Credit: Jenny Dimitrialdi

Vice-Principal Professor Fischbacher-Smith on the future of blended learning

By Luke Chafer

The Principal for Learning and Teaching advises us on what to expect for the year ahead

As the University of Glasgow confirmed its teaching will be “blended” this year, the effects of Covid-19 have led to a seismic shift in teaching and learning strategies across the entire higher education system. Beyond the immediate changes to mitigate health risks, a debate has been sparked across the sector as to how to utilise the experience gained from last year. The University has recently published its answer to the debate in the “Learning and Teaching Strategy 2021-25” which sets out its intended aims to modernise the student experience. We at The Glasgow Guardian sat down with Professor Moira Fischbacher-Smith, Vice Principal of Learning & Teaching, to unpick the strategy and discuss the year ahead. 

GG: What can students expect from this year in terms of blended learning, and what do you expect it to look like across semesters one and two?

Professor Fischbacher-Smith: It’s going to vary – and most of my answers will vary because it will really depend on your year of study and the course. Essentially, what we’ve said is that in classes where there are 50 students or more, we would want them to take place online, and we’ve done that for reasons predominantly to do with Covid-19, obviously. We do know that there are some students who have said that they would like that to be the longer-term arrangement for some courses where it has worked well. On-campus teaching will have smaller groups of up to 50, but those could be as small as 12 or 18, where they can expect to be in a room with their tutor and peers under a one-meter distancing strategy (including laboratories). The balancing combination will depend on the specific course design.

GG: In an email sent out by David Duncan (the Chief Operating Officer) to students, he mentioned that, potentially, at the back end of this year we could see a return to larger classes in person. Does that not contradict what was said in the longer-term learning strategy, that the focus will be to have larger classes online?

Professor Fischbacher-Smith:  No, I don’t think it does. I think it’s a combination of both, and if it helps, I wrote a little article myself talking about this. I think part of the challenge here is that we use the word “lecture” as if it’s this very easily understood, generic term that means the same thing no matter where you are. Let’s just park the word “lecture”, for now…

We’ve just designed a 500-seat lecture theatre in the James McCune Smith Learning Hub: we did that for a reason, as we still see value in students coming together. What that room does is allow students to collaborate with each other. You will probably have experienced fairly static lecture theatres with seats that don’t move, and you’re squashed in; it’s like going to the cinema. These are individual seats, with much more room to turn around and talk with someone behind you. There is so much potential in a room like that: it brings a different dynamic and gives us the potential to completely change the way we use physical space in a way that more fixed spaces don’t. 

The conversation shouldn’t be about how many people are in a room but what we are trying to achieve: what is the learning we want students to engage with, and what is the best design for that? In some cases, it is a prerecorded 15-minute online segment watched at your leisure, and then in class, you really dig deep: engaging, discussing, and developing. That’s where the combination of online and in-class can do things we couldn’t do before.

GG: I just want to unpick that a little. In the article, you mentioned some of the positive elements mentioned in the student feedback of online learning. I was wondering: was there anything that you came across that we thought just didn’t work? 

Professor Fischbacher-Smith: That’s a very good question. I think perhaps if there isn’t the opportunity, in an online station or course, for students to work together in pairs or groups, they’ve found that difficult as it can be harder to connect with their peers…I think [however] the complaints were mainly technical. 

GG: Do you think there was enough consistency? Do you think that was potentially an issue, and will that be more uniform going forward, in terms of the blended learning approach?

Professor Fischbacher-Smith: It’s a good question: I think consistency is important and knowing what to expect is important. I would say that consistency isn’t always ideal because you can get bored if everything is done the same way. I think some people will have had more time than others to prepare, and in some cases that will be just because of the other demands that they had on them last year. So, I suspect that those factors had an influence, but we’ve had a year of practice. 

GG: I want to pick up on something you said about building redesign, which is mentioned in the strategy. As we are an old university, how will it be possible to replicate the benefits of a space like the James McCune Smith Learning Hub? 

Professor Fischbacher-Smith: It’s a challenge. We have done it in some of the rooms.  We’ve kind of maximized [redesigning the geography lecture theatres] and what we can do within the constraints of that space. There’s currently a lot of work going into the reinforcement and strengthening of our Wi-Fi generally in some of the older spaces, but you’re absolutely right, some we will just make really good, flexible learning spaces, but they might not be as “high tech”, if you like.

GG: The strategy states that it is committed to “excellent on-campus experience, but realizes that there are educational benefits of a blended approach”. What are those educational benefits?

Professor Fischbacher-Smith: Knowledge is changing all the time and there is so much information out there, so why don’t we incorporate that into our learning? I would also say it’s not just about doing something online and not in a classroom, it’s about blending them all and actually engaging in technology in the class, not just either online or in a physical classroom. We are exploiting the affordances that technology brings us, and why wouldn’t we? It would be a funny university if we said “oh, we don’t use technology in the way that it allows us to”.

GG: Finally, the strategy also mentions fully online degrees. Who will they be marketed towards and how many programs would we expect to be fully online?

Professor Fischbacher-Smith: At the moment, we already have a number of fully online degrees. We launched our first fully online course back in 2003, a taught doctorate, and this suits a certain student, but we are an on-campus provider and it’s important to offer that on-campus experience so I don’t expect a sudden shift online at the expense of on-campus. 


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