‘To do or not to do’: Student (non-)engagement with Active Blended Learning. Case Study from Innovation in Tourism & Hospitality Management and Leading Service Quality in Hospitality

Nick Naumov, Senior Lecturer in Hospitality & Tourism Management, FBL, UoN

Statement of the problem

In the last few decades, we have witnessed a multidimensional transition within the higher education (HE) sector. The development of information and communication technologies, interdisciplinary cooperation and integration of knowledge from different fields within higher education have had a crucial impact on the way we teach, support and develop our students (Flavin, 2016; Luckin, 2018).

Much academic research has dealt with the shift from the conventional paradigm based on teacher-led, passive dissemination of knowledge and information to a more participatory, engaging and student-centred environment, based on active involvement that enables our students to ‘modify their prior knowledge and construct their own understanding’ (Hativa 2010, p. 108). The pedagogical literature promotes the adoption of a constructivist pedagogy that facilitates co-creation of knowledge through active and engaging participation rather than passive listening and note-taking as previously preferred (see for example, Grabinger, Dunlap & Duffield, 2011). New, more participatory forms of teaching, such as active and blended learning, have emerged offering an alternative to lectures and seminars (see for example, Anderson, 2008; Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). These new approaches to teaching and learning are often considered as a response to the changing nature of our students and their transition from passive learners to more active, creative and critical individuals (Trilling and Fadel, 2009).

This critical commentary is focused on the implementation of the active-blended model (ABL) and explores student engagement and active participation. ABL has been implemented at University of Northampton as a means of creating better learning experiences for students and with a focus on developing knowledgeable graduates who are ‘highly employable’ and equipped with a variety of social, technical and academic skills (see Armellini, 2018a). ABL is a long-term, institution-wide process of pedagogic transformation centred upon the collaborative group work rather than large-scale lectures (Armellini, 2018b).

The paper is based on my teaching practice and particularly two final year undergraduate modules, Innovation in Tourism & Hospitality Management & Leading Service Quality in Hospitality. Each module is delivered through workshops. The groups for each session are small (n=15 and n=20) and include a good mixture of home and international students, including final year undergraduate students, top-up students, joint honours students and exchange students.

The main aim of the study is to explore the (non-) engagement of students with pre-sessional and post-sessional activities and to investigate engagement varied with different activities and approaches to active-blended learning. The paper begins with a concise and critical overview of the principles of active-blended learning and focuses on student participation, engagement and co-creation of knowledge. It continues with a brief explanation about the chosen issues and the focus of the peer observation process followed by a structured explanation of the chosen interventions. The paper concludes with some implications for professional practice based on the experience gained after having implemented the planned interventions.

Literature review

The traditional educational paradigm is primarily based on conventional teacher-led activities that occur in real time. In this lecture-dominated model, the role of the teacher is to disseminate knowledge to a large class and the role of the students is to be passive recipients of knowledge (see for example, Hornsby & Osman, 2014). However, this paradigm is largely inappropriate in the ‘digital age’ (Bates, 2015) that is characterised by flexible learning opportunities and often involves the utilization of modern information and communication technologies. Further, the traditional educational paradigm is based on the assumption that our students are 18-21 years old, attend lectures and seminars, spend time in the university library and have limited external commitments. However, as Munro (2011) argues, we also have the ‘non-traditional’ students who are mature, work part/full time, have multiple commitments and require flexible learning options.

Another reason for the decline of the traditional educational paradigm today is the lack of skills it provides. Paulo Freire (1970), one of the earliest critics of the transmission model, argues that the traditional education system reinforces a lack of critical thinking. In his seminal work, he introduced the ‘banking model of education’, a term to critique the system, and argues it leads to ‘oppression’, which in this context means lack of creativity, innovation, organisational and self-management skills (Freire, 1970). It is essential to note that Freire’s theory first emerged in the 1970s, at times when creativity and self-management skills among others were not extensively needed. His arguments were established in different social and economic realities but still have currency today. In fact, these skills, along others, such as problem solving, collaboration and communication, are particularly important for the contemporary industries and practices and are often regarded as essential skills that every graduate in the 21st century should possess (Trilling & Fabel, 2009, p.xxvi)

