Digital Campuses and Blended Learning: Preparing Educators for Blended Pedagogies

Digital Campuses and Blended Learning: Preparing Educators for Blended Pedagogies

This is a case study about a set of events at Western Sydney University; I think they play very nicely with the previous sessions. First, I would like to think a little bit about some of the factors impacting higher education across the sector. They're all things I think everyone here knows well.

However we want to describe the democratization of knowledge and access – whether it's through OERs, whether it's through MOOCs, or whether it's the way we're going to think about micro-credentialing – it is challenging universities. It's challenging the way we think of ourselves. It's challenging the way we do business.

Anybody from a university or TAFE knows the contestability of markets has increased competition between for-profits, not-for-profits, recognized formal institutions of learning, and informal institutions of learning. The struggle we all face for funding in universities has been a recurring theme. We need to think about the distribution of funding; we know that we're all in a much more competitive marketplace, and universities are becoming much more comfortable talking about the notion of a marketplace.

I think we recognize the reality of the situation. This is a conference about blended learning and digital campuses. Digital technology isn't just the rapid changing technologies, it's about the changing expectations that ubiquitous technologies bring.

Global mobility has increased, both in provision of Australian higher education and in our own students going offshore. Additionally, global mobility of staff has increased. Australian higher education is a highly mobile, globally staffed sector. Yet while we see some very interesting moves globally, there's also an expectation that we're not just preparing our students to work in Western Sydney, or to work in New South Wales, or into work in Australia. We're preparing students for an international set of careers.

Partnerships and integration with industry are on the rise. We've seen the growth of that in relation to research in universities. There is a need for integrating the curriculum with industry, for integrating our students' experiences with industry. This will play out more and more strongly as we continue. We're certainly seeing some strong government pressure for us to be much more industry responsive, and much more work embedded.

I'm not going to assume that everybody knows a lot about Western Sydney University, but the location is very important. Our mission is very clearly about the Greater Western Sydney region of New South Wales, and the Act of Parliament that established the university commits us to working as a university for the people of the region.

It is actually a pretty fantastic region to be located in right now: Western Sydney is the fastest growing region in Australia; has fastest growing population; and is fastest growing in terms of industry development and transport networks. The new Western Sydney Airport will create a whole set of new opportunities.

We're a multi-campus university. We have ten campuses, and nine of them are located close to the CBD of Sydney. While many our students come from the Greater Western Sydney region, they don't all come from Greater Western Sydney. We are a very diverse university and we have a very diverse student cohort. Over 150 different languages are spoken at home by our students, and over 50 percent of our undergraduate students are first in family at university.

This context creates a whole set of conditions for us as a university. We are a consequence of the Dawkins reforms towards a unified national system (hence the multiple campuses) as we were an amalgamation and a federation of campuses. We have around about 45000 students.

I'm going to talk about our broad blended learning strategy at the university. For me, recurring themes are the importance of this being strategically aligned, and the importance of finding ways of incentivizing participation in professional development. We talk frequently about how important student learning is in terms of being embedded in authentic and real- world experiences. We also talk about embedding staff professional development in everyday practice where imperatives of 'what am I going to teach on Monday?' become real.

We have a vision for the university as a very data driven set of campuses - not just within a campus, but between campuses. And while I'm going to be talking about what we did to support our academic staff in adoption of blended learning, none of it would have been possible if we didn't have parallel projects creating the right environment for this work. The example I'm going to draw on is a case study of our new digitally rich vertical campus in Parramatta. It really highlights the importance of the context and the environment. Without the sort of environment that we had, I do not believe we would have made as much progress in moving our staff towards a much deeper level of engagement with technologies.

All of our students are looking for greater flexibility. We want to develop 21st century skills along with deep disciplinary knowledge and content as well. We want to provide much wider access to learning resources, whether they're resources that students curate themselves, or resources that are curated for them. We want to provide our students with as rich learning experiences as possible.

We are fundamentally a campus-based university, but we have a very strong blended learning strategy. When our students come on campus we want to make it worth their while. So, the on-campus experience needs to have something that adds value, and from our perspective it's using the technologies to create meaningful on-campus engagement, interaction, and experience.

