Using Learn for hybrid teaching and learning – perspectives from staff and students
Staff and students were interviewed about their experiences of using Learn to support hybrid teaching and learning. The detail they provided helped build a rich picture of the hybrid environment – encompassing the practicalities and nuances of the new context.
Learn Foundations aims to ensure Learn provides the best possible user experience for staff and students. Driven by a service design approach, it recognises that to run Learn as a good service, the needs and perspectives of all who use and operate Learn need to be understood and considered. To this aim, we interviewed staff and students about using Learn for hybrid teaching and learning. Data obtained from these interviews complemented data from other pieces of research like usability testing and quantitative studies such as a top tasks surveys and a card sorting activity.
You can read more about these research areas and the results in these blog posts:
Staff from the Schools of Biological Sciences and Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences and students from the School of Biological Sciences and the Deanery of Molecular, Genetic and Population Health Sciences were interviewed about their experiences. Interviews were guided by topic maps designed to investigate the following areas:
- Context about the use of Learn for hybrid teaching/learning
- Course delivery hybrid/online
- Virtual classrooms/lectures
- Course materials/structure/organisation
- Course community/interaction with others
Interviews were carried out on Teams, and the recordings were transcribed by Learn Foundations student interns. Analysis was done collaboratively – Learning Technology Support Officers worked together with the User Experience and Digital Consultancy team to analyse the transcripts to identify themes.
Themes from the interviews
Staff and students’ descriptions of their experiences highlighted varied aspects about the hybrid context and provided a lens into how Learn was being used to support hybrid teaching and learning. The main insights that emerged from the interviews are summarised below.
Students appreciated courses where the content was clearly structured, but wanted uniformity
Staff spoke about arranging course materials in a week-by-week or topic-based way to facilitate students finding items easily. Despite this, students still said they struggled to find things within Learn. Several students described using the left-hand menu as a starting point when they were looking for things. One student felt the left-hand menu could contain current updates – for example an alert to tell them if they were missing a live session and if there was a pre-recorded alternative.
It’s just nicer if things are structured consistently…sometimes I feel like I wish all courses did arrange their folders and things in the same way.
Staff made creative use of previously under-used aspects of Learn to support teaching activities
The top tasks survey results showed that, compared to before Covid-19, staff were prioritising different things in the hybrid context. This was an indicator that staff were working in new ways and staff spoke about some of the adaptations they had made in the interviews. They described use of features like discussion boards or forums and portfolios as well as integrations with other platforms including Pebble Pad, Piazza, Padlet and Miro.
… if I was in person, I probably wouldn’t have used any of the technology. I know you can do these kinds of things in Learn, but I just wasn’t sure how to do it.
– Staff member
Several innovative uses of Learn were described by staff, particularly where there was a need to substitute face-to-face practicals with activities that students could complete online, with the option to work asynchronously. One staff member described an exercise to build students’ research skills which involved students being given datasheets and photographs of lab results to analyse and plan the next steps, which were then executed by lab staff acting on their behalf as ‘lab robots’. Another described asking students to create storyboards to describe how they would run practical experiments.
I think that [activity] made them [students] actually understand a lot more about what they would do … compared to when they actually do come to the labs because … [then] they are feverishly looking through the protocol, working out what they need to do next.
– Staff member
Staff and students reported varying levels of success with discussion boards
Different uses of discussion boards or forums were described by several staff and students. One staff member said they had tried them but felt they didn’t gather any momentum. Another described them as ‘impersonal’ – they felt they lacked human presence to guide and reward participation. Posting questions on these boards to ‘seed’ discussions ahead of a live session was one strategy used by tutors which was reported to have been successful.
Students explained how they had used discussion boards as an alternative to email to ask staff questions, and to post and share questions ahead of Q&A sessions. One student thought the boards had helped reduce feelings of isolation, and another had become so used to them they were surprised not to find them across all their courses and commented that they could be easier to find.
