There's blended learning and there's blended learning!

Wow, it's been ages since I blogged. Certainly, I've been busy (and ill) over the last few weeks but I need to keep in mind the value of this process.

Blended learning has lots of different definitions. In addition, there are the different balances struck between the face-to-face elements and the online elements. I've reflected previously (in Promoting Distance) about the different attitude with which students approach blended vs purely online learning. Here, I will examine how the structure of the course can have an impact on this.

I'll give you two scenarios in my higher education context:

1. The course begins with a face-to-face day or two - often the preferred term here is residential. The course is explained, the course begins, participant get to know eachother and bonds are formed. Importantly, the online environment is introduced with a hands on practice if necessary. More importantly, the educator can (and should) show commitment to facilitation of any communication/collaboration online activities. The rest of the course is taught online with perhaps another face-to-face event at the end of the course. So the only organised way students can interact or collaborate on the content is by engaging in the online activities.
2. The course consists of 8 face-to-face days that occur on a weekly basis. Between these days online activities are run. Each face-to-face session delivers the core content. The online activities build on this after each session or prepare them for a session.

There are various points to make about these two models of blended learning. Firstly, the latter is far more common. The reasons for this are wide-ranging but high up on this list is the fact that fundamental learning design issues are set up almost out of habit. Rooms are booked, sessions are numbered, this is how teaching happens. Afterwards, there is a vague notion and directive from some policy about e-learning. A Learning Technologist is consulted (sometimes) 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 element there are tumbleweeds blowing across the online forums. Let’s think why? There’s a clear message about the primacy of face-to-face. The online aspect feels and is subservient to this. You couple this with a blended learning student’s natural inclination to think this way anyway (see Promoting Distance) and you are left with what is essentially a face-to-face course.

Compare this with the first example. The key point is that at certain points the learning from a particular subject is delivered online ONLY. In this example, it’s most of the course. This makes is easier for the students to get used to this idea and just run with it. Give a student in 2010 the alternative and face-to-face 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 the second example is lack of time for the online activities to take place. There’s a conflict between the need to think in terms of time periods online and sessions lasting a few hours in face-to-face. If the face-to-face sessions are sorted out first, it’s common for an online discussion to last only a few days. Just as they get going they stop. So for effective blended learning to occur you want careful spacing in the learning design. This is easily achieved if each mode is given equal status in the planning.