We want to strengthen connectedness between the university and our students. While I'm talking particularly about blended learning, like most other universities, we see the digital experience permeating every stage of the student life cycle and every component of the student experience. Unashamedly as well, in an increasingly competitive environment, this is about increasing our market share by making our programs more attractive to students wherever they may be located.

When we were thinking about creating our new campus, we listened to our students. One of the most important messages that students gave us was 'When you interact with me, I want it to be more like my life'. So there is a very strong expectation that when we deal with our students - whether it's through their enrolment process, whether it's during the course advice that we give them, whether it's through their subject selection, or whether it's through their engagement as they choose their tutorial sessions, choosing which campus they attend, or learning with us - that we will be doing things in the same way that most of the rest of their life happens. Students, not surprisingly, say, 'Everything I do is online. I get my concert tickets, I order my Uber. Why do I have to walk on campus and stand in a queue in early February in 40 degrees to enrol? Why do I have to come back to see somebody to change my enrolment?'

Some of these are pretty obvious, but they are things that most institutions have taken a while to be responsive to. Some students do actually know how much data we have about them, and they do expect us to actually use it. We are asking them for information and we are automatically capturing information through a range of cool projects where we track where they are moving around campus and what they're doing. We're collecting information about them, and they say to us, 'why don't you use it? When you interact with me, why don't you behave as if you've been looking at the information that you have about me?'

For example, when we talk to higher degree by research students, they say, 'okay, when I started, you got me to fill in an enrolment form and you got all my personal details. I gave you my topic. I told you what my questions were going to be. I talked a little bit about the methodology I thought I might use. Six months in at my first performance review, why are you asking me all that information again?' Sometimes they can get a little bit irritated with us when we treat them as if every interaction we have with them is a new one. Particularly in relation to technology, they want us to use technology. They expect that we're going to use their information, keep it simple, and make it work.

Students are pretty upfront about saying, 'we don't want all those bells and whistles if all they do is get in the way. Give me something that's absolutely seamless, something that delivers me what I need, when I need it. Not when you want to give it to me.'

So there are a whole set of student expectations about how we should be using technologies, but I want to bring the focus back to thinking about the blended learning approach that we took. I do think that the importance of strategy and direction of having everybody working in the same direction needs to be explicit. I don't need to remind everybody how important it is that senior leadership owns this, that they have some kind of understanding of what it is that they're talking about, and that this permeates all the way through the university.

Professional development and training is such an important enabler of change, particularly change in relation to using technologies to support learning and teaching. Provision of resources - whether it's resources in the form of small grants, bigger grants, funded initiatives, whether it's providing every school, every faculty, every campus location with some really easy one button recording studios with green screen so that people can make some cool videos to share with their students, we need to be making resources available. In this sense, people and training need to be seen as critical resources.

It is important to put a system in place at the right time for the right purposes. I can remember 20-25 years ago we talked a lot about unbundling higher education and unbundling professional roles, about the disaggregation of academic roles. At that time, we never saw much of it really happen. I think we are starting to see more of that now, as we're starting to understand the right times to bringing specialist support for staff, particularly as we're asking them to change their pedagogies. I've already talked a little bit about infrastructure, facilities, and the environment and I will come back to that.

Fitting all of this into a strategic framework is really important. And before I arrived at Western Sydney, there were two major strategies. The major university strategy, Our People, went up to 2015. From 2015-2020, Securing Success is our university strategic plan. It puts a distinctively student-centered experience at the heart of the university strategy. The other five pillars and dimensions always relate back to being distinctively student-centered.

We've got a digital technology strategy. We have a learning and teaching strategy: our Learning Futures plan. We have a Digital Futures strategy. Sitting under all of those are other mid-tier strategies.

One really important strategy was the Blended Learning Strategy enacted between 2012 and 2015. That was a university-wide strategy with serious investment: $25 million over a three- year period. The money was used to fund a number of projects, and quite a few staff in a range of different roles, to support academics in moving into blended learning. The goal of that particular strategy was that all undergraduate programs would be blended by the end of 2015.

I arrived in 2015 and we were a bit of a way off from every undergraduate program being completely blended. The approach had been to let the schools do their own thing. There was a blended learning strategy, but it said 'all programs will be blended, and all our units will have aspects of blended learning in them… but do what you like at a school level to achieve this'.

