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The Dossier

So, What about the Blended Format?

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This semester marked a new phase for our university: after months spent online students were given the possibility to come back on campus and attend lectures in a blended format. How is the student body liking the experience so far? To find out, we asked you to complete an anonymous survey – here is what you had to say. We also asked two professors and a teaching assistant about their perspective.

In this dossier, you can find our results.

Table of Contents

The Students' View

Is the experience of the online format different, compared to last semester? If yes, was that for the better?

The consensus is that the experience of the online format has improved. Some of the changes that survey respondents appreciate the most are synchronous lectures (some courses were entirely pre-recorded last semester), syllabi adapted to online exams, tech support for teachers on the spot, increased interaction and, overall, better organization. Nevertheless, a portion of respondents reported discomfort, mainly due to technical problems: the camera can only capture a part of the whiteboard, sometimes the streaming definition is so low that the latter it is illegible, the system often lags or crashes and, sometimes, mistakes in setting up recordings caused them to be unrecoverable or unusable e.g. the whiteboard is not fully visible or part of the lecture was not recorded.

What has been the biggest challenge in adapting to the blended methodology?

Several students agree that getting used to such an unusual format has been a challenge per se. Staying on track has proved rather tricky during off-campus weeks and, at times, alienating. However, coming to class on campus has its downsides too: being in a half-empty class without many opportunities for socialising does not feel quite the same es pre-Covid lectures. Difficulties deriving from the online format persist: respondents often report that they struggle concentrating from home and that technical problems generate frustration and can be so serious that they end up jeopardizing learning.

According to

61.33%

of survey respondents

Bocconi should continue offering a blended format

What are the main advantages of the blended format with respect to “traditional” in-person lectures, if any?

According to the survey, the most popular advantage is having access to recordings: missing class now belongs to the past as one can always watch or re-watch later lectures. Some also enjoy having a less busy week when attending online. Planning your day is easier and working students have an easier time staying on track with their courses. Commuters can pass on coming to Milan just for, say, one lecture only or they can watch from home the ones held early or late.

If there was one thing you could change about the blended methodology, what would it be?

One of the main points that have been made is that interaction with students online is sometimes deficient: not all professors make use of the chat or other means of communications. They are also penalised by frequent technical problems, as reported above. In some courses, the total number of students is so low that all of them could actually fit in the classroom while still respecting social distancing measures and students are left wondering why they are split in two groups if that is the case. I have witnessed myself classes in which the students on campus were as few as a dozen and those online around twenty. Many advocate for traditional exams in lieu of online exams. While the aversion of students for Respondus is no mystery, the rationale behind the choice of online exams for everyone was mainly granting equal treatment for on-campus and off-campus students.

Despite live lectures being cited as one of the main pros of the new blended format by respondents, some reman nostalgic of pre-recorded lectures. A few practical suggestions include introducing the possibility of hearing students in class from home, being able to split the screen and see both the slides and the camera at the same time, breakout rooms for group activities.

One of the most radical suggestions submitted is the following: “Personally, I believe that the blended format should undergo a complete redesign of the courses and double lectures. For example, the online week could be used for theoretical classes that, as we know, only require paying attention and taking notes, something that is very convenient to do from our own home. The on-campus weeks, instead, should be used for those classes that require a greater degree of interaction.

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What did you miss the most when you were away?

The vast majority of students missed human interaction: meeting friends, classmates and teachers. They also missed having a daily routine, a sense of return to normalcy. The vibe of the campus and studying there, be it at the bunker, the library or Leoni are very dear to the community. On a lighter note, some appear to have missed a great deal Bocconiane and aperitivi and “everything, even running late for lectures”.

The Teachers' Perspective

Luca Sintoni

Luca Sintoni

Prof. Luca Sintoni graduated in Economics and Corporate Legislation from our University. Here, he has been teaching Accounting and Financial Statement Analysis since 2010. Thanks to his extremely engaging teaching method, he is very admired by his students, so we decided to ask for his opinion about the recent changes adopted by Bocconi University.

Guido Osimo

Guido Osimo

Prof. Guido Osimo teaches Mathematics. He was one of the pioneers of the blended format: many of our readers might remember taking the very first classes in the Mathematics Crash Course online before coming on-campus as freshmen in the pre-Covid era.

What are the main advantages of the blended format with respect to “traditional” in-person lectures, if any?

