Thursday, 24 May 2012

Who controls the 'blend' in Blended Learning?

CC-BY Flickr User WGreller
There are many definitions of Blended Learning on the web. For the sake of this post, we can go with a working definition of; 'a cooperative alignment of face-to-face and online learning and teaching activities'. So, this seems to be used interchangeably with terms such as 'eLearning' and 'Technology Enhanced Learning'.

So, who controls which parts of a course of study are to be engaged with in the classroom, and which parts are engaged with online? That's rhetorical, because typically, it's the tutor, and more typically, almost all of the teaching activities take place in the class, with some additional activities to be conducted as 'independent' or 'self-managed' learning.

This post argues these ways need to be rethought. Well actually, I (and other colleagues) have been arguing this point for a number of years. In 2009, I worked with a colleague in a curriculum development activity to design a completely online Perioperative Care module. During the process, we questioned how we could benefit the holistic learning and teaching experience by bringing together the face-to-face class with the online class, and offer much more freedom for learners to control their own 'blend' in the learning experience.

Essentially, we encouraged learners to decide which parts of the module they wanted to study online, and which parts they wanted to come to class for. With increasing financial demands on Faculty, these modules could be marketed as completely online modules, completely face-to-face modules, or a mix of both. Learners arrive at University with expectations related to the use of technology in learning and teaching, and have increasing demands on their time, whether it be through work or personal commitments. As they begin to pay more for their Higher Education, they will come to demand more for their investment (or debt, as it will be for many) - here, more could mean 'more choice', 'more flexibility' or just 'more'. We felt (and feel) that our approach could cater to these demands, and was termed 'Mode Neutral' during an Institutional Validation Event. The name kind of stuck (whether we like it or not). In earlier published work, we defined it as;
"A method that allows students to progress across modes of delivery (face-to-face, online and blended) at any point throughout their study based on their preferences, requirements, personal and professional commitments without compromising their learning"
We debated the key factors that would facilitate such a flexible and fluid learning arrangement, and identified three Dimensions; The Role of the Tutor, Curriculum Design, and Communication for Learning, and each are required to maximise the student experience.

As our thinking evolved, we realised that these dimensions are not simply 'present' or 'not present', but instead are present in various degrees - almost three dimensional. The degree to which the dimensions are present rely on the implementation of certain 'conditions', and therefore could be visualised;

To summarise, our attempts challenge(d) the long standing approaches of tutor-controlled blended learning. Of course, there are significant workload implications in introducing such flexibility, but if this positively impacts upon the student experience, it's worth it.

Where do you stand on the term 'Blended Learning', and who should control this blend?

You can read about our more substantial thoughts, including details of conditions within each dimension, through;

Reed. P, Smith. B, Sherratt. C (2008) eLearning and Digital Media. Vol 5; No 3.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts....

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This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Hi Peter,

    This is an interesting post. These ideas and approach sit very well with my own views that clear learning outcomes should be are the heart of the curriculum but that how students engage with the learning and demonstrate their achievements in relation to the LOs could be very different.

    However, it does pre-suppose a much idealised view of students as autonomous independent learners. I would ask firstly is there hard evidence that students crave this level of freedom? I've read quite a bit of research that suggests that students coming into HE from post 16 compulsory education already struggle to cope with the level of autonomy required of them (and at present it is relative structured compared to what you seems to be suggesting). Other work that I've read suggests that course/programme structure and organisations are key factors in both student’s satisfaction and success. In other words although students value choice they like it better in a fairly structured and supportive way.

    In my own teaching if I had a class of 15 or less I think I could maybe cope with the level of freedom your are suggesting. More than that, I'm not sure I could cope and support everyone effectively. I think I might find I was spending more time checking that everyone was OK and knew what they were doing (administration) than actually supporting the learning. As you say significant workload implications - I'm not sure that I would be able to handle the complexity.

    You mentioned that you had developed a module based on this - would be interesting to hear how it worked in practice - how the students responded/coped - any evidence of impact on engagement/attainment etc?

    Interesting stuff and very thought provoking - would like to hear more about the practicalities of opperationalising such an approach with the kind of class sizes we have at MMU though.


    1. Hi Rod,

      thanks for the comment.
      Yes the research was initially around a couple of periop modules, but really one in particular.

      I take your point on 1st years fresh from FE. To be fair, the research was actually geared around Level 7 modules initially. It was deemed very successful on the whole: some students didn't want the online elements and attended all f2f sessions, but quite a few mixed it up and demonstrated that autonomy (about 35%).
      Based on how well it was evaluated, senior management 'enforced' it upon a lot of other Level 7 modules (all of which could be offered as CPD modules on a standalone 30 credit basis), and then later started to push out to UG. This obviously brought a lot of benefits in the healthcare sector due to staff shortages on wards, etc, but due to the top down approach, a few staff were, shall we say, 'rebellious', as it did have reasonably significant impacts on workloads. As a result, we started seeing that rather than having lots of rich media, it became increasingly text based.

      But to return to your points on both Undergraduate student autonomy and suitability to small (<15) class sizes.... I can be pretty certain that this approach would have been seen positively by my 2nd year students this year. A class of 45; poorly attended on a Friday afternoon 4-5pm.
      I think although it offers students the choice, there is still are definite structure - the schedule is published in advance. This helps them plan ahead, or simply to just see how things go. I think the autonomy required might be different to what you suggest is lacking - I'm presuming you refer to things like finding further readings, etc. I suppose the online lessons (which we called Units of Learning) we chunked in a way that took learners through the content, using various media, and linked straight to recommended digitised chapters and journals. So it actually required little autonomy other than be efficient in one's study practices (arranging/organising workspace, etc).

      I'm in no way suggesting what we done was a) unique, b) complete, or c) correct. Bit the underlying 'philosophy' is something I think, is on the right lines.

      The article I referred to above demonstrates our more complete thoughts on the approach, but the first article we published touches on some early findings:

  2. We've talked about providing a much greater blend of learning materials and improving our available options when it comes to resources and design of training solutions. In the corporate world though it is timescales and finite resource that govern what is possible and what is not. We may provide blending training by using one or more delivery channels (f2f & online) but this isn't giving away control or offering more choice it's probably more along the lines of giving the illusion that we provide more options and that we're 'meeting the needs' of our learners. The truth is that we are limited by what we can do and the majority of learning is done in a controlled / formal environment and whilst we know where we need to get to the journey will be long on both the part of the designers of curriculum and the learners themselves. It's the how we get there that interests me as this is as more about a cultural shift around learning in general. The experence of learning in higher education to that of training in a corporate environment are probably more worlds apart than ever before. Something that needs to be addressed. Thanks for the thought-provoking post :)

    1. That's a really interesting comment - the difference between formal education and education within the private sector is massive. I find this interesting as I've had some experience developing eLearning materials for other sectors in the past.
      I think the most notable points from those experiences included;
      Time is at a minimum for employers and employees
      Time & Travel = Money
      Where possible, training could be carried out online, so participants can learn in the office/ward/etc.

      Thanks for the comment and I'd love to discuss these things more.