Bringing the world to the classroom: Revisiting the “Blended synchronous learning” blog post

A few weeks ago I began to notice an unexpected traffic increase to my blog, and the primary target of this increased traffic was a blog post that I wrote on the 3rd of February, 2017 – that is 3 years and 75 blog posts ago. The blog is entitled “Blended synchronous learning and teaching: Is this the future of university teaching?

One thing was certain, given the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of academics are scrambling to find out the meanings of all these new terms that have suddenly become a staple of our academic lingua franca – “online learning”, “blended learning”, “synchronous learning” , “asynchronous learning” etc. My blog post had just the right sort of title to show up in Google searches, so I put this down to a fortuitous choice of title.

But then I started noticing that the blog post’s comments section had also become quite active. Not only that, my email box began to see an increased flow of scholarly, academic emails all solemnly enquiring about my experiences with blended synchronous learning. At long last, I realised, my two minutes of academic fame had finally arrived! Which academic would not be thrilled?

Blended synchronous learning: location-independent class attendance

I wrote this blog seven months before we ran the inaugural class of the UCL MSc in Engineering and Education. Like most of the masters programmes offered by the UCL institute of Education (IoE), this programme is aimed at both practising professionals and recent graduates. It seeks to provide an engaging atmosphere in which engineers, policy makers, educators and recent graduates meet to discuss and explore issues surrounding engineering education and training, both in formal educational environments, and in the workplace. Because it specifically targets people in employment, tuition starts at 5 pm, just like most other IoE programmes.

However, we realised that we needed to open up the programme to lots of other people as well. For instance, we wanted individuals outside of London, for instance, busy engineering academics in places like Newcastle and Swansea, or rugged engineers working on oil rigs in the North Sea, for example, to participate in classes without having to leave their workplaces. We also wanted busy Londoners to engage effectively with the programme without always having to rush through the end-of-day traffic congestion to come to classes. For example, a busy Head of Science at a high school in East London would have ample time to dismiss a class of eager 16 year-olds before sitting down on their laptop to attend an MSc class.

We were also aware that our target audience is extremely mobile. For instance, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and most likely after it is gone, engineers working in global organisations and policy makers working in the voluntary sector were, and will certainly be, just as likely to be in Hong Kong, Abuja, Canberra and London on business. So, we needed to make the MSc flexible enough to ensure that anyone could attend live classes no matter where they happened to be at any moment – as long as they had access to the Internet.

Blended synchronous learning: location-independent access to subject experts

We also wanted our students to engage with key innovators in engineering education, no matter where these innovators and thinkers happen to be located. We had the vision that rather than having our students just engaging with the research on an aspect of engineering education, we could actually bring into the class some of the writers and thinkers at the forefront of that field of engineering education. And we would do so remotely through blended synchronous teaching and learning. Hence, we actually created classroom situations where both physically-present students and remote students actually interacted in real time with subject experts dotted all around the world.

Outcomes of adopting a blended synchronous learning approach

The blended synchronous approach has enabled our MSc in Engineering and Education to be accessible to all learners, regardless of whether they are in London or not, and regardless of whether they are working full-time or not. Learners do not need to take time off work, and they do not need to relocate to London, unless they wish to do so. Similarly, subject experts don’t need to spend expensive time flying to and fro London just to participate in our classes.

Blended synchronous learning has made it feasible for both our learners and subject experts to interact with each other from wherever they are in the world. Just think of the virtual conferences and seminars that we have now gotten used to as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the comfort of our homes, we can flit from seminar to seminar all right across the world. Our students have been doing just that for the past two years.

UCL likes to call itself London’s Global University. By adopting blended synchronous learning for the MSc Engineering and Education, we believe we have brought to life the aspirations of our university – to be a global university providing opportunities for academic staff and students to engage globally with the world irrespective of where they are.

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