Encounters: Blended Learning Is Largely an Illusion

Encounters: ideas that go bumpIntroduction: This encounter begins with an idea, a “bump,” from Steve Eskow. It was originally posted as a reply to Lynn Zimmerman’s “Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring.” Please participate in this encounter by posting a comment. I’ll append most or all of the comments to this page as they’re published. -js

steve_eskow80Steve Eskow, editor, hybrid vs. virtual issues, on 24 July 2009, said:

What Lynn is confirming, I think, is that blended learning is largely an illusion.

The “campus” is a collection of spaces designed to feature a standing and speaking “instructor” and a sitting and silent “student.”

The “lecture hall” is designed for lecturing, not for computers.

Again, the “classroom” is designed for a standing instructor speaking to sitting students.

Despite all attempts to to mute or end the lecture, it continues to be–overwhelmingly–the favored mode of instruction in our elite colleges. And it should be: Why pay distinguished scholars to teach and not listen to them?

Perhaps it is time to consider the possibility that the classroom and the computer are oil and water.

encounters: ideas that go bump

claude80Claude Almansi, editor, accessibility issues & site accessibility facilitator, on 25 July 2009, at 11:09 am, said:

“Blended learning” always reminds me of the mush I prepared in a blender, scrupulously following sadistic pediatricians’ instructions to wean my daughter. She contemptuously spat it out. Then our landlady asked me: “Have you tried that revolting stuff yourself?” and had hysterics when I did. Then she suggested tiny pasta with peeled and seeded raw tomato and some parmesan cheese and real olive oil. It worked.

By the same token, maybe computers still do have their place in the classroom, but a separate, not blended one. I once organized an intensive French workshop for which I’d made a wiki, with the precise purpose that students would not be distracted by note-taking during discussions and other active things. There were the active moments, then there were other moments when they wrote about these activities in the wiki, or did other writing assignments, like captioning videos. It worked too.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Steve Eskow, on 25 July 2009, at 2:19 pm, said:

Claude, suppose we added the video captured lecture to the blog and the wiki, and occasional web cam interactgions between teacher and student.s Is there something important lacking in this pedagogy that requires us to bring teachers and students to specially constructed buildings for face-to-face interaction?

(I like very much your gastronomic illustration of “blending,” and will steal it shamelessly. I may change it to what happens when you “blend” two splendid fluids, wine and water.)

encounters: ideas that go bump

Claude Almansi, on 25 July 2009, at 8:10 pm, said:

Replying to: Steve Eskow’s July 25th, 2009 at 2:34 pm comment:

Steve, for foreign language learning, I still believe that F2F can produce better results, as discussing in real time is part of using a language. But I left the wiki online (micusif.wikispaces.com so that the students who took part in the workshop could refer to it during their MA course. And others too: they can use the references to the materials we used and the activities we did with them, and even a link to some abominable snapshots I took with a webcam of what we wrote on flip charts. No videos: I don’t know how to. Had I lectured, I might have made an audio recording (did some of their discussions).

encounters: ideas that go bump

keller80Harry Keller, editor, science education, on 25 July 2009, at 11:11 am, said:

How many lectures have you attended that inspired you? What is the percentage? Most lectures I’ve attended would be just as good as pages in books.

Exceptions may abound. I was always engaged by Richard Feynman’s lectures. Perhaps, it was his engaging grin along with an infectious love of discovery and of explaining things so that his audience could comprehend. Still, the exceptions are rare.

Large lecture halls have been around for centuries. Maybe it’s time for them to give way to smaller venues and to social networking tools. My junior English literature classes typically had 3-5 students attending. Imagine having the professor (not a teaching assistant) almost to yourself.

I have sat in lectures by enough distinguished scholars. I’m talking about CalTech and Columbia. With few exceptions (e.g. Feynman), I could just as well as had a teaching assistant. Having distinction in scholarly affairs does not indicate lecturing talent. Great scholars are not always great teachers. Besides, they get paid for bringing in grant money and making the institution more famous. Undistinguished scholars (read assistant professors) are the ones who really get paid to teach.

