acquire, produce, practice.

Top Tips
  • Consider the balance of learning environments that you choose between all four categories for your students.
  • Plan your teaching at module and session level, and work with others on your programme to streamline your offer.

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Alternatives to lectures

The immediate response to the pandemic of moving live lecture slots to Blackboard Collaborate sessions allowed us to provide emergency cover. While the occasional large group live session might be effective, it is neither the only, nor the best, solution to your students’ learning needs. Where contact time is limited, your students need interaction with staff and peers: using it to transmit information one way might not be the best use of that time.

Top Tips
  • Use timetabled/set time sessions to focus on interaction and active learning. See more about why in Building Community.
  • Deliver course content asynchronously:
    • Students like to hear the same information in a variety of ways so use screencasts and videos (preferably quite short, around 6 minutes). These can be ones you have made yourself or ones from other sources (e.g. TED talks, etc). See this example of a short video. You can also use articles/journals/papers, podcasts, audio files. As a last resort, re-use last year’s encore lecture.
  • Adopt a flipped learning approach:
    • Base your live session on pre-delivered content to promote interaction. Reinforce understanding and test learning by using online discussions, chats and quizzes. Collaborate offers a range of possible activities. Consider which activities will best help students achieve the learning aims.
  • Keep your student’s attention:
    • Provide a variety of activities that require students to do something other than listen. The chat function is a quick and useful tool that builds a sense of community and encourages peer learning. Introduce it to students with low-risk tasks: for example, get them to say hello, and gradually build up their confidence. Reassure them there is no such thing as a silly question!
  • Check-in with your students:
    • Use your synchronous time to make sure that students are OK, and ask for their feedback so you can do more of what is working well. Take time to get to know them. It’s useful to plan your communications with students.

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Chunking up learning

Chunking is a concept that originates from the field of cognitive psychology. It’s the idea that breaking up text and multimedia content into smaller chunks helps users to process, understand, and remember it better. It is common practice in online courses to consider the whole week’s work, and then, guided by the learning outcomes, break it into ‘content/test your learning pairings’ that are appropriate to the topic. You then plan a succession of these throughout the week. These activities are necessarily asynchronous, and complement the synchronous sessions dealt with in the previous section.

Top Tips
  • Provide a very clear structure and pathway through the content and tasks, so that students know where they are, where they need to go next, how much more there is to do and by when.
  • Create a ‘rhythm’ dictated by the content and its complexity - aim for a regular release of content and give a deadline for discussions for posts on discussion boards that allows all students (including those in other time zones) time to take part.
  • Set clear expectations about when you will respond and how. It is one aspect of building an online community.
  • Presentation and layout - use clear visual hierarchies with related items grouped together. Use subheadings to signal top-line messages. Write in short paragraphs, with white space to separate them. Use short lines of text (around 50–75 characters).
  • Make sure that the learning is adequately scaffolded. When students are given the support they need while learning something new, they stand a better chance of using that knowledge independently. Scaffolding is a process in which teachers model or demonstrate an approach (such as how to solve a problem) and then step back, offering support as needed.
  • Give students an estimated timing for how long each reading, video, presentation is, and guidance how long they should spend on any associated tasks. This article on how estimated read times increase engagement.
  • Clearly indicate to students what is ‘core’ and what is ‘extension’ material.
  • Review an example module outline from Arts & Humanities/Social Sciences, or a STEM subject.
Further Information


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Managing live sessions where some students are on campus and others are not (hybrid teaching)

For more information on hybrid teaching, visit this page.

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Activities that work well for remote learning

Many useful activities are mentioned earlier in this guidance. You will need to consider your own workload and timetable as you plan for blended and digital learning: it is likely that more time will be needed in both planning activities, and being available to moderate online discussions etc.

Not all students will have access to a strong internet connection and this may be an important factor in planning what you do, so you will need to find out about your own students. The table below shows the relative bandwidth demands of different online activities, with the highest on the top row, and lower ones below.

Tables showing different sorts of bandwidth

A blogpost on bandwidth immediacy gives more information.

Top Tips
  • Frequent interaction and activity maintains interest. Use several small tasks rather than one big one.
  • Offer feedback via audio and video as well as short summaries to give variety and personalise your comments.
  • Discussions boards maintain student engagement and help to build a sense of community as well as being a place to share ideas and ask questions. You can use discussion boards in several ways, but it is important to participate yourself. and reassure students that no question is ‘silly’. You can allow students to post anonymously, but this has pros and cons. Robert O'Toole from Warwick University explores anonymous posting more fully.
  • Quizzes are a great way to check understanding and knowledge and we have produced 6 tips for writing effective quizzes. Try to create questions that rely on higher order thinking skills, as opposed to recall of knowledge. Blackboard quizzes can include images, video, mathematical notation as well as text.
  • Simple quizzes can also be added to synchronous sessions via Blackboard Collaborate or Encore (polling slides).
  • Make your geographically dispersed audience a positive element of your sessions where relevant, by asking students to present or comment on something that is topical or relevant to where they are situated , to make learning relevant to them and share a diversity of experience.
  • Consider the marking criteria for assessed work, and for videos etc. and do not expect high technical standards if this is not a learning outcome. You will need to reassure students about this.
  • Tasks and assignments that work well for digital and blended learning:
    • Students record and narrate a short presentation (screencast) or produce podcasts
    • Students contribute to discussions throughout the module, and pick their “best 3” contributions to put into a portfolio (which can be mapped against learning outcomes)
    • Standard written assignments
    • Blog posts
    • Portfolios
    • Photos/infographics/posters
    • Students produce a short video
    • Create a website
    • The guidance on assessing online contains more information.

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Further information

Links and downloads