Stephanie McKendry and Vic Boyd, The conflicting priorities of blended and inclusive learning development support in a widening participation institution.
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9 January 2012
To be presented at the Widening Participation Conference 2012 'Discourses of Inclusion in Higher Education', 24-25 April 2012
The conflicting priorities of blended and inclusive learning development support in a widening participation institution. Or, can you replace a successful campus-based pre-entry programme with a virtual version?
Stephanie McKendry and Vic Boyd
Over several years at a widening-participation institution, a successful pre-entry programme was developed to provide a diverse body of nursing students with the academic skills necessary for HE transition. Restructuring and financial constraints led to the cancellation of the programme in 2011. This paper will report on research that aimed to evaluate the campus-based initiative and investigate the potential in developing an online/blended alternative.
As well as conducting interviews with participants and academic staff, a web-based learning development and peer-support blog was published and evaluated. Designed to provide support to new students undertaking clinical placements and completing assessments, the project was considered a ‘pilot’ for the provision of online academic skills support. The findings of both strongly suggest that opportunities to replace campus activities with blended versions are limited and, indeed, anathema to certain learners. Thus, inclusivity may be threatened and diversity potentially curtailed within the discourse of blended learning.
Interview with the authors
The research paper you are presenting is titled ‘The conflicting priorities of blended and inclusive learning development support in a widening participation institution. Or, can you replace a successful campus-based pre-entry programme with a virtual version?’. I’m interested in learning why you chose to pursue this piece of research: Why these issues in particular?
In the tradition of action research, these issues came to my attention, and seemed worthy of detailed investigation, because they were pressing within my professional life. Alongside colleagues, I had been involved with pre-entry support for a number of years but it was becoming clear that it was unlikely to continue in its current form. We felt, and knew anecdotally, that the support was necessary and successful but had not had the time to conduct more than cursory evaluation during the pre-entry weeks.
It seemed imperative that we should gather data to find out if pre-entry support was effective and, if it had to change, how we could maintain the strongest elements of it, perhaps by harnessing technologies. We genuinely wanted to know what worked, what didn’t, how we could change and improve our support but we also wanted to defend the principles under which we worked and the provision of support to widening participation students. Our institution had traditionally been heavily involved in the local community but, given changes to student applications and funding, was beginning to emphasise international student recruitment and blended learning.
I was undertaking the final module of my PgCert in Learning and Teaching and was required to undertake a piece of action research that could inform my future practice, so it seemed an ideal opportunity to evaluate pre-entry support and the possibility of online alternatives.
That’s great thanks. And what do you think are the key findings of your work? Was there anything you found particularly surprising?
There are a few separate findings I think:
- The research appeared to validate theories suggesting that students can have unclear expectations of university and the learning, teaching and assessment practices they will encounter there. It reinforced the need for support as students develop independent learning and academic writing skills.
- For those research participants who attended, an online version could only supplement pre-entry support programmes. Several interviewees were adamant they would not have engaged with anything other than a face to face programme and did not like to learn in online or distance environments or use social networking for educational purposes. I found the strength of feeling about this quite surprising. There is potential to inadvertently disenfranchise sections of the student population (particularly during the pre-entry period) by prioritising online provision.
- The most surprising element of the research was just how important students’ feedback was to them. I was aware of the need to be considered and constructive, but several student interviewees were able to repeat, word for word, what we had written about their essays over a year ago. Their participation in pre-entry programmes had, according to them, had a significant impact on their confidence and academic abilities.
Where do you see this research and yourself heading in the future? Are there particular themes or strands of the work that you particularly want to follow up on?
The outcomes of the research should directly inform my practice as a lecturer. I’m involved in planning and developing summer and transition support for incoming students in the School of Health and Life Sciences over the next few years and will try to use the findings to shape those decisions and improve the support we offer.
The issue of student engagement with blended learning is likely to remain of significant interest to the HE community and in my own role and particular field of widening participation. I would hope to further explore the potential for technology enhanced learning in the pre-entry and transition stage as well as the value of traditional activities in preparing students for HE study. I also hope to do further work on the issue of the ‘digitally reluctant’ or ‘digitally disenfranchised’ – the students, or potential students, who are unable or disinclined to engage with technology for learning or socialisation in HE. It seems from this project that such a group exists but I’m not sure I know much about who they are and what we should be doing for them. I’m concerned that the policy discourse of blended learning can sometimes assume a universal good in providing online versions of resources and initiatives, yet certain learners may be alienated by such an approach. I would like to continue to explore these themes, particularly with non-traditional and adult learners.
10:14 on 1 March 2012 (Edited 10:14 on 1 March 2012)