Sintoni: Personally, I am very proud that Bocconi University, and specifically the people who work here, promptly reacted to the unique circumstances of the Covid pandemic, setting up very innovative and effective solutions for distance learning. The implemented solutions have the indiscussed advantage of allowing students that have difficulties in coming to Milan to virtually attend the courses of this academic year. This, obviously, permits to also hold traditional lessons safely.

Furthermore, I firmly believe that the biggest value of University is the match between teachers and students, especially for the personal relationship that could be built. In my opinion this enriches not only knowledge, but also people, and I say this even if you probably know that I always try to use innovative teaching solutions.

Osimo: Being involved in blended learning for many years here at Bocconi, I know that it truly adds something. My personal point of view has always been that you can delegate to the online activities some of the lower level tasks such as review of easy material or reference for standard material, which you don’t really want to cover in the course every year. So, for example, the Bocconi preparatory course has exactly this idea, that you delegate to the online format some of the low-level material, while covering higher level parts in class, as they need teacher-student interaction.

Now my attitude towards this format has changed as new facts have emerged. Naturally, the online on blended format can be adapted to difficult situations much better than in-person teaching only, as it is more flexible. Having a blended format in use allows for fine tuning of the combination of in-person and online teaching to meet current needs. Another important idea is that online learning is more modern and familiar for new generations, who have a much quicker learning process in this sense.

Compared to online only, have you noticed an increase in active class participation?

Sintoni: It’s very early to say something about this. At the moment, in any case, no. I haven’t seen an increase in participation, in the Accounting and Balance Sheet course.

Osimo: The idea is that there is an increase in the complexity of the participation process. Now I really have two different audiences: I have, say, fifty students sitting in front of me, and then I have the online students, that are at least as many. Managing those and striving to encourage participation on both sides is, indeed, challenging. It is tiresome and a little bit more time consuming than what happens in a traditional context.

How do you make sure, in practice, that the online part of the class feels included?

Sintoni: I think that this is the hardest part of teaching in this moment. Obviously if you speak to the students that are physically in the classroom, you have to use a specific method that includes gestures and timing in speaking. Whereas, if you speak to online students, the methods change. In this moment, we have to do both things and this might reduce the teaching quality for both types of students. In any case, I feel connected to online students also because social networks taught us that we can feel close even being very far, and because Blackboard Collaborate works very well, too.

Osimo: There are some tricks and in my opinion one of them, is for example, to make clear right away that I will not be using the chat. It is extremely distracting and it interrupts the lecture way too often. Instead, I encourage students to use the ‘raise your hand’ feature whenever they wish so that I can leave them the floor for questions or comments. I also introduce some pauses to ask questions and run polls online, which is very quick and convenient.

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What has been the greatest challenge posed by the adoption of the blended format?

Sintoni: What I just mentioned: finding solutions that could grant quality for both types of students (online and in presence) at the same time. And I want to specify that I am trying to do so because it is a very innovative experience in teaching.

Osimo: The first thing everyone can notice is that there are several new things to do, you do not get to start a lecture as soon as you enter a classroom: all professors need to take care of attendance, wear a face shield and set up a number of technology items – this can take as long as fifteen minutes.

Another and more conceptual challenge is posed by flexibility, each teacher has his or her own teaching style and, in this context, those who are more open to change can strive. I personally try to combine precision and adaptability – as teachers, we cannot afford to be rigid.

Should Bocconi continue offering a blended format even after the Covid-19 emergency is over?

Sintoni: In my opinion, after the emergency, Bocconi should offer different online courses together with traditional ones, because it is clear that the Covid pandemic has changed the world. We need to innovate the teaching system, without losing the added value consisting in the university community, in particular for Bocconi, as we have a community with a strong identity.

Osimo: Yes, of course. Clearly now we do not have alternatives, but when the emergency will be over, we will have the possibility to choose. I would expect a wave supporting the re-adoption of traditional methodologies and another one proposing a permanent implementation of some of the new features we introduced. In a way, I am deeply convinced that teaching is interacting, which could well imply live or in-presence interaction. The conceptual framework has irreversibly changed and, in my opinion, some features are here to stay.

Have you observed discrepancies in the performance of students between online exams and traditional ones?

Sintoni: Concerning the previous semester, in which, I remember, the teaching model was different between the ones adopted in this academic year, we clearly saw (because we observed results statistically) that there are not any changes in grades for the different types of exams even if, obviously, the exercises and questions that could be asked in online exams are different from the written exams ones.

I believe that this helps students to find different solutions to the same problems and that it facilitates the application of knowledge in a different context. This teaches us that we have to find value also in different and challenging situations. What a great opportunity! As I like to repeat: dinosaurs became extinct because they did not learn to adapt.

