Learning and Teaching Reimagined Student Experience and Wellbeing Teaching and Learning

Is “mixed participation” in learning our future reality?

As universities and colleges contend with the pressures of wanting to open up their physical estate with the need to keep staff and students safe, Chris asks what we can learn from courses that have used a mixed participation model of online and face to face engagement simultaneously.


Yesterday, University of Bolton’s Vice Chancellor made an announcement that it was opening its campus in September 2020 to students. The release lays out the extensive measures they will put in place to keep students safe from COVID19 while on campus.

Most people’s attention was on Cambridge University’s announcement moving all its face to face lectures online for the next academic year but, as David Kernohan, pointed out, it’s probably Bolton’s news that will end up being the more significant.

Both approaches have significant challenges but it’s Bolton I want to pay attention to for this post as it mirrors what a lot of senior leaders have been talking to Jisc about recently.

With social distancing and other protective measures, the physical capacity of any campus to host students and staff safely is vastly reduced. Students and staff that are particularly vulnerable risk being massively disadvantaged.

But many prospective students have been vocal about the fact that they would rather defer entry then take a purely online course.

Mixed participation

So, how can we manage learning and teaching in a situation where physical presence isn’t possible for everyone?

We talk about “blended” learning; a model of teaching where some activity is managed face to face while some is undertaken online, sometimes asynchronously.

That doesn’t really help us here, though, as there is still the “bottle-neck” of the face to face sessions that students have to be co-present for.

The model we have to accommodate is one where at any one time, some learners will be engaging in activities while physically present, while others are engaging remotely.

I’m going to refer to this as “mixed participation” until someone comes up with a better phrase!

UPDATE – a colleague pointed me towards some existing writing about this by Robert Talbert on “hyflex” learning which I think is the approach I’m talking about here. EDUCAUSE also have a paper on it from 2010.

I’m not trying to invent something new here. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from courses like Coventry University’s PHONAR course, which while they were taught to a campus-based cohort, also incorporated a community of learners that were co-engaging with it as an open course.

The University of Mary Washington in the US has been running its digital storytelling programme DS106 for many years with the same sort of model.

In both cases, there is interaction between the students physically present and the ones participating in the open model.

The way I picture this model is this:

  • For any course, you have 2 streams that are effectively modes of engagement; a physically present mode and a remote mode.
  • The people engaging in the 2 modes interact with each other. They are not separate cohorts but part of the same learning community.
  • Learners can take a flexible approach and engage in either as it suits their needs or the environmental conditions.
  • Some activities may require everyone to engage online, for example certain group activities, project work etc.
  • Some “live” events will be dual participation, for example seminars, lectures etc.

It’s not a magic bullet. None of this comes without challenges, including to some core assumptions about what it means to participate in and design learning.

Reflecting on personal experience

From 2009 to 2013 I undertook a party time masters in Technology Enhanced Learning, Innovation and Change (TELIC) at Sheffield Hallam University. It was led by Richard Pountney and Prof Guy Merchant and it employed a mixed participation model.

When I started, I was living in Sheffield so was able to attend the 3 hour “live” seminar sessions on campus. These were usually open discussion sessions rather than anything like a lecture. There were usually about half a dozen people in the room while we were joined by about the same number via video conference.

This wasn’t without technical issues, but this was around 10 years ago so conceivably the technology, practice and personal capabilities have developed.

For the rest of it, we relied on online tools like eportfolios, wikis, Skype, online library content and the like for undertaking research, collaborative activities and assessment so the whole cohort engaged

It was interesting that when my situation changed a year into the course when I moved jobs and city and was still able to fully participate, this time just in the online mode. It required a shift in mind set and I missed the face to face contact with my peers and tutors but I don’t think it affected my experience too greatly or meant that my learning outcomes were any different. If anything, it made me reflect on my own digital practice much more!

It’s the community, stupid!

Focusing on the curriculum design doesn’t really tell the full TELIC story. Right from my first pre course phone call with Richard, it was stressed that we would be following a social constructivist model. We were co-creating knowledge, not merely consuming it, so all the activities and spaces were geared towards fostering a sense of community and equality between peers and with the teaching staff.

Things that helped towards this were:

  • Ungraded assessments – the focus was on detailed, qualitative feedback rather than differentiated attainment levels, perhaps to reflect the multi-modal nature of engagement.
  • Collaborative projects – we did have to complete pieces of work individually but most that I recall involved small group work
  • UK and International representation – Hallam had partnered with a number of institutions across Europe to deliver the course. My course colleagues came from all over the UK as well as a few from Belgium and the Netherlands.
  • Peer assessment – we were encouraged to review and comment on each other’s work.
  • Linking to a wider community of past cohorts – including a more-or-less annual conference, hosted in one of the countries where students
  • A sense of play – there were plenty of opportunities to engage informally and in off-topic ways. We developed our own online profiles, built an online glossary of imaginary terms (which got pretty silly!) etc.

It seemed that whatever the course leaders were trying to do in building the course they were constantly asking “how can we make this about community”.

Much of the work we did still exists in the wiki (private, sorry) but you can get a flavour of what it was like to be part of the TELIC community from these digital stories by participants on the impact of the doing the course.

There’s also this video produced by Hermann Schimmell of the TELIC conference that I helped host in Newcastle in 2013. Worryingly, I still own the shirt I’m wearing in some of the clips!

It’s difficult to fully encapsulate the TELIC experience but it was a transformative one and a highly effective model for us.

Lessons learned

It must have taken a lot of effort to facilitate all of this on the part of the tutors and also I wonder whether they had to work hard to advocate for this less traditional approach.

I also think that some people found it harder to engage than was my experience which could have been down to the course design, the technology, personal capabilities or circumstance.

There would also be a world of difference between a small cohort course like TELIC and something like Social Geography 101. But there are some important characteristics and key questions that could be carried over when designing larger scale instances.

  • How do we create a sense of community with a cohort that spans two different modes of engagement?
  • How do we design a curriculum with 2 modes that are separate but still interact?
  • What is the student experience like for physically present and digitally present learners?
  • What is the experience for somebody switching between the two?
  • How can we create parity of esteem between the modes rather than a “premium” and “budget” version?

At its core there are challenges to some core assumptions and established “truths” about contact, participation, assessment and so on, but none that we wouldn’t have to face anyway if we were just looking at purely online models.

It’s good to realise there is already the expertise and practice within the sector to draw on to develop alternative models of mixed participation learning.

Share your thoughts

I’m really interested to find out other examples of these mixed participation models in HE and FE so please do share, as well as any reflections on the opportunities and challenges of this approach.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels




By Chris Thomson

I'm a Subject Specialist at Jisc focusing on online learning and digital student experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *