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Tutors See Potential in Blended Learning but Face Tech Challenges, Finds New Study

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The Covid pandemic brought significant changes to the education sector, compelling a shift from traditional face-to-face learning to online platforms. A recent study by Elizabeth Kaplunov, PhD at Study Group in the UK, explores the perspectives of tutors on the advantages and disadvantages of learning technology during the lockdown. This research provides valuable insights into how educators adapted to the rapid shift and their views on the efficacy of various digital tools used during this period. The findings were published in Psychreg Journal of Psychology.

The pandemic’s onset in early 2020 forced educational institutions worldwide to close their physical campuses, disrupting the learning process for millions of students. The shift to online learning required educators to swiftly adapt to new technologies and teaching methods. According to Kaplunov’s study, tools such as Microsoft Teams (MS Teams) and Zoom became essential for maintaining instructional continuity. These platforms were praised for their multifunctionality and ease of access, with tutors highlighting their ability to centralise necessary resources and facilitate communication.

Kaplunov comments on the necessity for adaptability during this period: “During the Covid pandemic, a lot of previously face-to-face learning has been moved online. This has meant that staff had to learn new tools for material delivery and adapt. Some staff members have found working online to be easy and convenient, whereas some have noted how the technological solutions available to them are not fit for purpose.”

The study highlights several benefits of using online learning technologies during the lockdown. Tutors reported that platforms like MS Teams and Zoom provided robust tools for interactive and collaborative learning. Features such as breakout rooms, virtual whiteboards, and chat functions enabled dynamic and engaging virtual classrooms. The ability to record sessions was particularly beneficial, allowing students to revisit lectures at their convenience, thus accommodating diverse learning paces and schedules.

Kaplunov’s study underscores this: “It appears that staff were using Zoom and MS Teams in online learning successfully, due to many options available and ease of use. At the same time, staff also found MS Teams and Zoom most difficult to use; for example, Zoom whiteboard was not simple to use and in MS Teams breakout rooms did not work well.”

Another significant advantage was the flexibility offered by online platforms. Tutors could tailor their teaching materials to meet varied student needs, ensuring that learning was inclusive and accessible. The use of interactive tools like Padlet and Flipgrid further enhanced student engagement by fostering an environment conducive to active participation and collaboration.

Despite the advantages, the transition to online learning was not without its challenges. One of the primary issues highlighted by tutors was the lack of technological proficiency among both staff and students. Many educators found themselves grappling with unfamiliar software, which sometimes led to suboptimal use of available tools. Additionally, weak internet connections often disrupted online classes, affecting the overall learning experience.

Kaplunov also pointed out, “The fact that in the present study staff mentioned that certain tools were not simple to use suggests that appropriate tools are needed – tools that work quickly and easily to make them accessible to students from different backgrounds.”

Privacy concerns also emerged as a significant challenge. The requirement for students to keep their cameras on during classes and the need to record sessions raised issues regarding consent and data security. Moreover, some tutors felt that online learning could not fully replicate the interactive and immersive nature of face-to-face instruction, potentially leading to lower student attainment and engagement.

With the easing of lockdown restrictions, educational institutions are increasingly adopting a blended learning approach, combining online and face-to-face instruction. This hybrid model aims to leverage the strengths of both formats, offering a more flexible and resilient educational framework. Kaplunov’s study indicates that most tutors are optimistic about the potential of blended learning, recognising its ability to cater to diverse student needs while maintaining the benefits of digital tools.

Kaplunov elaborates on the future of blended learning: “In terms of future blended learning, staff felt that Zoom and MS Teams were most appropriate, as well as mentioning interactive tools that are used in the centre already (Padlet, Wooclap, MS Forms) and Flipgrid) and potential new tools (Bulb or Pro version of Mentimeter).”

Tutors suggested several improvements to enhance the effectiveness of blended learning. These include integrating more interactive platforms such as Bulb and the pro version of Mentimeter, which could foster greater student involvement. Additionally, ensuring robust internet infrastructure and providing adequate training for both staff and students were identified as crucial steps towards a seamless transition to blended learning.

Kaplunov highlights the implications of these findings: “Implications: tutors seemed engaged in interactive aspects of technology, which shows that there is a potential of blended learning to be collaborative and engaging for students. Also, staff understood how important it is for technology to be accessible and simple to use for staff (some with low technological skills) and students with diverse needs and resources. This awareness should then lead to more learner-centred teaching and more flexible approaches to blended learning (as well as face-to-face teaching in the post-pandemic climate).”

Kaplunov notes the necessity for ongoing research: “In the future, a large-scale study across all of Study Groups centres in the UK should be conducted to confirm the present findings across different areas of internet connectivity and large numbers of staff. Additionally, staff should be asked in more detail about their views on not only technological but other challenges in the blended learning field (interviews should be used for summarising views of staff from different disciplines and levels of technological skills). Also, staff could be asked to reflect on what they thought blended learning would be like and what technological tools should be used, compared to what they actually used during blended learning. A final aspect that may be of interest is the transition from blended learning to face-to-face and how the fact that staff had to teach online and in a blended manner for two years affected their relationship to technology for teaching and their pedagogical approach.”

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