Unified Active Learning – our commitment to #activelearning wherever and however we access learning

Photo by Clint Adair on unsplash

I am in reflective mode – it’s summer 2021 and in the West we’re trying to get over the pandemic, catch our breath, and decide what we value, what we have done, what changes will stick. It is both a time to explain what I have been doing and to think about what this means for the future. So I give you Unified Active Learning.

I like to use this space for musing: it is a ‘public thinking’ space, but like many colleagues in similar educational development roles, I have been working flat out to support academic colleagues to respond to the pandemic over the last year or so. Key to that has been helping colleagues look beyond one-size-fits-all emergency ‘solutions’ to find ways that are meaningful for them and their students. For me, this has involved devising an approach called Unified Active Learning, a principle-based approach which emerged through the academic response group I lead at Anglia Ruskin University.

I went to ARU because of its Education Strategy – specifically its commitment to inclusive student-centred learning articulated in its Active Curriculum Framework. Other posts here discuss what this means to me. So when we all had to go online in March 2020, given we had spent the previous year running Course Design Intensives to develop an active learning culture, we were clear about our philosophy, even if like everyone else, making the shift online, or to a form of blended learning, was going to be a practical heave for staff and students alike.

Principles provide clarity

Unified Active Learning is a straightforward principle-based approach. It is consistent with, indeed it is a restatement of, what we had recently implemented in our Active Curriculum.

One principle we didn’t write down was ‘don’t panic and fall into the trap of relying on teacher-centred delivery-based strategies.’ In many ways the situation has helped us to think about what learner engagement means. It was not the time to start spoon feeding students. A higher education has to be about creating exciting challenges and stretches – even in a crisis.

At ARU we have established Unified Active Learning as the basis for teaching and learning during the pandemic. It is captured in the following adoption framework.

UAL Adoption Framework

The framework allows the academic to evaluate their approach:

“In their formal engagement, all of my students, however and wherever they access their learning, normally:

  1. Identity: Learn alongside each other, being aware of each other and their common purpose, having a strong association with their course and feeling a strong sense of being part of something.
  2. Connection: Learn through regular interactions in their connected class and through formative and summative group work in which they have a clear and equal role. They learn from their different perspectives, regularly working as supportive teams.
  3. Commitment: Value each other, coming to refer to each other habitually in all that they do as co-producers of knowledge and co-creators of their learning experience.”

The first dimension, Identity, reflects the essential idea that being on a course should feel like being part of something. The other two levels extend this to reflect a course experience that is active, inclusive and collaborative by design.

From this, our academics are supported to use their ingenuity to involve every one of their students, as they work out how to put these principles into actual practice: “This is your starting point. What can you do with it?”

What will stick?

A lot of academics have had to turn to technology, where in the past it may not have felt necessary to explore its possibilities. Like many universities, ARU has had a minimum expectations approach to learning technologies. To be honest, I’ve never been comfortable with such strategies.

Change comes from intrinsic motivation; essentially this means teaching is a matter of curiosity, imagination, measured risk, and design. ‘Want’, not ‘need’, is the byword. In the pandemic technology has given professional academics what they want – real options to teach. Zoom initially, then Teams, have turned out to be amazing learning spaces. Used simply at first, some great pedagogies have emerged, connecting well with the more familiar LMS – Canvas in our case. Indeed an ecology of digital-physical space for hybrid learning has taken shape, adaptable to specific contexts.

I sense that course teams have done more to share good practice amongst themselves too. A culture of peer support is even more important perhaps than advocacy of specific technologies and techniques. Facilitating further sharing and co-developing of good emerging practice is where my new academic year will start.

Looking ahead, we all need to decide how we want the blend to work. There is still so much to be done, but now this feels much more about sharing and building upon war stories than feeling embattled. People have created and experienced rich blends and begun to understand that the possibilities are endless for creating active, inclusive and collaborative learning environments.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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