Scroll through your laptop or smartphone and you won’t have to look far to find an article, video, or podcast that answers your question. Over the last decade, information has become even more accessible and data more affordable, which in turn, has made us more reliant on absorbing information online and “on-demand”.
This phenomenon continues to affect nearly every industry in the world and education is no different. According to a survey by the Babson Survey Research Group, in 2019, one in three college students in the United States have taken at least one course online.
These recent developments have been monumental in bringing online learning to the forefront with schools and colleges adopting new pedagogical models to reap the benefits of shifting learning online. There are several learning models that are being used for the purpose; blended learning being the most popular one.
What is blended learning?
This model is fueled by a very simple idea; integration of the familiar ‘face-to-face teaching model’ with online learning to help both students and teachers derive more value out of it.
Here are the three components that are crucial to making this happen:
The online learning process
As students, how many times do you recall struggling to grasp what the teacher just explained as they swiftly move on to the next chapter? I’m sure it’s too often to count. In the blended learning model, teachers upload course content to the institute’s learning management software for students to review during their independent study time.
With online course content, students can pause, rewind, and forward video lectures and carry out readings at their own pace. Since every student has a unique learning process, personalizing their experience helps alleviate both classroom boredom and anxiety whilst boosting retention. Teachers also get to free up time from their daily repetitive classroom lectures for more individual attention to students.
The face-to-face classroom experience
The physical classroom setting is utilized to enable students to engage with both the teacher and their peers to solve problems experienced during their independent study. Teachers can also leverage this time to distribute exercises and plan activities that allow students to put theory into practice.
As a result, both the teacher and students engage in a far more meaningful interaction that serves better than the traditional ‘in-class course instruction and take-home assignment’ model.
An integrated learning solution
This is perhaps the most crucial component to ensuring the model’s success. It’s important to understand that the first two components have to complement each other to deliver a learning experience that heroes their individual benefits. By simply repeating in classrooms what students learn online during independent study, teachers will be incorporating a lot of needless redundancy that would inhibit students’ learning process.
It is also detrimental if teachers offload everything online and underutilize the physical classroom time that was incorporated to ensure real-time feedback from students and a more hands-on skill-building experience. Similarly, sticking to delivering course instruction physically and only uploading documents for students to re-read without much control defeats the process of individually-paced learning.
Point to note: Numerous institutions offer a learning environment that is up-to-date with technology. They provide students with laptops or tablets, allow online submissions, and even have lectures uploaded online to facilitate students.
However, unless the whole learning model hasn’t been developed and executed to integrate online learning with classroom learning, the institution cannot claim to have applied blended learning. They only offer a technologically-rich learning environment that leverages online tools to further traditional teaching practices.
What’s so great about blended learning?
In her 2017 report, Dr. Krasulia from Sumy State University mentions numerous benefits of applying blended learning in universities. Aside from the model’s ability to combine the best aspects of both online and face-to-face learning, its design allows both the students and teachers to devote more time to what really matters: developing deeper conceptual understanding. Here are some of the blended learning advantages that she mentions:
1. Remote access: Students can study remotely and only commute to class for in-class sessions. This facilitates part-time students and makes the course open for a wider student base.
2. On-demand learning: With content rapidly moving online, people no longer have to wait for information to reach them on schedule, and learning should come no differently. With course material available online, students can independently go through the content at their pace; pausing, rewinding, and forwarding depending on their level of understanding.
3. Increased personalized attention: With teachers relieved from delivering lectures in-class, they can allocate more time to tend to their students’ individual development and keep better track of their unique struggles.
4. Richer peer discussions: Owing to the more communicative nature of the classroom setting, students can learn not only from teachers but from their peers as well. According to studies, peer discussions are more beneficial when students have met in person. This signals the superiority of this setting to purely online class discussion forums as well.
5. Improved skill building: With one variant of the blended learning model called the “flipped learning model”, teachers can have students participate in various skill-building activities during the classroom sessions. This time can be devoted to problem-solving and application-based learning for students as opposed to running them through the theoretical concepts which they can easily read on their own.
6. Smooth assessment grading: Most sophisticated learning management solutions allow teachers to build online assessments to help them gauge their students’ learning outcomes. These assessments can be developed within the LMS and can be graded automatically, based on the parameters that the teacher defines. This allows for quicker and more objective grading which relieves teachers from yet another tedious task.
7. Thorough metrics: Tracking student performance becomes a breeze because all student responses to quizzes and assignments are stored in the LMS. This further helps teachers identify struggling students, drill down into their specific struggles, and offer them special attention during class time.
8. Reduced educational costs: By putting course content and assignments online, the costs of pricey textbooks are eliminated. This makes courses more affordable and therefore more accessible to a wider student base.
What’s the catch?
With so many benefits to the blended learning model, you can’t help but wonder what the downsides may be. Here are some pitfalls that Dr. Krasulia highlights in her presentation:
1. No one-size-fits-all model: Although blended learning does work for most audiences, there can be cases where the type of course and audience will be better off taught through the traditional teaching model. This makes it essential to analyze both the course content and the student base to figure out whether blended learning will be the right fit for a particular course.
2. Strong dependence on technical resources: All the tools that are being used to deliver blended learning need to be up-to-date, reliable, and easy to use for them to have the desired impact on student learning. Also, since these tools/devices might not be available to all students, ensuring their availability to all students is paramount to creating an equal opportunity learning environment.
3. Difficulty in group work: Managing group assignments online can be taxing if there isn’t sufficient coordination between students.
4. Falling behind: A study across four universities found that only half of the students were watching course lecture videos on time whereas over 40% were watching them in one sitting long after the designated time.
5. Time-consuming feedback process: Although blended learning allows teachers to provide more personalized feedback to students, many teachers report that doing so with online assessments is more time-consuming as compared to paper-based assessments.
The good thing about this set of pitfalls is that they can easily be overcome with the right technology in place. Most of these challenges can be resolved if institutions ensure the availability of strong internet and essential electronic devices to all students.
The other most important aspect of blended learning is the learning management system that hosts all the content. You need to partner with a high-caliber learning management system to bring the process to life since choosing a limiting solution can keep you from scaling courses and can result in you paying for features that you do not need.
To avoid this pitfall, conduct proper research along with all stakeholders to develop a robust list of must-have features so you only pick an LMS that fits your unique needs like a glove.
Blended learning is not a novel idea by any means. It is being employed by numerous universities across the globe with the likes of Stanford University, University of Leicester, Bond University, and Temple University to name a few. Researchers have come far beyond uncovering whether applying the model is worthwhile as recent studies are geared more towards finding ways of perfecting the model to optimize its benefits.
Consumer behavior has changed remarkably as a result of the technological strides that the world has taken this past decade and the evolution is showing no signs of stopping. Come 2020, accommodating these changes to learning behavior in education will become a necessity which makes models like blended learning that much more relevant.