So, yes, computers in the classroom take away from the interactive flavor that can be established by good teachers. Classrooms full of computers *look* boring. Computers at home or in the dorm room are another matter.

What will the future of instruction be? We’re in a state of extreme flux. The situation is too fluid to know for sure. It will include computers and the Internet. It will, for a long time anyway, include instructors. I predict that it will not include large lectures except as entertainment, which can be educating at times.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Steve Eskow, on 25 July 2009, at 2:34 pm, said:

Harry, if you were in charge of staffing for a new university, would you hire folks such as Richard Feynman and ask them to teach?
Richard Feynman
(I’m assuming that to take get faculty such as Feynman you’d have to offer them teaching loads no larger than five or six hours a week, right?)

Or would you not hire distingusiehd scholasr and researchers as teachers?

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 25 July 2009, at 5:54 pm, said:

[@ Steve] Not ever having been a university administrator, I’m not certain what I’d do given the chance. I feel that the traditional role of institutions of higher education is being challenged. For many decades, students at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, et al. have discovered that their famous faculty is rarely seen by them.

These institutions perform two services. One is research and publication. The other is teaching. As much as I decry the University of Phoenix’s excessive concern with their bottom line, they have set out a model of the university solely as a teaching institution.

Universities have plenty of non-teaching researcher/publisher personnel who are called postdoctoral fellows. I was once a member of that tribe. Many professors view teaching undergraduates as a necessary evil they perform in order to hold a job at their chosen school.

The whole concept that undergraduate students will benefit from the crumbs that get scattered from on high makes little sense. What do they get for their high tuition? Mostly, they seem to get associations with their fellow students that will stand them in good stead in the future. The courses can be as good or better in other schools.

To answer your question, I would not be in charge of any part of a new university. If forced into it, I would have to understand fully the goals of that school before I could make such a decision.

It’s just as I harp on regarding science labs in secondary school. You shouldn’t do them until you know why you’re doing them. Teacher impose labs on students just because. Without clear reasons for having them, they’re a waste of time and money.

There are just too few Richard Feynman and Harry Gray types in the world to staff all of the universities that could use their services.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Claude Almansi, on 25 July 2009, at 8:10 pm, said:

Harry Keller’s July 25th, 2009 at 11:11 am comment. Re “I could just as well as had a teaching assistant” – when I had to take the history of the French language course in the 70’s, the professor was on sabbatical and his lectures were being read by his teaching assistant, who’d say things like “here the professor inserts a little joke:…” It was all the more zany as most other professors had agreed to have their lectures they repeated from year to year a) published as “polycopiés”; b) recorded on audio-cassettes, for students who could not attend lectures.

But like you, I also remember great lectures, like you: Jean Starobinski’s, George Steiner’s for instance. But thei impact was also due to the fact that they were combined with seminars where we could discuss with them.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Carrie HeeterCarrie Heeter, editor, games development, on 25 July 2009, at 4:22 pm, said:

Blended learning is the best!

I feel that my fully online courses finally became as good as or better than in person classes when I added one hour of synchronous time per week. My students report valuing the mix, claiming to enjoy it much more than fully online classes.

I never lecture during our precious hour. The online aspects of my blended courses include lots of mini-lectures (10 to 20 minutes of audio, often plus power point or video) and guest interviews (10 to 15 minute edited audio interviews with industry professionals), plus online readings. Individual and group project work also occurs outside of the hour “together.”

I use the hour to answer and ask questions. We often use polleverywhere,com to have small breakout discussions and come back and vote on an intriguing question. We negotiate changes in class assignments, and coordinate forming groups for group projects.

