Blended Learning MOOC week 1 #flble1

Look at that, I made it through week 1 of the Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started MOOC and I’m surprised. Surprised I made it this far without giving up and surprised at some of my learning / reactions on the way.

Most of the first week was around what Blended Learning is and what it means in terms of impact on teachers and learners. I came to this slightly arrogantly, I think, although still don’t think that my reservations in terms of impact on learners has really been addressed. The definitions surprised me a little – there seemed to be a fairly arbitrary line drawn between what constituted blended learning and learning with digital technology which was basically over the complexity of the technology applied, rather than the interactivity of it – thus a straight set of powerpoint slides with words on would not count as blended and yet add a couple of diagrams and videos and suddenly it is. Students n an internet cafe making a set of powerpoint slides on a thing they’ve just learned icounts as blended learning, although this is still a fairly arbitrary distinction – technology here is not adding anything to my mind, merely making it look pretty, I’m not convinced by these at all, although I can see how some of the activities would count as blended – like recording workplace data using a smartphone, or using a virtual simulation before doing a practical task.

That said, I like that the definitions of the blend are more flexible than the usual one – that blended learning is basically “doing homework via the VLE to save money”, and also the assumption that there has to be an element of conscious teacher direction involved – it’s not enough for learners simply to be checking stuff out in their own time and off their own backs. This, perhaps, says more about the psychology of teachers that we feel a need to assert ourselves on students’ learning in this way, rather than identifying where this independent learning is happening and drawing it into the shared learning environment of the classroom.

The other big reflection for me was around the ways in which technology has changed classroom practice – this was one of the first tasks and this is what I wrote in a draft blog post at the time:

“How has technology changed teaching and learning? That’s an interesting question. it’s interesting because it focuses not on some unspecified future, but on the present. For one it takes as its opening assumption that technology is changing teaching and learning. This is a claim which some commentators don’t agree with, suggesting that the field of education (people talking to other people about stuff and learning from it) hasn’t really changed over the last 100 years when compared with fields which have always been comparatively highly technologised, like medicine and aeronautics. The latter is my favourite, even though I can’t find the link: to suggest that education and flying several tonnes of metal through the sky can be compared in terms of their technology use is frankly bizarre.

I do think technology has changed and is changing the way that we work. To take a very simple example, in the last 15 years or so for listening activities in a language class, I’ve gone from audio cassettes & VHS video to CDs & DVDs to MP3 files and now streamed audio and video through the Internet. It hasn’t necessarily changed the manner of that particular activity: you still play the recording and students listen to it, but there is a lot of great flexibility in the classroom: it’s far easier now, for example, to play just the audio of a video recording, and build activities round that: it’s easier too to control an audio recording using the slider control on screen, and so on. There’s nothing massively game changing to this sort of thing in and of itself, but these are all sorts of marginal gains, minor changes with little impact on their own, but when aggregated become quite dramatic. In terms of my own practice, it is only these marginal gains from the inclusion of interactive whiteboards in the classroom. The dramatic visual opportunities of whizzy graphics of the IWB is gimmicky and rather less impressive and practical than the ability to print and share the board, or do things like highlight text or complete gap fills reflecting student work in the class: small things but with far wider reaching possibilities than swish graphics, especially the usual deeply tedious getting students up to do drag and drop stuff on the IWB. That isn’t game changing, it’s just naff. If that was such a great idea why weren’t teachers doing it years ago with paper and bits of blue tack?”

I am critical of the sometimes slack-jawed awe that people have over technology use. It is only a bunch of pixels on a screen, and if the essential idea is rubbish, then the finished result will be rubbish regardless of the medium of delivery. 50 dull powerpoint slides is still 50 dull powerpoint slides. Not the best tool for the job. In another post I drafted earlier this week I reflected on how the best tool for the job of taking my family the 350 or so miles to Devon for the half term week is a car but for navigating 6 miles of traffic clogged city streets then the best tool for the job is a bicycle. Using tech for the sake of using tech is like driving a stupid 4×4 through a city centre at 8am – pointless, inefficient and you look a bit of a knob as it rarely works quite as you wanted.  As a teacher you look at the full range of resources available and choose the most suitable one for the task in hand. That may be something as low tech as cuisenaire rods or mini-whiteboards, but these can be a far more effective than a higher tech equivalent in terms of immediacy of use, reliability and impact. On the other hand, online learning curated and developed by a teacher and presented through the VLE can be an excellent way of extending and building on the work done in a face to face setting in a way which simply wouldn’t be possible in a non-technologised manner. Of course, the low technology options are not considered as “blended” at all, but that’s a much bigger and longer discussion – given that I’m over a thousand words in, I’d better stop.

Anyway, looking at the week ahead, I think the question around evolving pedagogy is going to be addressed, so I think I will definitely leave it there. Fingers crossed I can follow this through!

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