Blended Learning: A pre-research reflection

I have been lucky enough to get a grant from those kind folks at the Education & Training Foundation to carry out a piece of research. The focus of my research is on student feelings about blended learning, their perceptions of its impact and on the issues they may have themselves in terms of their own digital literacy and in terms of access to the necessary technology.

The reason I chose this topic is likely to be clear to regular readers of my blog. I think that I would probably describe myself not as an e-learning enthusiast but rather an e-learning pragmatist. There is a value – my own experimentations and reflections are enough for me to feel comfortable saying this, but unlike the enthusiast I am unconvinced of its ability to work as a universal standard of best practice.

It’s like this. In my mind there are two basic tropes in education: the evangelists and refuseniks (who I rather amusingly saw referred to as “the crossed arms brigade” the other week).

The evangelists are the enthusiasts, the ones who are convinced of the amazing ability of technology to transform all learning for all learners all the time. While they may concede that the technology does need to be used well, for the evangelist the absence of technology in the classroom is A Bad Thing. We, they cry, are the innovators and the game changers. I say evangelists for a very specific reason: theirs is a stance of absolute, unquestioning and unshakeable faith, and this stance can be just as annoying as the uninvited religious doorstepper: it is simply not possible to say “yes, but…” to them, and any even slight acknowledgement of having a positive experience with ICT is seized upon with delight, just as a the doorstepper will seize upon any moment of doubt in your religious opinions.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the refusenik. This is the person who has been doing it that way for years and sees no reason to change. It was good enough for me at school in 1965, good enough for me when I started teaching in 1983, and it’s good enough for me now. (Those dates, by the way, are no indicator – I’ve met refuseniks who started teaching after I did, and evangelists who started their evangelising on a Spectrum 48k.) The refusenik is the traditionalist, the conservative. For them, if it ain’t broke… This stance is just as annoying, for almost the mirror image reason, as the evangelist: where the evangelist annoys because they are so stubbornly fixed upon technology as panacea, the refusenik simply won’t acknowledge any value to technology. They are both stubbornly fixed in a single viewpoint.

These are, of course, deliberately provocative extremes, but  in the black-and-white discourse of blended learning and CPD, these are sometimes the only two possible roles you can be cast in (although you are allowed to aspire to be an evangelist – “I’m all right at using technology X, but I’m not like Fred, he’s so good with technology”).

There are two issues here: one is the polarising of these approaches to technology and the other is the equation of innovation with technology use.

Actually there are three, but the third one is the biggie, so we’ll come to that later.

The reality of teaching is that we are all on a continuum somewhere between the evangelists and the crossed arms brigade. I would probably place myself at about two-thirds, perhaps three quarters of the way to an evangelist.

Innovation, of course, can and should go beyond the application of technology. Unfortunately, however, using technology has long been synonymous with “cool” and it is this sexiness which makes it very appealing. It’s big hits, instant wins, observable changes – bang – the students are using ipads! They are bringing their own devices! Pow! They are using the VLE! Kerpow! Enthusiastically embracing technology is sometimes seen as the only kind of innovation, suggesting that now the development of learning and teaching expertise relies purely on the application of technology to that process, and really it isn’t. There are other advances, other developments. Technology is just one form of innovation.

The third issue, the really big one, however, is nothing to do with teachers. It’s to do with learners. I have to stop really and ask a question. Has anyone ever asked students what they think? FELTAG certainly didn’t appear to credit many actual students in their report, apart from a brief nod to the NUS. Certainly learner voice was notable by its absence in the report (although lots of good things were said about learning and about teachers). Nobody seems to have gone out and found out what students are capable of, what skills they have, how much support they need in using this technology, and, crucially, whether they think it will help them learn. It reminds me of when I was on a debate panel on whether technology made for a better lesson – there were two students next to me, one of whom was arguing against. I felt deeply sorry for him because he was unimpressed by all this technology use, and yet the general air in the room (full of educators, teachers and so on) was pretty close to “stupid boy, you don’t know what’s good for you.” (Considering I was arguing the same point, for a short time things felt a little hostile.)

But before the refuseniks come rushing in with joy, this doesn’t mean that students don’t want technology in their learning. I suspect they don’t want you friending them on Facebook, but they may well want it. They may want more online and less face to face, or they may want things the other way round. The issue is not around whether they do or don’t, but rather that in the general discourse around technology and blended learning, assumptions have been made about learners but nobody seems to have asked them. And that, ultimately, is what I want to find out. What do they know? What can they do? What, as blended learners, do they expect?

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