Sunday, April 10, 2016

Learning in the blender

I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the term blended learning. It refers to courses that combine both classroom and online teaching and I sometimes feel that its popularity is because it represents a safe compromise between the two forms of delivery; exploiting some of the flexibility of online delivery with the familiar traditions of campus. For those who are skeptical of fully online courses, blended learning is a safe option. I'm not against blending online and classroom, far from it, but I don't think the blend we really need is centred around physical/digital delivery.

I enjoyed reading a new article by Sir John Daniel, Making Sense of Blended Learning: Treasuring an Older Tradition or Finding a Better Future?, arguing that the blend we should examine more closely is not simply about rooms and virtual spaces. Today there is very little difference in student performance between well-designed online courses and their traditional counterparts. In some cases the online environment can in fact foster deeper discussion and greater sense of community. The key quality element is in the course design, not in the delivery form, and Daniel proposes that the real blend we are looking for is getting the right mix between independent and interactive activities (regardless of delivery form).

Independent learning takes place outside the classroom, even on the most traditional campus course, and today that means mostly online. Students need to learn how to study independently, find resources and investigate further than the prescribed reading lists. Learning how to learn is a key literacy. However independent learning is only half of the blend and courses need to include interactive learning, both with peers and especially with qualified faculty in seminar or tutorial form. This can take place both face-to-face (F2F) and online and the choice of arena will depend on the context. If it is possible to gather the group for F2F meetings then do so, but make sure the meeting is really interactive and not simply information transfer. If F2F is not feasible then use appropriate online arenas. Here even the term F2F is appropriate because when I have online meetings at least with smaller groups I can see everyone face-to-face, sometimes with excellent video quality. F2F today does not necessarily imply sharing the same physical space.

There is of course no magic blend, especially not in terms of technology, but Daniel identifies four vital principles:
  • Focus on learning outcomes. The blend of interactive/independent and F2F/online must fully support the learning outcomes. If that can be achieved fully online then that is fine as long as the quality of the learning process is assured.
    ... in optimising the blend of online and interactive experiences the focus should be on attaining the learning objectives of the courses/programmes and not on wider purposes, such as how to sustain the campus, important though such aims are.
  • Practical and laboratory work. Of course this aspect demands work at a physical location but with so many online simulations and virtual labs available the actual time in a physical lab can be reduced to a few intensive meetings.T
  • Teamwork and division of labour. Course design and delivery is not a solo project but teamwork involving different areas of expertise. 
  • Keeping costs down and quality up. These are perhaps the most important elements in the blend.
I urge you to read the article to grasp these points more fully but the rationale behind reviewing terms like blended and hybrid learning is summarised as follows:

What this new age requires is hybrid learning where the whole system is redesigned to create a happy blend of student-teacher conversations and online learning. This essay has highlighted, in particular, two important ways to make higher education more effective for the 21st century. First, students need to engage more fully with independent work. Online technology can help them do this ... and must be used intensively to free up time for students to prepare assignments and for teachers to use their interactions with students over their assignments as a prime vehicle for teaching. Second, teachers must help students, via apprenticeship-style sessions and commentary on their assignments, to develop skills and acquire academic knowledge.

My main conclusion from this article is that the blend we should be discussing is not a simple matter of F2F versus online, but a more complex mixture of independent and interactive learning where delivery form can vary according to context and where the learning outcomes are the driver. 


  1. Hi Alastair, very nice summary on a very important topic. It provides access to the certainly excellent but quite long article of Sir John Daniel. It is not so much about new educational technology but about a new way to look at existing things. At a moment where after the invention of the MOOCs there is not soo much innovation to be seen in educational technology, you open a door to teaching innovation nevertheless. - If I was on Facebook - which I am not - I would «like» it. Regards, Eva