Osimo: Let me be frank, the main problem of online exams is cheating. In accordance with the honor code, even when the probability of being caught cheating is low, students should not attempt to do that. Clearly, such low probability is an issue that needs to be tackled, for example by introducing time constraints, randomization and parametrization of the questions. Another solution that proves effective is adopting oral exams, as they are significantly more reliable, despite being time consuming.

The idea of performance is strictly linked to cheating, which implies higher grades and, at the same time, less effective learning. The opportunity to cheat incentivizes students to study less and leads to a decoupling of performance in terms of grades from performance in terms of learning. This is potentially disruptive and we must find an effective solution.

Have you made any changes to your course or teaching style?

Sintoni: Absolutely yes, or better, as I said, I am trying. In any case our course introduced some innovations some years ago that help us. For example, videos of lessons recaps, animated slides and an online exercise platform. Surely innovations can add value to traditional teaching methods.

Osimo: I do not use my tablet or personal computer anymore: due to technical reasons, I transfer my files to the class PC. This is a minor change, but it does affect the way I teach. Lectures are more complex, and more time is devoted to setting up technology, so I had to cut down a bit on chatting – which is something I used to do frequently in the past. We opted for not cutting the course syllabus, so now the schedule is quite tight and requires constant focus. This contributes to making the teaching experience more challenging.

The Teaching Assistants' View

Alberto Frison

Alberto Frison

To complete this mini-series about the opinion of the Bocconi Community about the blended format, we also asked a few questions to Alberto Frison, teaching assistant of Prof. Tito Boeri’s course The Economics of Imperfect Labour Markets.

What are the main advantages of the blended format with respect to “traditional” in-person lectures, if any?

This format still delivers high-quality teaching, despite being adopted as a response to exceptional times. After all, it helps overcoming communicative barriers, but the value remains in the actual content: people – professors, students – are still at the core. We are more and more acquainted to expressing ourselves from behind a screen and I have noticed that most of the interactions during our lectures are coming from the online side of the class, as students might feel more at ease to speak up from distance. On the other hand, I am glad some students can experience the lectures in presence. It returns a sense of normality and authenticity, particularly to first year students.

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As a teaching assistant, what has been the greatest challenge posed by the adoption of the blended format?

This is my first year as a teaching assistant, but I had the chance to see what the role is about in the past years, as a student. This time, some extra work must be done to make sure that the students online are able to follow the lecture and that they get to participate in the class talk. This is what the professor I am assisting and I are focusing on the most: we spent valuable time fine-tuning methods, materials, and technical tweaks, building on the feedback we collect in class. I reckon the students are appreciating it.

In your opinion, do online students get equal treatment?

My role can help making sure they do. Typically, I help connecting online students to the class in presence by echoing questions and answers both ways. Some compromises are inevitable, but I do believe that the value they receive is equivalent to what on-campus students get. Thinking about it, the online format also provides some additional benefits, such as recordings of lectures remaining accessible even when the class is over.

Should Bocconi continue offering a blended format even after the Covid-19 emergency is over?

In my opinion, this crisis prompted a shift to new ways of teaching that are here to stay. Most of the technologies we are now making use of in class were already part of our personal lives, thus many did not struggle much to adopt them. I am convinced the challenge is to smoothen their presence: they must add something to the traditional live class without interfering with it. I am supportive of the opportunity to access education no matter where and when; personally, I truly enjoyed the possibility of scheduling my own ‘class time’ thanks to the recordings during my last months as a student.

If there was one thing you could change about the blended methodology, what would it be?

The quality of the existing work is already high, especially taking into account the emergency context in which all this has been designed. On one side, I can imagine of pushing the technology edge: can we have students interact with the materials presented live? How can we streamline online exams? But also, I wish it would be somehow easier for everyone to interact with others at deeper levels: I’ve built valuable relationships with colleagues and faculty during my years as a student and I am afraid some might lose a similar chance in such a peculiar time.

Author profile
Deputy Director | barbara.balcon@studbocconi.it

I’ve been part of Tra i Leoni since my first semester at Bocconi and I’m now a Deputy Director. I’m a third year BIEF-Economics student and I mainly cover finance and campus life. In 2019 I wrote “Word on the Street”, a weekly column about the story behind the names of campus buildings and spots, while last semester I was the head of our Global Edition.

Author profile

I’m an Economics and Management student at Bocconi University, coming from Puglia. I’m interested in all forms of art, cinema, literature and culture.

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