Over the past year, Warrick Harniess and I have created two very successful blended online learning programmes for researchers in their early- to mid-stages of their careers. In this co-authored article we share what we’ve learned.
By blended online learning we mean programmes that are delivered online via a platform such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and use a mix of:
One of the programmes helps doctoral students develop an entrepreneurial mindset. It follows a storyline of the ups and downs of an early-stage start-up. Participants work in groups of three where each takes a role in the company (CEO, CMO, CTO). There are four modules, each of which takes an hour to complete, covering business design, setting goals, managing stakeholders and communicating with confidence. It’s run as a day-long programme multiple times during university term time.
The other programme helps early- to mid-career research staff in translational healthcare develop their teamwork, leadership and communication skills. It’s a game where participants are challenged to form a team, come up with an innovation idea, and convince a panel to fund the early-stage development of the idea. It takes place over two months, with a 2.5 hour workshop each week, before which participants have to complete a 30 minute pre-work activity.
These programmes take time to create (3-6 months from concept to launch) but they are incredibly successful in helping participants gain skills and knowledge in a short space of time. Feedback from participants bears this out.
The tips that follow come from our observations of what’s worked particularly well in the two programmes we’ve developed, backed up by participant feedback. Between us, we’ve delivered hundreds of workshops, both online and in real life, so we have a good sense of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ look like!
Tip 1: Create great content and experiment with delivery modes
Blended online learning programmes are an opportunity to widen audience participation because they offer something new and exciting.
Long didactic lectures, directionless seminars, ringbinders full of badly written PowerPoint slides – for years now there’s been a steady learner lament about the quality of some university teaching and learning resources. Yet we’ve found that, in the past, even courses that consistently got good feedback only attracted a portion of the audience they were aimed at. We realised that the forced move to blended online learning during the Covid lockdowns created an opportunity to truly widen participation across the full breadth of a target audience. People can participate from anywhere in the world. A mix of high-quality resources, small-group-focused activities and innovative delivery modes offer variety and novelty and attract audiences with a range of different lifestyles and preferred learning styles.
Our expert tip: Focus on creating high quality resources and innovative activities and don’t worry if you don’t get the delivery modes right first time – after all, the delivery modes are the easiest things to change. Test different ways of using the programme assets (resources and activities) to discover which delivery modes work best for your audience. Experiment with different agendas paying close attention to feedback from participants as well as participation rates. For example, create one agenda for remote teams to work through the programme in their own time and at their own pace, and another agenda for running a facilitated online session for a number of groups on a particular day.
Tip 2: Build the programme around a story or game
The story or game is the hook that will first capture participants’ attention and then keep them engaged throughout the programme.
You see a common trend in usage analytics across lots of types of content – engagement starts out high, then tails off as people lose interest. Educators must learn the lessons that games makers and entertainment creators have had to learn – if the story is boring, or if the game isn’t challenging or the reward isn’t interesting enough, engagement will drop (and often drastically, off a cliff). Understanding your audience’s interests is crucial as that will help guide you on the subject matter of the storyline or game and help keep participation rates high.
Our expert tip: The storyline or game has to relate to the real world and be relevant to the audience. A story must have drama and conflict. A game must be challenging and have a reward for winning (or at the very least offer some recognition of completion). For example, you could design modules to follow the classic storytelling structure, with activities built around a catalyst for change, adventure through exploration, a moment of pain, and a denouement where success hangs in the balance.
Tip 3: Make the learning easy to apply in the real world
Learning and the application of that learning have to compete with other day-to-day work.
Researchers have packed daily agendas with lots of things competing for their time. Accordingly, the content should focus on bitesize learning that can be practiced quickly during the programme and then be immediately applied again in the workplace or other ‘real world’ situations.
Our expert tip: Use the power of the blend! Design a methodology that allows you to use all the learning assets in combination repeatedly throughout the programme. For example, one of our programmes runs over eight weeks, and each week involves participants:
This gives participants a set of tools that they can reapply or use in their respective workplaces.
Tip 4: Create teams of 3-4 people to optimise learning
Two is too few and five is too crowded.
When there are just two people in a team, participants seem hesitant to express their ideas openly and commit wholeheartedly to the work; when there are five or more people, teams often have differences of opinion that they can’t resolve. With teams of 3-4 there are enough perspectives and different experiences to make it interesting to everyone while also giving everyone a chance to be heard. Teams of 3-4 find their flow quickly, and as a result get more valuable experience when working with others. Working in this optimal team size gives individuals more opportunity to practice their professional strengths and discover their development areas.
Our expert tip: Pay attention to the internal dynamics of teams, particularly in the earliest stages of the programme. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the team about how well they’re working, or share your observations, nor to change team membership if things aren’t going as well as you think they should. We’ve found that participants appreciate these interventions and recognise that facilitators want them to get the best possible learning experience.
Tip 5: End the programme with performance and reflection
A final ‘performance’ of their work and reflection with programme facilitators is essential to close the learning loop for participants.
Performance and reflection allow participants to showcase what they’ve done and recognise what they’ve achieved. Performance builds confidence and makes meaningful reflection possible. Individual reflection, shared with others, enables them to make conscious what they’ve learned. The performance activity should require all team members to participate and draw upon their creativity. The reflection activity should focus on what participants have learned about working with others in teams as well as the specific techniques covered during the programme and how they intend to apply them in the ‘real world’.
Our expert tip: Make the final session with facilitators require a pre-recorded video performance from participants that encourages them to draw on the range of skills they’ve learned during the programme. Adding the video creation activity allows participants to see how they perform and to gain constructive feedback from others. This can be nerve wracking but doing this is in a safe learning environment enables them to reflect on improvements that they need to make for real life situations. Furthermore, it makes the reflection more powerful and longer-lasting, and therefore more likely to be acted on.
If you're developing an online learning programme and would like to discuss ideas, please do get in touch.