Skills development is particularly important in the context of service industries in general and hospitality and tourism, in particular. The nature of hospitality and tourism as ‘people’s industries’ requires an approach that combines theory-based but also research-informed teaching with practical, ‘hands-on’ training. Thus, skills development is very important for hospitality and tourism education that seeks to prepare students for a successful business career. As pointed by Okumus & Wong (2005), Stump et al. (2011) and Phelan et al. (2009), hospitality and tourism students possess a more robust need for applied and active learning strategies (e.g. problem-based learning) that develop their professional skillset and prepare them for their future careers. Empirical evidence from the field has suggested that tourism and hospitality students need a learning environment that is more interactive and intellectually stimulating, fostering deeper levels of thinking (see for example, Hwang et al. 2011).

As a response to the increasing demand for skill-based teaching and learning, new student-led and more participatory approaches to learning have emerged, such as active learning. Active learning is centred upon the involvement and engagement of students in the classroom and is often considered as an approach promotes engagement and meaningful participation (Robertson, 2018) while at the same time, developing higher-order thinking skills (following Bloom, 1956). The main rationale behind the implementation of active learning is that it promotes leadership, innovation and creativity achieved by the inclusion of participatory and reflective teaching techniques such as problem-based learning, case studies, experiential techniques, collaborative learning, project-based or game-based learning (see for example, Stetson-Tiligadas, 2018).

In addition to teaching techniques for active student engagement, we have also seen the emergence of blended approaches to learning combining self-paced and flexible learning with tutor-led and classroom-based activities (Sharma & Barrett, 2007). Blended and active learning approaches are often combined to form an active-blended learning model that brings the ‘best of both worlds’ (Graham, 2006, p.5) and combines flexibility and self-paced learning together with a more active and student-engaged classroom (see for example, Power & Cole, 2017). At University of Northampton, ABL has become a standard approach to teaching and learning (Armellini, 2018b). Each programme incorporates student-centred activities that support the development of subject knowledge, facilitate independent learning and encourage digital fluency (see Figure 1). Students are required to complete pre-sessional activities that enable them to make sense of the study materials in advance, interact with each other and with their tutors and take ownership of the learning material. Face-to-face workshops focus on critical analysis, discussions and reflection allowing students to build and enhance their learning and can take place in a classroom setting, off campus, study trips and industry visits. Post-sessional activities extend student learning and provides opportunities for students to further engage with appropriate literature and consolidate their learning.

ABL model

Figure 1. Active-blended learning at University of Northampton. Adapted from Armellini (2018a; 2018b) and Palmer, Lomer & Bashliyska (2018)

In order for the active-blended model to be effective, it requires student participation and engagement with both pre-sessional and post-sessional tasks as well as their active involvement during the face-to-face sessions. This often comes with a number of challenges which require thorough preparation and careful consideration of a number of factors. From a practitioner’s perspective, student engagement and active participation are critical components of ABL and previous research has resulted in a number of suggestions regarding useful techniques to stimulate student participation.

First, higher education literature recognises the potential of using innovative technologies as a means to increase student engagement (see for example, Lowe, D’Alessandro, Winzar, Laffey, & Collier, 2013). For Ghosh & Renna (2009), technologies could improve cognitive skills and could also lead to higher level of student motivation to learn. Using technology-enhanced learning is associated with teacher-led blended approaches to learning that require student participation in online activities. For example, Goldman, Cohen, and Sheahan (2008) found that using seminar blogs increases student engagement, interaction and learning. However, other studies have suggested that active learning does not necessarily involve technologies and could focus on the activity inside the classroom itself. For instance, La Lopa, Elsayed & Wray (2018) have found that team-based projects, role play, jigsaw activity and simulation games among others were preferred by a sample of 23 hospitality-educators teaching at three of the top 10 hospitality schools in US. Bryan et. (2018) argue that student engagement is not determined by the use of technologies but the quality of the student-tutor interaction.

