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Providing a world-class university education to more than 40,000 students has never been simple. This year, that challenge has of course taken on the extra complication of adapting life on campus to meet both the needs of our students and complex coronavirus prevention precautions.

A student in a lecture with his laptopSocial distancing means packed lecture theatres are, for now, a thing of the past. However, the University decided early on that it was important to still offer students as much of the Edinburgh experience as possible. That meant trying to do something more than moving all teaching online.

Hybrid teaching – a blend of digital and on-campus elements – is the result. Teaching that would have previously been delivered face-to-face to a large group of students can be delivered to a small group in the room and to a wider audience online. Students who are able to do so, can also come together in limited numbers on campus for seminar and tutorial style teaching and small group work.

Dave Laurenson is Assistant Director of Learning and Teaching at the University’s School of Engineering. Leading up to the new year, he was involved in planning the School’s transition to the hybrid model and, now that teaching has started, is one of the academic team delivering hybrid courses to students.“We have designed our teaching so that it works for students who are able to be on campus, as well as those joining digitally from different time zones,” he said. “In my class I have students who are in time zones eight hours ahead of the UK, and those who are eight hours behind! It was a conscious decision to ensure that students could access course content asynchronously – in a way not dictated by our working hours.”

Preparing for hybrid

Behind the scenes, extensive work took place across the University to prepare for the new academic year and rapidly transfer hundreds of courses from wholly face-to-face teaching to the hybrid model.

Professor Conchúr Ó Brádaigh, Head of the School of Engineering, explained: “Our preparations for hybrid teaching over the summer united staff from across the School and University in a huge and complex behind-the-scenes effort. From the academics and researchers preparing course materials, to buildings and technical teams ensuring all spaces on campus are safe to return to, to the IT, learning technology and timetabling teams supporting our new digital teaching infrastructure, and the teaching support and administrative staff who underpin all of this. I am extremely proud of what we have achieved together.”

The sign outside the Sanderson BuildingThere have been challenges and it remains early days but in Engineering, Dave has already seen unexpected benefits.

“Significant work is required to prepare course material in advance,” he explains. “However, it has sharpened my focus on the key content that I want my students to learn.

“It has also encouraged me to critically rethink how best to deliver that material – whether through video, a software-based experiment, or some other means. The reward for preparing in advance is that the dedicated time I have with students can be used to dig deeper into course topics, provoke more discussion and reflection, and answer their queries. Students have engaged very well with the new format so far, and are asking stimulating questions about the material.”

Dave’s students are still adjusting to the new system and adapting to the disruption to on-campus teaching. Jedidia Solomon Jesse, a second year BEng Electronics & Electrical Engineering student, said: “The pandemic hit us on global level and with it came heightened uncertainty about the future. Prior to the beginning of the semester, I was apprehensive about how my studies and schedule were going to be affected and sceptical about the new system that would combine in-person and online learning.

“Having experienced the hybrid system for a couple of weeks, I think it presents a unique set of challenges and advantages. The self-paced learning, though a challenge in itself, has made me feel I have taken ownership of my learning. That I dictate my learning speed and times has made me feel closer to my degree as a personal goal.”

Flipping the classroom

A key consideration for the team planning the School’s transition to hybrid teaching was ensuring that digital elements encouraged interaction between classmates, and with the lecturer. The idea of the ‘flipped classroom’ became central to this – requiring students to study material in advance of scheduled sessions. Dave says this is proving effective but requires an adjustment on the part of the student too.

“The flipped-classroom model turns sessions into opportunities for students to discuss and ask questions, rather than have material ‘delivered’ to them. This requirement for prior self-study is vitally important for this approach to work well. We anticipated that students may need additional support as they get to grips with this, so the School is producing detailed guides for each course to steer students through the material they need to cover and help them to manage their own time.

“Instead of sticking to the traditional long lecture format, we are also dividing our content into smaller sections delivered by shorter videos, exercises, written text, quizzes etc. It’s all designed to be more flexible and accessible for self-study.”

Dave believes the hybrid model is giving his students the freedom to choose from a wider selection of option courses and tailor their degrees in an unprecedented way: “I’ve noticed one enormous benefit of the new format ­– flexibility of choice. Previously we’ve always had to say ‘you can select anything, as long as the course timetables don’t clash’. Now that we are delivering courses asynchronously, and providing repeat slots for hybrid seminars, students no longer have those timetable constraints. This opens up an enormous range of possibilities and my own students have been exploiting this flexibility to the full.”

Now that we are delivering courses asynchronously, and providing repeat slots for hybrid seminars, students no longer have those timetable constraints. This opens up an enormous range of possibilities and my own students have been exploiting this flexibility to the full.

Dave Laurenson, Assistant Director of Learning and Teaching at the University’s School of Engineering

While the transition to the hybrid model has been driven by necessity, Dave thinks the change has brought long-term benefits to his delivery of teaching: “Although it is very early days, there are significant opportunities to be exploited in using this new format.

“Having a mixture of students attending on-campus and digitally, has been brilliant. I felt a real sense that those joining from different locations around the world were engaged every bit as much as those in the room. This has created even more valuable student interaction than I’ve had in the past. Because the group size is modest, students feel freer to ask what they wish, and it gives me greater opportunity to highlight the key concepts in an effective way.

“So far, I have enjoyed it so much, it will make me rethink returning to delivering conventional lectures in the future. For me, my time is much better spent interacting with students and deepening their understanding than delivering lectures which begin with the same old jokes year after year!”

The student perspective

Kate McCrae is studying BEng Electrical & Electronic Engineering. As a second-year student, she has experienced both the on-campus teaching last year and the new hybrid teaching model. As a disabled student, Kate believes hybrid is an improvement.

“Hybrid learning has been a really, really good experience for me. Most subjects seem organised and although there have been teething problems, there’s always communication about what’s gone wrong.

“If I can’t attend a seminar in person, it doesn’t mean I’m isolated from the rest of my class,” she says. “There are ways for me to interact with my peers digitally and some of my friends in vulnerable groups can still shield, but learn and interact with their classes. From talks with them, this progression to digital learning has been fantastic.

“I have more flexibility in my schedule now, which is invaluable with my disability. I can learn in the way I want and need to and a lot of other people I’ve talked to agree. When I do attend in person, the buildings are well labelled and clean. There are a lot of good resources sent from the School describing what to expect. People wear masks until they sit down, and are socially distanced. There are also cleaning supplies for us to use so it’s easy to keep things clean.

“I think our lecturers actually have more time to answer our questions now. It seems that people feel a lot more comfortable asking questions in a virtual chat. It leads to some good discussion, and clarification – lecturers are not just reading from slides, there’s a lot more engagement from all sides.

“There are some things I wish could be improved and I have many privileges that others do not like a stable internet connection, a safe, warm, private and quiet study space, and my own computer equipment. I can see that without them, hybrid learning can be very hard, if not next to impossible.

“Although hybrid learning can be very difficult, and it’s new to us all, it’s pushed accessibility in the University in the right direction. It would be really good if it carried on and we could still interact from home. There are ways this has changed learning for the better and I hope it will have a lasting effect for teaching in the future.”

Do you have an experience you’d like to share? Let us know at bulletin@ed.ac.uk. You can read more features about how our staff and students have transitioned to the new hybrid learning and teaching approach here