Any educational institution that wants to provide high quality education in the future will need to ensure that offline and online students receive a similarly rich experience.
Saïd Business School, which is part of the University of Oxford, is employing a range of techniques to deliver on this reality, The school has upgraded its classrooms and lecture theatres during the past two years to support an immersive experience that uses video-conferencing technology, screens and whiteboards to bring offline and online students together.
Saïd uses content platforms Canvas and Moodle and video-conferencing platform Zoom to support online education. The business school also works with third-party partners, such as GetSmarter, to deliver personalised content at scale to students around the globe.
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While the technology provides great support for either 100% online or face-to-face education, Bramwell says it can be a struggle to bridge both forms of provision simultaneously.
So, while the quality of online teaching has increased significantly during the past two years, there is still much work to be done to ensure that web-based lessons are at least somewhere close to the richness of experience in a physical classroom.
Making that shift, however, is critical. Universities must blend campus-based and online teaching because of increasing demand for lifelong learning from time-precious professionals.
While some elements of education will still take place on campus, many sessions will be provided online. More than half (51%) of business school alumni would like some form of lifelong learning and 77% would like online access to lectures, according to a survey by education research company CarringtonCrisp and accreditation body EFMD.
Blended provision at Saïd encompasses a move towards a 24/7 learning model, which draws on a range of techniques from face-to-face education to online platforms and onto virtual classrooms, says Mark Bramwell, CIO at Saïd Business School.
"Learning is all about trying to provide the right platform and experience to the right individuals, so they can consume that at a time that's most convenient and appropriate for them."
For some students, the most convenient way to learn will still be through face-to-face learning. That's certainly the case at Saïd, where Bramwell says students from around the globe have returned to the classroom in record numbers. This year's MBA cohort is 97% international and from 62 different countries.
For other students, distance learning will be key.
"People might want to digest content on their phone, on the Tube or on the way into work," he says. "They might want to consume it on their tablet before they go to bed. Our job is to provide the technology platforms, so content delivery is personalised and individuals can learn at a time that's most convenient for them."
One important lesson the school has already learnt is the importance of support roles.
The challenge of providing hybrid lessons is particularly great for lecturers who have to address a physical class, manage their online cohort, flip slides, check who's sending messages through via chat, and remember to bring both sets of students into the conversation.
"And it's challenging to balance that reality alongside how you make a virtual member feel really inclusive in a hybrid class,"says Bramwell.
As a result, to help reduce the administrative load on lecturers, the school has employed what Bramwell refers to as a series of "virtual classroom assistants".
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These specialist staff took on these roles in the wake of COVID-19, where employees who were unable to fulfil administrative roles on-site during lockdown started to assist in the delivery on online lectures.
"We were able to repurpose a number of staff members to become virtual classroom assistants, to train them up, to upskill them – and some people enjoyed it so much that they've retained those roles," says Bramwell.
These assistants monitor chat, moderate discussions and ensure online learners form part of the blended experience, meaning lecturers can focus on delivering their lessons.
Another major element of the school's blended education design process is Oxford HIVE, which is an immersive virtual-meeting and presentation experience that can be used by more than 80 participants simultaneously.
Based on Zoom technology, HIVE has a range of applications, including in-house training, public lectures, team meetings, and more. Presenters can run polls, use a virtual whiteboard and share collaborative documents. Participants, who appear in HD quality on a large video wall, can also be split up into virtual breakout rooms.
"The good thing about it is that it's immersive," says Bramwell. "So every participant is, in effect, on the front row. There's no hiding space. It's a lot easier for the member of faculty to interact and engage with people and to draw them into conversations."
Bramwell says HIVE works really well for executive education, where blue-chips organisations – with tight CSR obligations – are keen to avoid flying senior staff around the world every month for a series of courses and lessons.
"Executives might opt for a blended approach. They might come to Oxford for one or two days, ingest content, go away and reflect on it, and then connect using platforms, such as HIVE, to have follow-up discussions."
Saïd continues to hone its virtual-learning approach. Bramwell also refers to another element of the school's blended approach – the Global Leadership Centre, which is due to open in 2025.
Based in a converted Victorian power station, this new executive education campus will be fitted with technology that allows lessons to be taught simultaneously to students on campus and those connecting online.
"The space that we're really developing will have flexible open-plan space with hybrid working and hybrid meeting at its core," says Bramwell.
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Across all areas, Bramwell says the aim is to provide an effective balance of all three forms of education: online, offline, and hybrid.
While many students are keen to get back to the classroom, others enjoy the flexibility that online learning provides – and academic institutions will have to support a mix of requirements in the future.
But despite strong progress, Bramwell recognises that providing effective hybrid learning – that brings both offline and online students together in one joined-up experience – is far from easy. "The bit where I would hope we stand out is the quality of the teaching and the content."
But there has been clear shift in how students will learn, and want to learn from now on. "There will always be a hybrid element and we're going to have to accept and absorb that change as we refit our classrooms and lecture theatres. We will now build that into our core design," he says.