There’s Blended Learning and There’s Blended Learning!

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

Blended learning has lots of different definitions. In addition, there are the different balances struck between face-to-face (F2F) and online elements. I’ve reflected previously (in The ‘Open Mode’ – A Step Toward Completely Online) about different student attitudes in approaching blended vs. purely online learning. In the two models below, I will examine how the structure of a blended course, in the context of higher education in the UK, can have an impact on effectiveness.

Model 1. The course begins with a F2F day or two – often the preferred term here is “residential.” The course is explained, participants get to know each other, and bonds are formed. Importantly, the online environment is introduced with hands on practice if necessary. More importantly, the educator shows commitment to facilitation of any online activities involving communication or collaboration. The rest of the course is taught online with perhaps another F2F event at the end. So the only organised way students can interact or collaborate is by engaging in the online activities.

Model 2. The course consists of eight F2F days that occur on a weekly basis. Between these days, the course is completely online. Each F2F session delivers the core content. The online activities build on this or prepare students for the next session.

There are various points to make about these two models. For example, model 2 is far more common. The reasons are wide-ranging, but high up on the list is the fact that fundamental F2F learning design issues, almost out of habit, dominate the planning. Rooms are booked, sessions are numbered – this is how teaching happens. Further down the list is a vague notion and directive from some policy about e-learning that favors the model 2 approach. The emphasis is on the F2F, and critical online activities such as discussions are all too often given short shrift. Sometimes a learning technologist is consulted but only for the functionality of a couple of interactive tools (usually the discussion board), and that box is ticked.

As a result, even if the tutors are committed and diligent in their e-facilitation of the online elements, there are tumbleweeds blowing across the online forums. One explanation is that there’s a clear message about the primacy of F2F. The online aspect feels and is subservient to this. Couple this with a blended learning student’s natural inclination to think this way anyway (see The ‘Open Mode’ – A Step Toward Completely Online ) and you are left with what is essentially a F2F course.

In contrast, in model 1, the key point is that at certain junctures the learning is delivered ONLY online. In this example, it’s most of the course. This makes it easier for the students to get used to the idea and just run with it. Give a student in 2010 the alternative and F2F wins most of the time (in my context anyway). Take away this choice and there might be a bit of grumbling, but they soon get on with it.

Another crucial weakness of model 2 is lack of time for the online activities. There’s a conflict between the need to think in terms of time periods online and sessions lasting a few hours in F2F. If the F2F sessions are sorted out first, it’s common for online discussions to be allotted only a few days. Just as they get going, they have to stop. So for effective discussions to occur in blended learning, you want to carefully schedule enough time for them. This is easily achieved if each mode, F2F and online, is given equal status in the planning.

One Response

  1. Tom, I find your models and analyses very useful in further differentiating among tech-related pedagogy.

    I agree that your model 1 — F2F bookends for completely online instruction and learning — is the more viable of the two. As you say, model 2 variations give primacy to F2F activities and this emphasis is not lost on students. When we add the natural inclination of students in a population that prefers F2F, the online elements take an even harder hit.

    In my opinion, teachers and students fall into distinct populations: One is naturally inclined to give primacy to F2F. The other, to online. Although it might be nice to say that there’s a middle ground where both F2F and online are treated equally, I don’t believe it’s possible. In this case, it’s one or the other.

    When online has primacy, then the trend will favor further tipping until a course is completely online. This happens because, in this population, teachers will find — and students will demand — ways to virtualize the remaining F2F activities. In other words, why lock into a specific time and place when anytime-anywhere is a viable option? -Jim S

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