So what we saw were some quite innovative interpretations and manifestations of blended learning. Schools rolled out blended learning in a way that suited them. There was a lot of power in that they owned it; it was something that they believed was appropriate to their discipline and to their context. But a very large proportion of our students do double degrees and it was pretty awkward moving between two degrees with two completely different approaches to blended learning in them. So we were looking to try to bring a little bit more consistency to the experience.

This helped develop a university conversation to identify where some of our gaps were. It also allowed rethinking for our new strategies. We have a lot of aligned strategies; some of you will remember back in 2013, we had our iPad initiative strategy. The iPad strategy was to give every commencing university student an iPad. This was driven by the fact that we knew that very few of our students at that time were coming with devices of any sort. If we were serious about a blended learning strategy we knew we would need to make sure that our students actually had the devices that we were asking them to use.

The iPad strategy played a very powerful role in the blended learning strategy. It was easier to get staff engaged in developing blended learning approaches when they had a very high level of confidence that they would walk into their class and every student in the class would actually have the right device, and it would be the device that would have the appropriate assets and resources on it. It was a very important strategy because it put devices in the hands of our students. It did a lot to drive our blended learning strategy and our blended learning approaches. After two years of the iPad strategy, we undertook a reassessment.

What we were hearing from some of our discipline areas and some of our schools was that it was good to have an iPad, but it wasn't really what was used in the discipline. For example, it was great for our nursing people – they were using really rich resources and assets. However, our accountants were going crazy trying to teach spreadsheets on an iPad; it wasn't that easy, and it wasn't really what the students were going to be using in the workplace either.

So we moved towards a multi-device strategy where we worked with all of our schools and they identified the type of device that they believed was going to be the most useful to support student learning in their discipline areas. We expanded the strategy. We included some tablets. We included laptop PCs. The focus was on what best supports learning. Some schools had to recreate some of their assets or rethink the way they were doing some things. But through this work, we were putting a more appropriate device in the hands of students.

We assessed the multi-device strategy the end of last year, alongside a survey of our students. The world has changed a lot. Almost all of our students (close to 99 percent of them) were entering university with their own device now. So once again we reviewed our strategy, and this year, we moved to digital textbooks.

We know that textbook purchases are a grudge purchase. They're expensive. Many of our students were completely unaware that not only were they going to need to enrol in their university course and pay, but that they were going to have to buy really expensive books as well. Of course, many of them chose not to. We now provide all of our commencing students with their core textbooks in a digital version. Again, this aligns with our technology strategy and aligns with our blended learning strategy. From our point of view, it is again directly associated with student learning.

I'm going to talk a little bit about the case of blended learning sitting within this bigger strategic framework, but sitting alongside the development of our new vertical campus which we opened this year in the CBD of Parramatta.

The CBD campus is a very highly connected building. We are thrilled to pieces with it; it's working very well. Students love it. Staff love it. This was not designed purpose-built as a university building. We took a commercial floor plate and adapted it to create our vertical campus.

It's digitally rich in all sorts of ways. I'll talk mostly about the learning spaces that we've created, but we have put digital aspects throughout the whole building. There is information about when the next bus, train, or ferry is available all over the building for our students, staff, and visitors. We have auto-queuing for student service so they no longer have to stand in a queue: we text them when it's their turn to have their I.D. card picked up, for example. We have other digital queuing, and lots of digital services. We have a ground floor concierge who directs our students to where they need to go. We also have great digital location finding throughout the building.

There are no lecture theatres in our new vertical campus. The notion that we have our School of Business, part of our School of Law, and some of our other disciplines located in a building with no lecture theatres does sometimes do people's heads in.

We did this in a reasonably short time frame. While it took us a long time to make a decision about which was going to be the school that was going to get to move into our new campus, and we really only gave them about a twelve-month lead time. Twelve months lead time to prepare for teaching with no lecture theatres, to prepare for teaching in a new way.

In that period of time, we engaged in a very extensive staff development program for the staff who were going to be involved and they rebuilt the curriculum. We wrapped up curriculum rebuild and staff training and professional development together. So we had them rethinking pedagogies, we had them developing skills. We had them redesigning the learning experiences and redesigning the structure of the courses and the programs to fit the new environment into which they were going to go.

