Comment: Making blended learning work

3 min read

Dr Hilary Leevers, CEO of EngineeringUK looks at how digital learning might be incorporated into the traditional learning landscape for students in the next academic year – and what challenges educators might need to address.

Education has been quite the rollercoaster for students, teachers and parents since March 2020. Those of us working with schools have had to pivot to digital while recognising that the activities that had been delivered face-to-face cannot simply be delivered online in the same way.

Schools starting back this academic year – August for Scotland and September for England and Wales – will try and support a rounded education experience and prioritise face-to-face interactions, continuing to help students to catch up on the content they missed, or had shallow engagement with, during multiple periods of remote learning. There is an opportunity to capitalise on new ways of working and learning digitally, complementing traditional delivery. Leaders will undoubtedly also be keeping online approaches available to ensure resilience in case we face more disruption.

blended learning
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Teachers in our network shared that although educators are looking forward to welcoming students back to school, many think that they may not be able to hold practical, hands-on sessions while there is so much ongoing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and its variants. This is a real shame, and indeed a concern given that a 2019 survey, the Science Education Tracker, found that over half of 11 to 14 year olds and a third of 15 to 18 year olds said that practical work is the most motivating aspect of science lessons. Note that even back in 2019, most students wanted to do more, but since then the pandemic has resulted in a massive reduction in practical work.

We, at EngineeringUK, love the engagement of hands-on activities and work closely with schools to deliver exciting experiences with rich interactions between students and engineers. While we have appreciated the geographical reach and numerical scale we can achieve through the move to digital, important questions remain around accessibility and digital poverty. Do enough students have access to fast WiFi so they can watch videos or access websites, particularly in rural areas? Do they have easy access to equipment so they can learn at their own pace or is their learning squeezed by sharing with others?

Our recent research found that the digital divide extends to careers advice, with half of teachers and careers leaders that responded to our survey identifying that students had not been able to access online or virtual careers provision due to a lack of technology or internet; this was much more pronounced in schools with a socioeconomically disadvantaged intake.

We must monitor the strengths and weaknesses of physical and digital delivery, so we know which is the best approach for the particular group we are working with or outcomes we are trying to achieve.

This is the approach we’ll be taking to evaluate the 100 Energy Quest workshops we delivered during the 2021 summer term. They were held digitally with an online facilitator for a classroom of students, their interactions helped along by teachers in the room. During the 2-hour workshop, 11 to 14 year olds were presented with an exciting narrative – centered around a dwindling mobile phone battery – and challenged to save the day by utilising their creativity and practical engineering skills to find a solution to help a group of young people in danger. During the scenario, students encounter a range of engineers, uncover the skills they possess and the important role energy plays in all our lives. We’re planning to bring in comparable face-to-face delivery over the coming year and look forward to learning how the two compare.

It seems likely that digital and physical delivery will complement each other, and we can use a mix of approaches in the future. There might be more opportunities for engineering engagement in schools as they may have extended school time and seek external support to help use it most effectively. There may also be some catch-up funding available. If these opportunities arise, we hope that the free resources on the Tomorrow’s Engineers website will be useful for anyone wanting to deliver inspiring activities for young people. We need to collectively convey consistent messages about engineering careers, such as opportunities, salaries, societal value, inclusivity and skills needed.

In the coming term, we may also see the return of STEM clubs and more consistent careers guidance, which has been quite patchy in England over the last year. It is so important that careers advice is boosted rather than cut further - while we recognise the importance of curriculum catch-up, we know that students have been concerned about their career prospects. Young people need to understand the career opportunities available to them, how to get into them and have the motivational benefit of meaningful career aspirations – integrating careers advice throughout education provision can help achieve this.