It would impair the quality of the student experience if I were not allowed to blend a dash of synchronicity.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 25 July 2009, at 5:58 pm, said:

[@ Carrie] You are reaching the perfect blend of blended instruction. You have figured out what instructors really can do best. You plan the course and then you execute it while making yourself the moderator of the discussions that you engender. The last part is critical for science and, I assume, for many other subjects as well.

Students should be full of questions raised by the curriculum you created. By having them discuss these questions among themselves with an expert helping to guide them, they’ll learn more than from a hundred hours of lectures.

encounters: ideas that go bump

jims80Jim Shimabukuro, editor, on 25 July 2009, at 8:00 pm, said:

Carrie, I think your definition of “blended” is unique. I believe most people would define “blended” as combinations of F2F physical meetings in a classroom and online activities such as participating in forums and logging in to webpages for readings. I also believe that many define “blended” as a smart classroom where instructor and students meet, F2F, and use the equipment to extend the learning environment to incorporate the web as well as social networks that allow all participants to communicate virtually. In some cases, the blended class replaces F2F meetings with online synchronous or asynchronous activities.

Then there are online classes that require a very small number of F2F physical meetings, sometimes as few as 1 or 2. I’m not sure exactly how to categorize these, but I think most would say these are online classes with minimal F2F requirements. Purists, though, might argue that even a single F2F requirement makes this a blended class. The point is that that requirement automatically excludes large numbers of students who cannot meet the F2F requirements. I tend to be a purist, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with a viable justification for my position.

IMHO, Carrie, your classes aren’t blended. They’re completely online but with synchronous requirements. Students and instructors can participate from anywhere without ever having to physically attend a required F2F session. I believe most online instructors require or at least encourage synchronous activities. For my completely online classes, I know that I always enjoy impromptu live interactions in the chat room that’s built into our university’s Sakai course management system. I drop in at times when I know many are online, working on assignments.

But I also know that, at least for my students, a synchronous requirement would be a huge stumbling block, negating the primary attraction that online has for them, which is the freedom to log in when it’s most convenient for them. My guess is that your population of students differs from mine, and this is why synchronous works for you and wouldn’t work for me.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Carrie Heeter, on 26 July 2009, at 6:31 am, said:


Actually, my students are F2F together (in Michigan) for the in person part, although I am online, for our synchronous hour. Since my department currently does not offer an online curriculum, the students are physically on campus. I Skype and Breeze in to the group. For my Serious Game Design class, they meet in a lab. For the Design Research class, they meet in a classroom.

However, I do entertain a mixed blended mode for those who live relatively far from campus. Students have the option of coming in person, or coming electronically.

It depends on the class composition each semester, but typically either all or most are F2F in the traditional sense, except that the instructor telecommutes.


encounters: ideas that go bump

Jim Shimabukuro, on 26 July 2009, at 8:05 am, said:

Thanks for the clarification, Carrie. I should’ve remembered this from your earlier articles Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote and Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest. Your courses are, indeed, unique. Still, the fact that you’re in San Francisco and the students are in Michigan tells me that the course is theoretically fully online — and the only major physical difference with other online classes is that the students happen to regularly gather in the same place at the same time, F2F, for sessions. They could just as easily be scattered throughout the world for instruction to occur, with their peer-to-peer interactions occurring virtually instead of F2F. However, I do realize that the students’ in-person interactions on site are qualitatively different from virtual interactions.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 26 July 2009, at 1:16 pm, said:

Carrie, I still think you’ve got the right idea. The tools may be incomplete, but the direction is good. The real advantage for young people to go to universities lies in getting away from their home towns, meeting diverse people, making friendships that will be useful in the future, and stuff like that. As our network tools mature, those goals also may be achievable in online settings.

The courses are just an excuse these days because you can learn course content without “being there.” You may even learn it better.

I went to an atypical school and have to carefully avoid using my own experience as a guide most of the time. I did not obtain the advantages I listed above because: I lived at home; everyone was a nerd and most were white males, and I maintained contact with none of my schoolmates. I am ready to be corrected if I have misread the more usual university environment.