… the discussion forum, I think it’s really easy to miss because of the way it’s designed
Group work was achieved with various approaches, with the potential for asynchronous work
Staff outlined different set-ups they had used to facilitate group work. One staff member had used Teams to set up ad hoc groups because they hadn’t been able to use Collaborate to successfully move students from a large session into groups and then back again. Another described the challenges of arranging tutorials with group members in different time zones and how this had led to using recordings and facilitating asynchronous activities. Several students said they had used Whatsapp to keep in touch with group classmates instead of using platforms within Learn.
… Working digitally … kind of decoupled the timetable a bit – there were things that students could do … certain things they could do anytime
– Staff member
Keeping students engaged while not overwhelming them was a fine balance
Staff spoke of their awareness of the need to foster a sense of community between students to compensate for the reduced opportunities for in-person interaction. Several spoke of arranging lots of interactive activities such as polls, quizzes, etc. as well as lectures and tutorials, but then scaling these back to avoid students becoming overwhelmed. Several students said they appreciated Schools keeping in contact with them and being on hand to answer questions, but others indicated they were unclear which of the activities available were compulsory or optional.
… a big assumption of the planning was that we are concerned about engagement … we need to keep them busy … and this means we need to have students doing something all the time and that turned out not to be the case
– Staff member
Students described varied preferences around accessing and using recorded lectures
All staff spoke of preparing recorded lectures in small chunks, following models of good practice for online teaching. It was acknowledged, however, that while shorter recorded lectures were easier to digest than longer ones, this arrangement resulted in more content for students to find and consume within Learn. It therefore became important to label lecture recordings thoughtfully so students knew what was contained in each, and the order to play them in. A student compared their experience of playing lecture videos which had been specially recorded in short parts versus those which had been recorded as a single long lecture and then divided, saying they preferred the former approach. Another student appreciated being able to change the speed of video playback and was disappointed when this feature was not consistently available.
… having so many videos that all belong to the same lecture…that’s when it gets confusing for me
Technical set-up and types of activity affected the degree of student engagement
Staff and students both spoke of the difficulty of engaging with others online if cameras and audio were not used. One staff member highlighted their concern that, as a result of students keeping their cameras off, they couldn’t pick up on social cues they normally looked for to understand if students were struggling. Staff and students both described ways they had tried to increase engagement – students had turned their own cameras on hoping others would follow suit, and staff had found the ‘Whiteboard’ feature in Collaborate was a good tool to encourage engagement because it afforded anonymity.
… this is my problem with tutorials . Most people don’t turn their cameras on. And I feel really frustrated for the other people in the group and the tutor. Lately I’ve just been turning my video on..because I know that talking to a black screen the whole day is a bit sad
As anticipated, the interviews revealed details of the ways in which staff and students were using Learn for hybrid teaching and learning, which helped make sense of the quantitative data collected as part of the latest phase of research.
Where the students’ top tasks survey revealed that lecture recordings remained a priority for students, the interviews revealed the different approaches staff were taking to create and arrange recorded lectures as well as students’ reactions to them and how they were using them. Similarly where results of the top tasks survey completed by staff revealed that staff priorities had changed in the shift to hybrid, staff interviews offered insights into changes made to adapt to the new context, including new tools, activities and platforms staff were using to deliver teaching.
The increased amounts of recorded course material, together with the need to use new and previously under-used platforms, tools and features meant there was more content to arrange within Learn. This had presented challenges to ensure there was consistency between courses within Learn to help students navigate it more easily.
With fewer opportunities for staff and students to interact in person, there was increased reliance on Learn as somewhere to build community and engagement. Staff and students both noted that engagement hadn’t been as natural as it had been pre-Covid-19, and it was clear that it had become necessary to manage and plan engagement opportunities within Learn, which hadn’t been the case in the pre-hybrid context.
The staff and student interviews represented a powerful lens into the practicalities and realities of hybrid teaching and learning, at a time when the pandemic imposed many restrictions on face-to-face activities. As the shape of hybrid teaching and learning continues to evolve in response to the pandemic, the findings will be used to shape the future work of the Learn Foundations project in ways appropriate to the changing circumstances.