A Blended Learning Approach

What is Blended Learning?

There are a number of definitions of of Blended Learning, floating around in the cyber-ether. This from Curtis Bonk and co:

“Blended Learning: the purposeful integration of traditional face-to-face learning environments with computer / web-mediated and distributed learning environments.”

Josh Bersin suggests that the key to Blended learning is a matter of:

“selecting the right combination of media & mode of delivery that will drive the highest business impact for the lowest possible cost.”

I personally view the notion of Blended Learning simply a case of:

“Using the best possible combination of delivery modes to achieve the best possible learning / training outcomes in the best possible way, for the best possible cost.”

Of course Blended learning is not new, educationalists have been mixing and matching media and teaching strategies for decades, but what is now generally meant by the term Blended Learning is the mixing of face-to-face teaching with online resources, course content and assessment materials. This particular interpretation of Blended learning is the result of the increasing convergence (some may say infiltration) of computers and online technologies into the traditional modes of teaching and learning as this graphic indicate:

The use of computing and internet technologies in teaching and learning can take on any number of flavours, from using a LMS or VLE as an electronic filing cabinet to park hand outs, through to a course or training event that is almost entirely online, with maybe just a token or voluntary attendance at a face -to-face session.

If you imagine the possible range of uses for online teaching and learning resources /content as a continuum it would probably look something like this:

What’s often asked about this model, “Is where is the optimal Blended Learning point along this continuum? A natural enough question I guess, but the reality is that there is no fixed optimal point – it’s very much a case of what’s the best combination of modes for the learning need at hand, given the inevitable constraints of budget, time and context. It’s also a case of playing to the strengths of each mode and doing what each mode is best at.

For instance, for learners the F2F classroom experience is familiar, well understood, addresses social learning needs & takes advantage of visual cues, informal interactions & spontaneous discussions. It is less useful when course activities tend to have a “one size fits all” approach, progress at a rate that is too slow, too fast or simply too tedious. When you are stuck in a classroom with 20 others it’s difficult to skip ahead or go back to something you didn’t really get. Traditional classroom learning lacks the convenience & access options of online learning.

For many teachers/trainers the F2F environment usually operates within known and well unmderstood parameters and comfort levels. Classroom teaching allows on the fly responses to learners’ questions and for facilitating engaging classroom discussion in real time and of course being able to take advantage of spontaneous teaching opportunities. This is what most teachers thrive on and what can be so rewarding about the paractice of teaching and training.

However, what is also true is that traditional F2F teaching only allows for limited numbers at a time. The pace of the teaching process can frustrate those for whom it is too slow/fast and dominant personalities can sway or sidetrack the direction of teaching/training. There is also an inevitable lack of time for individual needs and the classroom experience is seriously hampered by a lack of scheduling flexibility, particularly organisations that have geaographically distributed learners.

The online environment als has similar strengths and weaknesses. For learners online learning does provide the possibility for greater individualisation of attention and content for learners. It can more easily address individual learning styles, needs & expertise and perhaps it’s greatest strength its convenience of time & place access. That said it’s also true that the online learning environment can involve technical and digital literacy isues that can act as significant barrier to learning. It can also also frustrate & demoralise non-technical types; is more isolating and requires more self-reliance, independence and self-direction on the part of the learner.

Teachers find the online environment can allow for much richer individual attention over time & distance, along with deeper and broader engagement with and between learners as well as having a wider range of resources to employ. The drawback for many teachers though is that more work is involved in developing materials for online course content. It also requires higher levels of technicalskills than many have as a matter of course and requires more time in actually facilitating online courses and communication with learners.

That said, what determines the mode and ratio of a Blended learning approach is very much based on the way the learning design is addressed. First and foremost the decision as to what technology may be included is something that should not be even considered tillall the other learning design issues have been addressed. In other words don’t start with the mode of delivery! Start with a systematic learning design process! You need ask the following questions to get this systematic design process underway:

  • What is the problem that the training is meant to address & is it the real one?
  • What are the instructional goals?
  • What is the learner’s workplace context for the learning /training?
  • What are the desired learning outcomes?
  • How will/should the learning be assessed?
  • What will be the teaching & learning strategies?
  • What is the time frame for development & delivery of the course / training event?
  • What resources of budget and skills are required & available for the development of the training course/event
  • How will you know the if the desired learning /training outcomes have been achieved?

Only after you have considered these questions should you ask yourself:

  • What is the best blend of instruction & mode of delivery to achieve the desired outcomes?

Bersin & Associates (2003) Blended learning: What Works. http://www.e-learningguru.com/wpapers/blended_bersin.doc (Italics mine)
Bonk, C. J. & Graham, C. R. (Eds.) (2006) Handbook of blended learning: Global Perspectives, local designs. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer Publishing.

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