Second, active learning is more likely to be efficient when it is structured, measured and involves a peer-to-peer element. Wilson, Pollock & Hamann (2007) propose a three-component composite index of active learning that measures how students reply to the online posts of their peers. Other studies such as Bender (2003), also reinforce the importance of having critical discussions based on student interactions and argue that learning is ‘best achieved through dialogue’ (ibid, p.56). Bryan et al. (2018) also share similar findings reporting that students tend to engage in online classes more intensively when they frequently interact with peer students (using technologies in this case).

As this concise review of literature has indicated, ABL comes with a number of potential challenges. The one chosen for the purpose of this study is the non-engagement of students with online activities and their insufficient class participation. This study focuses on two critically important aspects of ABL and seeks to explore:

1. Class participation and (non)engagement with online activities

Based on the assumption that technologies stimulate engagement and active participation, I am more interested to find how technologies stimulate the engagement of those students who are ‘passive learners’ due to their previous educational background and learning patterns. This is particularly valid for some international students who are not used to classroom participation, find ABL difficult and are generally quite reserved when it comes to sharing their opinions and expressing their standpoints.

2. Tutor’s involvement with online and classroom-based activities

In this context, the main purpose is to explore the tutor’s involvement and more specifically, how the active/passive role of the tutor impacts the student participation and engagement with online activities.

The intervention and peer observation

Both of my chosen modules follow a similar teaching philosophy and strictly adhere to the principles of ABL. Each module is delivered in a workshop format and students are required to complete some pre-sessional activities, reflect on their learning through critical discussion and classroom activities, and extend their learning. However, the level of engagement and particularly, the depth of analysis and active participation, is not consistent.

The focus of the peer observation was to critically and constructively discuss student engagement with online activities, the level of interactivity and relevance of online activities to the assessment items and student in-class participation. The observations (one per each module) took place on 3rd- 4th December 2018 and were conducted by one of our Graduate Learning Tutors. He was chosen on the basis of his close contact with our final students, his subject background and his positionality as graduate tutor but also Master’s student.

The student in-class participation was active and meaningful. The observer commended the depth and criticality of the discussion, the use of appropriate examples and how the whole discussion was narrated.  It was also noted that different teaching techniques were necessary to engage students with diverse backgrounds – a mixture of home and international students, and top-up, continuing and exchange students.

…I felt that the use of extreme example was beneficial and brought out a whole debate on the human ethics on some of these ideas and that brought some people that started to disengage back into the room.

It was observed that there was some student engagement with online activities but not everyone participated. The peer observation helped me develop a number of strategies to better engage students with the online and in-class activities, and to improve the relevance of online activities to the assessments of the module.

  1. For example, students doing Innovations in Tourism & Hospitality Management had to install two mobile applications on an own device and then to critically discuss and reflect on their experiences in the face-to-face sessions. The students who did participate demonstrated a great deal of interest but it was obvious that few of them did not understand the task at a first place. In this case, the tutor input had been minimal and students were given flexibility to complete the task which was introduced at the end of the previous session, and it was agreed that the online instructions needed to be more detailed, but it was also recommended that more time should be spend presenting and explaining the task in the classroom prior to its announcement. The advice was that this is particularly important for international students who would benefit from having a more detailed brief of the task.
  2. It was also observed that students engaged more with the classroom activities than with the online activities. For example, in the Leading Service Quality in Hospitality, students were required to read and analyse a case study of Singapore Airlines. Very few of them did so as a part of the preliminary activity but almost all were happy to discuss the case studies in the face-to-face session, which led to a much more productive and meaningful discussion. The observer suggested that that preliminary reading could be complemented by a short group work in class, during the previous session, to stimulate engagement. This strategy has been implemented immediately and has proven to be very effective. Engagement with the pre-sessional online activity has improved since the introduction of the preparatory activity at the end of the previous f2f session.
  3. It was commented that the efforts made to relate the pre-sessional activities to the summative assessment were worthwhile. It was noted that the mobile applications are particularly suited for the students at that age and level, and they are especially helpful for international students who may not be familiar with these technologies (i.e. Augmented Reality).  It was suggested that the link from this task to the assessment could have been emphasised even more strongly.
  4. In the Leading Service Quality in Hospitality module, it was noted that directing students to appropriate learning resources is a good approach to help them find up-to-date and quality learning materials.
  5. The observer also highlighted the need to provide examples that are contemporary and appealing to the students. For example, the low level of engagement with the case study of Singapore Airlines may be due to the fact that the airline is not so familiar to this group of students as they might be more knowledgeable of the low-cost and Europe-based airlines than Singapore Airlines.

