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Blended Learning here to stay after pandemic says VP

We sat down (virtually) with Vice-Principal Stephanie Marshall to discuss QM’s response to the Coronavirus.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Print, Vice-Principal of Education Stephanie Marshall has confirmed that blended learning will continue after the pandemic in a move to modernise teaching at Queen Mary.

Due to the virus, most students are currently receiving the majority of their tuition online, but the University will permanently keep blended learning in some form to ‘uplift’ its educational offer.

Speaking over Microsoft Teams, Professor Marshall said: “Blended learning forms part of the University’s 2030 strategy as a more engaging, relevant way to learn; the pandemic has simply accelerated the online part. Employers want students who can hit the ground running, particularly with regards to the technological advances in society at large.”

The Vice-Principal hailed the new style of education as “a golden thread by which students can achieve their learning outcomes” but stressed that campus should remain a central part of the university experience. “Will we ever go back to what traditional education was before? No. Will the feel of campus be more like it was? I sincerely hope so. I walk around Bancroft and pass rooms that usually have a real buzz in them; that isn’t there anymore. Being with colleagues and making friends is a key part of university and I think that has been tricky to achieve this year.”

She also expressed that feedback from staff and Student Union representatives had been largely positive.

“Teachers say there is far more enthusiasm, attendance and engagement in their classes because of quizzes, voting and a range of other tools they can use. Last year, I had constant complaints that Q-review was not being used as it should be, and students with disabilities and commuter students were asking for more dedicated online learning options so they could work from home. With blended we’re moving to something that will be a better balance for everyone.”

The amount of face-to-face learning is decided independently by academic schools, with varying levels for Humanities and Social Sciences, Science and Engineering, and Medicine and Dentistry. For instance, in-person labs for science-based subjects are going ahead, while for the humanities, all lectures and seminars are conducted online.

Professor Marshall highlighted that “All schools have said they have timetabled face-to-face activities, but many students aren’t showing up”. However, these activities usually take the form of optional help-sessions or advisor meetings, and students can complete their studies without ever stepping on campus.

The shift to blended learning has been met with complaints from some students and staff who feel the University should be doing more to assist students and encourage a return to normality.

Sophie Robson, a second-year History student, told The Print she was frustrated with the lack of support. “[The fact] that they’re not printing our work is a joke, considering the amount we pay. Some people don’t even have printers so their education will suffer.” The History Department responded “We cannot send out course packs for reasons of safety and staffing. However, if anyone has a learning disability, you can request them through the DDS.”

In a letter to The Times in September, Dr Lee Jones, Professor of Politics and International Relations at QMUL and 103 other academics from across the country called for a ‘return to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible’, citing the social and educational issues with online learning.

Speaking to The Print, Dr Jones said: “Teaching online clearly lacks the spontaneity and easy rapport of face-to-face. Students say they find it harder to concentrate and remain engaged. Attendance is not what it should be. My biggest worry is for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who lack decent internet access and quiet space at home needed to engage fully online.”

“Almost all the pedagogical research shows learning online depresses student attainment, especially for the most disadvantaged. It is not something most students prefer, nor is the pandemic some kind of wonderful opportunity to ‘accelerate the 2030 strategy’ for blended learning.”

The chairman of the education select committee Robert Halfon has called upon universities to consider ‘automatic discounts’ for students whose studies are forced online, but this was ruled out by the Vice-Principal.

“We won’t be discounting tuition because we think the value of a Queen Mary education is as good as any other Russell group or world-class university. We have invested millions and millions into our education this year to make sure we don’t short-change our students, and we will continue to do that as we ramp up what our blended learning offer is like.”

The university will also not be extending its grade discount policy from last year. “It was there as a safety net”, Professor Marshall explained. “We celebrate diversity and inclusivity, and we knew there would be some students who would have difficulties accessing the kit they needed to perform as well as they might have done. [This year] we will be reverting to ‘normal’, but I can assure you no student will be disadvantaged.”

Last year, students’ lowest marked 30 credits did not contribute towards their degree.

When pressed on how soon restrictions would be lifted, she said: “We will keep reviewing it – that is all we can do. What we can do in the face-to-face space is so contingent on government guidelines and also government guidelines abroad, as we have a number of overseas students who are restricted by their own countries.“

“We must keep pushing forward, but we’ve also got to put the safety and well-being of our students and staff first.“

Professor Marshall has since set out Queen Mary’s approach to blended learning in a blog post for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) think tank.

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