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The recent report on blended provision forms part of an SFC-supported enhancement project. In our guest blog, QAA Scotland’s Alison Eales explores its findings, the research behind them, and the project’s next steps.

Collage image of students.

Photos: Edinburgh College, University of Glasgow, UHI Perth and University of Aberdeen

What did the research say?

The key finding is that blended learning is now the norm across the Scottish tertiary sector. Even where learning takes place predominantly in person, it will be supplemented by some kind of digital tools. The focus for those involved in curriculum design and delivery needs to be on getting this blend right, and ensuring that learning is active whether it takes place in person or in a digital environment.

The importance of accessibility, inclusivity and sense of belonging also jumped out as being of critical importance. As with active learning, these are key to the learning experience regardless of mode, but can be more challenging to achieve in digital environments.

It will not surprise readers to learn that terminology is used inconsistently across the sector, but what came through clearly in the research was the impact this has on learners. It is vital that what is meant by ‘blended’ in any given context is explained to students, particularly in terms of how much flexibility they can expect.

There are ongoing challenges around digital literacy for both staff and learners, as well as tensions between institutional estates and learning and teaching teams. It is important to foreground pedagogy in both cases: both staff development and the development of learning spaces should be informed by what is best for learning, rather than what technology is the most impressive.

How was this research conducted?

The agencies collaborating on this project are QAA Scotland, College Development Network, Education Scotland and sparqs, with support from SFC. This is the first cross-sector project of this nature, and as well as addressing a live issue, it represents a chance for the various sector agencies to explore how we might work together to deliver enhancement projects in future.

The agencies have a wealth of intelligence and networking opportunities, and the project built on these. Desk research based on reviews and institutional visits, along with institutional strategies and a survey of colleges, provided an early picture of practice, and were supplemented by a series of interviews. Some of these interviews included learners, but sparqs were the key project partner in terms of capturing the student voice, which they did through their existing networks and workshops.

On 20 September 2023 we held a sector-wide practice sharing event in Glasgow. This attracted over 70 attendees from colleges, universities and sector agencies, and included a mix of practical exercises, small group discussions and presentations. This provided an opportunity to test the research findings and to gather further views through table-based and online activities.

I have found working with colleagues from the other agencies to have been stimulating and challenging. We have had to balance the need to maintain pace and momentum with the need to be flexible so that we can respond to the sector’s needs. One challenge we identified early on is that the information available about colleges and universities is quite different, as are the ways in which they were able to engage with us. Such differences are understandable, and the reasons behind them valid, but this should not stop us from exploring how the different parts of the sector might learn from each other – which, of course, is a key aim of the new tertiary approach. I’m looking forward to the next steps with this project, and the launch of the new tertiary sector enhancement approach as part of Scotland’s Tertiary Quality Enhancement Framework from session 2024-25.

Alison Eales, Quality Enhancement Specialist, QAA Scotland