How blended is blended? (and other knotty questions about blended learning)

For my research project this year, I’ve been reading up on blended learning, making notes, and generally carefully reviewing it in a measured and analytical tone elsewhere. As an adjunct to that formal enquiry, and to help me get my thoughts in order, I thought I would start to summarise my informal reflections here. Later on, perhaps, a version of this, or even a direct link to this, may form part of the finished product, but I’m not sure how much I want to make that explicit a link between who I am outside of my workplace and who I am within it. Regardless of how easy it is for someone to make those links, my conscious segregation of my online self from my “at work” self serves to highlight the usual “opinions expressed not those of employer” caveat.

So anyway, the focus of my project is blended learning, in particular learner attitudes and reactions to it, and as a startling point I need to identity exactly what we mean by blended learning.

Blended learning, or as it has sometimes been called “b-learning” (horrid, I know), at its most basic definition, is learning that takes place through more than one medium. Whilst we can score all sorts of lazy rhetorical points about the blend not necessarily including digital technology, in current usage it means learning taking place in both face to face and online contexts.

So far so simple. Or not, actually. Let’s break down what we mean, for example, by face to face learning. Pulling ideas in from my head, I would argue that face to face learning is learning that takes place with at least two people interacting verbally with one another. This typically means classroom learning, of course, but could also mean one to one tutoring. This learning takes place through things like listening to someone talk, asking and answer questions, discussion and expressing opinion, watching someone do something and then being coached through doing it yourself, gaining exposure to knowledge presented visually through images or through pieces of writing, or perhaps a short piece of video is watched and then discussed or analysed. This is a fair summary of different aspects of face to face learning, I think, although clearly I haven’t been able to cover every aspect of this at this stage, and neither would I like to.

So what do we mean by online learning? Hmm. The thing is, I start to think of what I could write here, and actually decent online learning potentially includes every interaction above, merely managed and mediated through a computer. (Before I go any further, I am using the word computer to describe, accurately, any kind of device including a laptop, PC, tablet, smartphone, etc. I just can’t be bothered to write that list every time just to make some techie pedant happy.) Given the nature of modern technology, hyperlinked through the Internet as it is, all of these interactions are available digitally if we so desire it, albeit with slight variations in discourse manner and etiquette, as anyone who has used Skype or FaceTime can tell you.

If the difference between face to face and online is not in the nature of the interaction and the learning, but is simply a matter of medium then there are still other questions to ask about blended learning. Can online learning be guided, or is it independent learning? I included video, for example, or a written text in my list of face to face interactions, but if these are accessed online in class by learners either as a group or individually, is this online learning? Well, yes it is, but it’s not what usually comes to mind when people think of online learning. The suggestion often with online learning is that it is a form of independent distance learning managed by computer, but where does this leave real time guided online learning, like a managed chat or forum, or a webinar? These are clearly not situations where learners are working independently, but are being given direct facilitation, guidance and input just like a face to face classroom.

This does get me thinking about SAMR. This is the idea that educational technology use goes through stages from Substitution of digital for non-digital activity to a point where the technology takes on a life of its own and Redefines the activity and the learning. I disagree. All forms of technology use in an educational context do not fundamentally alter the fact that human interaction is at the heart of the process, all the computer does is alter the format and scope of that interaction. Yes, you can collaborate on a document using Google docs, then comment on it and then take part in an online chat at the same time with learners in another country and this IS exciting. Very very exciting, in fact. But it isn’t fundamentally different to, say, working with a partner on a paper based piece of work, discussing it with a class and then, crazy stuff that this is, posting it out to someone in a different country for them to look at. The speed changes, and this is important, because immediacy has an impact, but then so does a lack of immediacy, and time for reflection and thinking. the idea of progressing from substitution to redefinition is an attempt to make a lot out of not very much.

So I come to my final, most challenging question. How blended is blended? A full blend of learning modes is when the technology is fully integrated into the face to face teaching. In this model, learners shift from technology to face to face and back again as part of what happens in the classroom. They look something up on a tablet, review a shared document or presentation both online and verbally. A construction teacher demonstrates a bricklaying technique to all the group, then uses augmented reality via mobile devices for learners to scan an image to quickly access a video of the same demonstration while they are trying to do it themselves. ESOL learners use online dictionaries as standard, and close and recap the lesson with a Socrative quiz, or record their learning progress via electronic ILP. These are simple, almost natural blends of technology and face to face learning: a pure form of blended learning, perhaps, or, as I like to call it “learning”.

This model and these ideals, however, were pretty much entirely screwed over in FE by the FELTAG report and the 38th recommendation: that 10% of all learning should be online by 2015, working towards 50% by 2017. This was probably the only new idea in the recommendations, as well as being the least important and by far the most stupid. Once you start thinking in terms of percentages, then the natural response, particularly where evidence is required by the bean counters at the Skills Funding Agency, is to come up with a model of learning where you can easily measure the 10%. This gives you a model which is essentially a chimera: convert the most easily convertible bits of your course into online work! and set aside time for students to do it in their timetable. This is just a hasty, simplistic combination of face to face and online delivery. It’s not Crick and Watson, it’s Dr Frankenstein.

This approach of bunging 10% of learning online doesn’t persuade teachers to apply good principles of blended learning, where technology is used in clear, direct partnership with and as part of classroom learning. It needs good principles of online learning, yes, but it isn’t really blended learning.

If I think of an ESOL class I taught last year, where learners switched from computer to face to face and back again, stopping occasionally to check stuff on their phones, then I reckon that lesson hit about 50% computer mediated, online learning. If my estimate is right then that’s my 2017 target met right there. Or, because I didn’t use an online element in the preceding four lessons, that’s 10% online on average, right?

Of course to evidence this I would need to provide extensive transcripts of the lesson, and make sure that it was all managed and embedded through the VLE so that it could be tracked. Evidence evidence evidence. And this is why it is far easier to go for the “stick a unit on the VLE with a couple of quizzes as assessment” model of blended learning than any genuine blend of learning.

Blended learning, then, is a complicated issue, made more so by top down impositions like the 10% online element. Most complicated of all is that this is all before we have even asked any students what they think of this, or whether, in fact, any students do want their learning like this. Do students want the 10% online model, or would they prefer fully face to face but with properly blended technology? This, especially in the age of the Learner Voice, is a much more important question, and one that in FE in the UK, nobody seems to have asked.

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4 comments

  1. as a less formal adjunct to your blog ….

    you wouldn’t be able to use your version of blended learning to show 10% – no matter how much evidence you supplied .. as the current model seems to suggest a teacher is not present when the 10% happens but a facilitator is …

    1. I agree that a pure blend is virtually impossible to evidence although a recorded observation which analyses all interactions in terms of “blendedness” would be a fascinating piece of research. The model we are looking at is face to face learning with an online “bolt on” module, which isn’t “blended” at all. It only becomes a blend when the teacher links the online with the face to face learning, like in flipped classroom, and this is possibly even harder to achieve on a whole college level.

      The distinction between integrated technology inside and out of the classroom and an online/offline hybrid is important because it highlights and raises questions about why do it. If it were just about good practice, then students working with digital toos during face to face classes would be enough. Integrated technology lessons are not going to save money, after all…

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