Picture of Professor Ale Armellini

Explore how the University has implemented actions to ensure a positive impact on our academic community.

Ale Armellini

5 min read

Following the approval of the Digital Success Plan for Learning and Teaching in November 2021, the University of Portsmouth has implemented actions to ensure a positive impact on our academic community.

The plan has been designed to enhance, transform and inspire the learning experience of all our students across different modes of study in a digitally-rich learning environment. 

Here I would like to focus on Aim 1 of the plan: fully realise the concept of blended and connected learning (B&C) as part of Portsmouth’s identity in learning and teaching.

B&C – our agreed definition and principles

B&C can have multiple manifestations across different contexts. Teaching excellence can be found in many of those practices. Having an agreed definition helps us to ensure that we all subscribe to certain fundamental principles linked to purpose, student centredness and interactions for meaningful engagement. 

We define B&C as an approach to learning and teaching in which students engage with their studies through activities that enable them to take ownership of and critique new concepts, ideas and feedback. Such engagement can occur in and outside the classroom, synchronously (in real time) and asynchronously (in their own time, flexibly), individually and in teams. B&C should result in the development and application of subject knowledge, professional and digital skills, in line with the core principles of Active Blended Learning. Many practices across disciplines fit the above definition and provide flagship examples of teaching excellence at the University.

It is equally important to have an agreed understanding of what B&C is not. For example, I do not see a major issue with the inclusion of lectures as part of a balanced diet of teaching methods within a module. Great lectures can be truly inspirational, unique and unforgettable. However, there may well be a problem if, for example, the lecture is the main or the only method in use or, critically, if information transmission is what primarily (or worse, exclusively) takes place in these lectures, with the occasional question being asked. 

Some of our students have made it clear, via their feedback, that a few lecturers just “read off their Powerpoints”, which adds very little value to the learning experience. In fact, such practices devalue face-to-face attendance and dampen engagement. B&C is, above all, about student engagement, participation and co-creation.

Digital tools in B&C

A virtual learning environment (VLE) is essentially a website that acts as a hub for students’ work on a module or course, including activities, course content, communications, interactions, alerts and assessment. How teachers use the VLE is a good indicator of whether our practices align with the B&C definition and principles. Is the VLE used mainly as a content repository? If so, we may have a problem. B&C does not mean “combining campus-based and online teaching”.

A true blend is not a dual-track proposition, where certain things happen in face-to-face mode and others (typically content upload and download) occur separately online. For a blend to be meaningful, activities planned for one environment should fully integrate with and nurture the other. B&C is much more complex, challenging and exciting than the simplistic combination of two modes of study. The blend must integrate many layers, such as varied approaches to (a)synchronicity, creative assessment design, student co-creation and peer review, and clear links to employability, among others.

Scaling up B&C at Portsmouth

Structured processes such as EnABLe and TESTA (Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment) provide safe, creative environments for module and course teams, in collaboration with students and other stakeholders, to design and co-create with the B&C principles in mind. 

EnABLe is a scalable team approach to learning design, inspired by earlier research-based interventions like CAIeRO at the University of Northampton, ABC at University College London and Carpe Diem. At the time of writing, over 50 EnABLe workshops have been run across faculties and disciplines, both at module and programme levels. The workshops are typically facilitated by trained Learning Designers, who operate within and across schools. Faculties have set their targets for EnABLe, in line with the aims of the Digital Success Plan for Learning and Teaching. The TESTA process helps academic teams review current assessment approaches and establish whether they are the best fit for course goals. It also encourages teams to consider how the time invested in providing feedback can be best used. TESTA can integrate with EnABLe as the specific needs of academic teams are reviewed and addressed.

In the coming months and years, the University of Portsmouth will continue to focus on making the experience of our students outstanding and life-changing. Excellent learning design and teaching practice are two key ingredients. Blended and Connected learning and the Digital Success Plan for Learning and Teaching provide a solid foundation and set of principles to achieve this goal. 

Author: Professor Alejandro (Ale) Armellini is Dean of Digital and Distributed Learning at the University of Portsmouth.