Blended learning: Improving access to higher education

Dr James Hammond, Reader in Geophysics, shares his thoughts on online learning, reflecting on his experiences of delivering both face-to-face and online teaching in Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

The ongoing pandemic means that new university students are weighing up the impacts of a sudden move to online learning. Many are understandably concerned that this will negatively impact their university experience, reducing their ability to learn and engage with other students and faculty. However, my experience delivering both face-to-face and online education in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is that for a significant number of people, the opposite may be true. An online platform offers more access, and indeed for some, their only access to higher education. This can allow students to study for a certificate, degree, Masters or PhD built around their complicated lifestyle rather than having to fit their lifestyle around a university degree.

‘Traditional’ Birkbeck students

For almost 200 years courses at Birkbeck have been delivered in the evening, allowing those who work full time in the day to study part time, making higher education affordable and more accessible. When describing Birkbeck to colleagues at other universities, we are often asked to describe our students. This is not an easy task. Each one of our students is unique with a story to tell. At Birkbeck, we teach everyone, from students straight from school, carers who need to be at home during the day, those looking to change career or gain further qualifications, to retirees curious to learn more about the world, and many more. Each one of these students has challenges and responsibilities that affect their ability to complete a degree. Rising to Birkbeck’s mission of making education accessible to all these people is a challenge, but it is what makes the College truly special.

Fitting a degree around your lifestyle

Within the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences we have been making efforts to understand our students and make our courses more accessible. While evening teaching allows those close to London to take advantage of our courses, it does not help those outside London who seek higher education, but for who traditional university is not an option. To combat this, in the late 1990’s we decided to embrace distance learning, making our courses available to students at home as well as in London. In the early days this involved posting out boxes of CD’s with all our material, but today we use a state-of-the-art online platform that allows our students to live stream lectures, join in class discussions and practical sessions from home and chat to lecturers one-to-one. Students can ‘view’ a microscope image from their offices, conduct research projects from their lounge and present their results to leading researchers from their bedrooms. All lectures are recorded and made available offline, meaning they can be watched at a later date to suit the student.

Our ethos in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is to make our degrees flexible and each student is free to choose how they participate. Many attend each class in person in London, more combine a mixture of face-to-face and distance learning, so called ‘blended learning’.  This allows students with shift work or caring responsibilities to participate, or students who can come to London once a week, once a month or in many cases not at all to complete a University of London degree.

Blended learning is here to stay in our Department

While we all hope that we can soon get back to our classrooms, delivering in person teaching to those who choose to come to London, we in Earth and Planetary Sciences will continue to develop new and innovative ways for distance learners from all over the UK and the world to join our unique community at Birkbeck and share the College’s 200 year vision of making education accessible for everyone.

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