Universities use pandemic lessons to re-think curriculum and learning design

“We're still talking about blended learning - but the ingredients have moved on” says author of new Jisc report.

woman talking with students

Jisc’s new report, beyond blended, examines the impacts of the pandemic on the higher education (HE) sector and addresses them holistically. Building on the approaches to curriculum and learning design report, it aims to provide guidance around re-thinking curriculum and learning design – to both improve the learner experience and support institutions to be more resilient.

Between November 2022 and June 2023, the report authors, Helen Beetham and Sheila Macneill, engaged with Jisc’s curriculum and learning design advisory panel (a group of 21 experts from across the HE sector) and more than 700 participants to understand their responses to the pandemic and the impact on digital learning.

Key challenges for the HE sector

During the pandemic, the key issues faced by learners revolved around space, place, time and modes of participation, and ensuring they had the right mix of each to participate effectively.

Proactive investment in infrastructure, equipment, and staff training has led to organisations tackling these challenges and successfully integrating technology into teaching and learning more than ever before.

Sheila Macneill is an independent digital learning consultant and co-author of the beyond blended report. She notes:

“Pre-pandemic we found the focus of digital transformation was more around activities and resources. Design focused on tasks and sequencing, and organisational transformation was more around virtual learning environments (VLE’s).

“When we thought about how students and learners were using digital devices, it was really to access resources, to produce notes and maybe develop their skills in generic software.

“Now there's a greater focus on space design, how we plan workloads for staff and the different student journeys that can be taken. With online and blended learning now engrained in everyday activities, students have more control over how and when they access resources, and they are bringing their own spaces to the university through their digital devices. They're also using resources at different times and in different ways than we imagined. So, the focus on space, place, time and modes of participation is essential.”

Rethinking learning and curriculum design

The report further supports educators to communicate with students about the value of how, when and where they learn, and provide guidance where needed.

It also highlights the need for a shared vocabulary between curriculum design teams to improve communication.

Helen Beetham, researcher and consultant in digital education, and co-author of the report, writes:

“Many years ago, when we talked about blended learning the blend related to the mix of online materials with what was then called traditionals, for example, print based materials. We're still talking about the blend, but the ingredients of the blend have moved on.

“We're now talking about online versus in-place or online and in-place - really major alternatives available to curriculum designers and to students to help them decide how to participate more effectively.”

Six pillars of blended learning

The six pillars of blended learning outlined in the report have been developed through sector consultation to support educators throughout the curriculum design process, and to help learners navigate new ways of working.

  • Place – where are educators and students accessing learning? Does this effect how they interact with content?
  • Platform – what are the differences between in-place and online learning?
  • Pace – educators and students now have more flexibility to access learning at any time
  • Blend – most learning has in-place and online, synchronous and asynchronous elements
  • Flex – educators and students expect choice and flexibility in their chosen mode of learning
  • Support – educators and students need support to engage in diverse modes of learning, and to create the most effective blend

Helen Beetham continues:

“While place and platform were discussed at length during our workshops, I believe the way technology can change our relationship with time is profound.

“The ability to be responsive, or reflective, or something in-between, in your approach to learning, and how technology allows students to live more flexible lives is going to become a very live conversation.

"The blend, flex and support pillars help put a flexible focus on place, platform and pace. Support is a key part of the process. Asking students to create their own pathways through degree courses and modules, all while giving them a great amount of choice cannot happen without that support being in place.”

Sheila Macneill concludes:

“The pillars can be viewed in two ways, through a curriculum lens (aimed at a practitioner level) or a strategic lens (more suited to strategic decision makers or project leads).

“This approach is not intended to change everything; it's very much about building on the great practice that is already there, and we really hope people will add to the pillars with their own ideas.

“Pressures such as the climate and economic crises and the surge of interest in generative AI are adding to an already complicated picture for curriculum design, and these issues are likely to continue to grow and evolve.

“However, if the curriculum design process is robust, then there is already some flexibility built in which will support institutions to remain resilient and help students engage fully in contemporary society.”

Further information

Visit the Jisc website to access the full beyond blended report, or for more from Helen and Sheila, listen to the latest Beyond the Technology podcast.

Register to receive advance notice of the beyond blended web guide, including further detail on the strategic and curriculum lenses, due to be published autumn 2023.