Based on the learning gained through peer observation, I have decided to implement a number of interventions in order to stimulate student engagement and active participation. Central to redesigning the workshops was the idea to constructive change to the ‘learning environment’ following Bransford, Vye & Bateman (2002) and their ‘How People Learn’ framework (see Figure 2).

High quality classroom

Figure 2. High-quality classroom learning environments. Adopted from Bransford, Vye & Bateman (2002)

Each workshop now combines all four lenses of this framework and the activities are designed to provide a meaning learning environment in which students are able to gain theoretical knowledge, apply what they have learned, reflect on their learning and consider the potential use of what they have learned for their assignments.

The pre-sessional activities are integral to establish the knowledge-centred environment. Essential readings, research activities and industry insights provide the background knowledge for each workshop. Students are required to engage with relevant theories and familiarise themselves with the case studies that are to be used in the face-to-face sessions. Very often they are required to engage with background research and identify suitable case studies. The learning goals are communicated in advance with clear instructions about how the knowledge gained will be used further. An illustrative example are the changes to Innovations in Hospitality & Tourism Management module. The pre-sessional activities now require students to make their own research and co-create their own knowledge. For instance, in a session about service automation in tourism, students were required to find examples of service automation at travel agencies and hotels and construct their own theory about the benefits and drawbacks on using technologies within the service industries. Based on their findings, then we collectively introduced a theory about the impact of service automation over service quality in the F2F session.

The workshops are learner-centered, community-centred and assessment-centered. Students are required to reflect on the knowledge gained from the pre-sessional activities and engage in a critical, learner-led discussion often centered around a number of case studies and industry examples. An important aspect is to reflect on how the knowledge gained adds to their existing skills and how it influences their beliefs and attitudes. Problem-based learning has been introduced to allow students to develop their creativity and innovation skills but also to facilitate active and constructive discussion that foster norms for people learning from one another. Furthermore, collaboration and constructive criticism are essential for the assessment-centered element of the learning environment. Students are encouraged to consider how they can apply the theories to the case studies and then how the knowledge gained could be useful for their summative assessment. An illustrative example are the workshops for Leading Service Quality in Hospitality. Problem-based learning has been introduced to facilitate an application of theories introduced in the pre-sessional activities to a ‘real-life’ example. For instance, frameworks and models of service quality were introduced in a number of pre-sessional activities and then real-life examples of service operations were brought to the classroom. Students were then able to use the models and frameworks to assess and evaluate the service experience and propose innovative solutions to the service failures. This was also useful for their first assessment item which was a service inspection report.

The post-sessional activities are community-centered and assessment-centered. Reflecting on their face-to-face workshop activities, students are required to engage with the study materials and analyse a selected topic/issue/case study in more depth. They are also expected to collaborate and engage in a peer-review process in which they comment each other’s contributions. Pre-sessional activities often include a formative assessment activity. As Clarke (2008) argues, formative assessments are a very useful tool stimulate engagement and help students develop their mega-cognitive abilities to reflect, self-analyse and self-assess their learning. In the context of these two modules, formative assessment is used to build-up summative assessment and help students improve the quality of their work by getting peer-to-peer and tutor feedback.

Implications for future professional practice

The implemented interventions to the chosen modules brought new insights to the (re)organisation of the teaching and learning activities. Following the feedback from the peer observation process, I made important changes to the learning environment as an attempt to facilitate active learning, stimulate engagement with online activities and foster collaboration, creativity and innovation in the classroom. The critical insights and constructive feedback of my colleagues during our ‘Hot Seat Discussions’ also brought some interdisciplinary techniques which could be potentially useful in the context of these two modules. For example, integrating a formative assessment element in the post-sessional activities was quite beneficial for both of my modules.

