Encouraging student engagement in a blended learning environment: the use of contemporary learning spaces
Research shows that some non-traditional students find the university environment alienating, impersonal and unsupportive. The Quickstart project combines traditional lectures and seminars with a sequence of carefully designed online tasks, aimed at lessening the impact of the start of year uncertainties for new students. One thousand students across two geographic locations participated in the programme. The project was evaluated by considering three sources of data: data generated by server statistics of 40,358 successful requests for pages in the first four weeks of teaching; student anonymous responses to an online end of course questionnaire as well as extracts from their reflective journals; and the student experience as viewed through the eyes of a researcher in the classroom. Findings offer insights into how the students blend classroom time with their own time; and student perceptions of their own learning experiences. A collaborative learning experience involving travel to a contemporary learning space (the Tate Modern Art Gallery) mitigated the possible isolating effect of the use of technology; instead the technology enhanced the discussion and participation in activities. The students visited the Tate Modern and then facilitated their discussions by sending each other SMS text messages; they bonded very quickly in the seminar groups, where weekly online tasks that had been prepared individually outside the classroom were the focus of group discussion and debate inside the classroom; their end of semester reflective writing showed very clearly how valuable the early friendship groups had been for them settling into university life.