One of the things that we did seemed like a good idea at the time, and in hindsight it was actually pretty remarkable. Twelve months before we were going to move into the new campus, we decided to build a prototype of the learning space that was going to feature in our new vertical campus. When I say a prototype, I mean we built a complete learning space in another building – complete with interior ceilings and interior walls. We even did the exterior walls. We did some of the external social learning spaces. We did all of the interactive parts of it.

This allowed us to finesse and tweak the design. It allowed us to teach in it for 12 months. We used it as a training space, so we brought in all the staff who were going to teach there. We taught them in it. We got them to teach in it. They played in it. Not only did this have the advantage of really helping people to become familiar with the new environment, we ironed out a few little issues that we had with it. It also became the desirable space to teach in. It was so desirable that we had sufficient pressure to create another one on another of our campuses. So we had two of these prototype learning spaces. Don't underestimate the value of staff who want to be engaged in something that's pretty cool and new. It really had so many positive side effects.

Very rich software supporting high levels of student engagement and interaction gave time for staff who were using the space to become familiar with using the software. They could think about how they could use this collaborative software in the design of the learning experiences they were going to create. We saw a lot of growth through the model of the flipped classroom, which came back to creating value so when students came to campus they were going to interact and engage. They weren't going to be passive recipients of some content being dumped on them. They would have pre-reads and pre-engagement, and when they came along it would be highly collaborative problem solving, engaging in activities, interacting with each other, and interacting with some of our partners and tenants who are also in the building.

We did as much as we could to ensure that this would be effectively implemented. The learning spaces were designed around group work, collaboration and sharing, so there are lots of whiteboards, screens on every table, sharing software, and lots of display elements around the room. These screens have the capacity to video conference, capacity to capture what gets written on whiteboards, and the capacity to share all of that.

To summarise, the approach that we took was very project-based and embedded in the work of academics. We didn't just take them off and run a workshop; the work was about a new curriculum, and about their new teaching. It was discipline and school-specific, with an eye to multi-disciplinarity. Academics were thinking about how they're going to work across discipline areas, making sure that we would be able to do this at scale.

We were providing school-based specialist support that built relationships and affiliations. We had a very strong central coordination to make sure that everything was moving in the same direction.

We're moving now to take this approach and roll it out to all of the other schools. It sits alongside our new curriculum transformation project. We'll be supporting a lot of pilot projects as we start to develop this, with school champions, visiting scholars, and a range of other ways to get more and more people involved.

The 21st Century Curriculum Transformation project is a whole-of-university curriculum transformation. We will rebuild all of our undergraduate curriculum in the next three years with a greater focus on multi-disciplinarity, and much greater focus on development of 21st century skills. We will tackle some of those meta-themes that are going to be important for our graduating students. We want to create more space in our curriculum to think about the graduates of the future. We're using the curriculum transformation project to bring about pedagogic change with the insertion and inclusion of digital technologies throughout all of it.

From my perspective, what do I think is really important in getting a blended learning a digital learning pedagogic change agenda happening across the university? Having a purpose that people understand - something that resonates with them. From my perspective, a whole-of- institution approach is needed, along with alignment to the strategic priorities of the institution.

A long-term strategy. People need to see that we are in this for the long haul. It's not about what we did this year, it's about what we are going to do next year, and the year after that. However, with that, there also needs to be a willingness to be responsive, to be adaptive, and to change when necessary.

Providing support and development for staff throughout all of this – and that development needs to be very adaptive, needs-based, and able to respond to what one group of staff, or a school in particular, needs.

We also need to be looking at measures and making sure that we do evaluate these. For some reason, universities still don't seem to do our evaluations of major initiatives as well as we should.

We need to create safe places for people to test, to innovate, and to continue to change and to improve what they're doing. We need to value the staff learning that takes place, and that's where it links back to some of our initiatives in the curriculum project.

I'm going to just finish by saying this is a journey. I don't think we're ever going to finish. We will keep revisiting and revising it. We've got some wins, we've got some great examples, we've got some great case studies, and we're starting to go to a whole set of resources, people, and other support for our staff through this time of change, development, and innovation that we expect - as every university does. Thank you.

[As delivered]

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