The work also suggests a number of further implications, both for my own future professional practice, and inform and help other academics who teach in similar contexts.

First, the multitude of intellectual and cognitive abilities among our students is often reflected in their knowledge and ability to work with information and communication technologies. Although we often assume our students to be ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001), we should pay attention to the main purpose of using technologies. My experience has shown that many of our students do possess good skills but they are unable to apply those skills to use particular tools to support their learning. For example, some students have expressed their difficulties with the online discussion board or writing a short Wiki. It is necessary to spend time in the classroom and demonstrate what they are required to do prior to giving them a task and it would be wrong to consider that they are all possessed good digital literacy skills. This is consistent with the findings of Madge et al. (2009) who in their research demonstrate that only 10% of their students can use Facebook for educational purposes or the work of Kim (2012) who has reported limited engagement with YouTube based activities.

Second, despite the definite positive implications of online activities, the face-to-face sessions are still the heart of the learning process. Student-led activities and critical discussion comprise the main part of the workshops before the interventions and this has remained consistent after the interventions. What is more, many students now complete the online activities but some still do them only partly, leaving the most of their responses to the actual discussion. Face-to-face workshops provide an arena for engagement and questions, some of which relate to the online activities while others build upon them and help students to constructive improve their class participation. My main finding here is the conceptual nature of the activities is the main factor for engagement and more students participate only when they can clearly see the link to their assessment (formative or summative). This contradicts the argument raised by Tsay et al. (2018) who report that the level of engagement depends on the variety of activities. In fact, the variety is important to sustain an interest but the focus (e.g. assessment) is much more significant. An overall recommendation is the implementation of a scaffolding approach with precise details how each activity adds to the learning process (e.g. skills development) but also how it helps the student to complete the assessment.

Third, student engagement with online activities greatly depends on the involvement of the tutor. This involvement means the time and efforts spent in explaining tasks in class, the quality of student-tutor interaction online, and the active participation of the tutor in the peer-review part of the online activity. In my experience, students tend to do more when they see the active involvement of their tutor in the online activities, and receive critical comments on their online contributions from their tutor. In connection with this, it was noted that some international students did not participate in some activities as they were not comfortable in getting peer feedback or having their work presented and discussed critically in front of their classmates. In order to assist those students to engage, the setting of the NILE tools such as the reflective journal or discussion board, can be changed so that contributions are only visible to the tutor.

Fourth, students want differentiation – they want to show their creativity and innovation, they want to be flexible and they do not perform well in the cases when everyone is required to do the same exercise.  As argued by Tomlinson (2017), differentiation is a practice of employing different teaching techniques in a diverse and mixed-ability classroom aimed at providing flexibility in terms of contents, assessment and task design. A recommendation here is to have activities broken down into different components enabling students to demonstrate cognitive skills at different levels. For example, the first activity addresses the basic requirements; the second focuses on enhancing the subject knowledge and the third concerns more about developing critical and analytical skills.


This critical commentary has provided a reflection on my teaching practice and more specifically, my own engagement with the active-blended learning model. Drawing on my own work with two final year undergraduate modules, I focused on non-engagement of students with active-blended learning activities and analysed the reasons for their limited participation. Based on peer observation and feedback informed by relevant literature and theoretical frameworks, I implemented a number of interventions in order to stimulate active participation and engagement of my students. The results of this study indicate that active-learning depends on a number of factors and there is no universal formula for student engagement. The implemented interventions have demonstrated the critical importance of having a variety of activities but have also highlighted that effective and meaningful active learning occurs in a learning environment that is primarily learner-centred and assessment-centred. An important finding of this study is the role of the tutor not only as a contributor and facilitator of knowledge but active and engaged participant. Finally, this study also reveals the important role of differentiation in terms of student engagement and participation.


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