So I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on what many have heralded as the next big thing in higher ed (and in some cases in secondary ed) – the confluence and juxtaposition of face-to-face instruction with the power, flexibility and potential of online instruction and learning. In two words: blended or hybrid.
Blended or hybrid courses often adopt some elements of what is commonly done in face to face environments along with some elements of what can be done online. There are lots of learning activities or experiences that can be done in a face to face setting. There are equally as many that can be accomplished in an online-environment. I believe the direction of western education tends to swing between the extremes of the times. It’s either this way or that way. It’s one way or another. I recall the dawn of the Internet bringing about quite a buzz about how all things online freeing people to learn whenever they wanted to, where ever they wanted to and whatever they wanted to. To some extent that’s been realized, esp. when you see the perceived success of things like Phoenix University, Kaplan University and others like it. But aside from all the success stories we see, and even the rise in the ‘flipped classroom models’, perhaps there’s something to be said for bringing the best of both together. I sort of think of this like I think of ice cream and salted peanuts.
Think about it.
(At least for those who don’t have aversions to either, by way of choice or genetic makeup): There’s something very enticing, enjoyable and satisfying in a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream with salted peanuts. I recall a professor of mine several years ago that actually used to get vanilla soft service ice cream and sprinkle salt on it. I was aghast at first. I thought, “How gross! That’s never going to work.” He quickly replied – “Don’t knock it, till you try it.” I never did try it, but later I reflected on just how good salted peanuts in an ice-cream sundae can be. He definitely had something and I could (then) see what he was on to.
What if we can do the same sort of thing with the best elements of face-to-face (f2f) instruction and what online can provide or leverage? Instead of jumping on the ‘next big thing’, wouldn’t it be prudent to at least pause and ask if there could be a synergistic coalescence of how we talk, interact and engage with people paired with the ways that technology can help accomplish some of the more routine aspects of teaching and learning?
In the course I teach about technology integration for pre-service teachers, I tell them over and over again that technology should never replace a good teacher, but it can come along side and be a mechanism for enhancing or supporting the learning. Instead of giving paper-exams that inevitably have page upon page of multiple choice, true/false, matching, and fill in the blank questions – why not relegate such an assessment to the efficiency of a learning management system or online quiz service, freeing up valuable class time to invite students to higher levels of thinking – and engagement with the material? Determine how in-class time is spent based on the question, “What do my students most need to get out of time spent face-to-face that they cannot gain from the online environment?” While many online courses leverage (and even recommend) the use of discussion forums for student engagement (with material, other students and with the instructor), some discussions may need to happen synchronously allowing students to glean from the communication of others that comes by way of facial expressions, body language, tone, inflection and/or the lack there of?
My initial intent with looking into blended learning was to settle on a set of parameters that would constitute a blended model that could be adopted and used by the institution I work for. Yet the more I look into the issue (and the current research), there’s not a solid, concrete answer to my question. Even the definitions of blending learning are scattered all over the place. Some of them take into account the chronological evolution of blended learning itself, especially in context with how technology continues to evolve. Some definitions indicate that portions of face-to-face and online are enough to constitute a course as ‘blended’. Other researchers (Graham C. in Blended Learning Systems: Definition, Current Trends and Future Directions, 2006) indicate that there are differing levels of blended courses, going so far as to invoke specific percentages of online and f2f components to determine if a course is blended or not.
While I’m convinced I set out to discover something I believed to be very concrete in nature, it’s actually more conceptual and far more difficult to define. On the one side, it seems everyone agrees blended learning is about bringing online and face-to-face together. On the other, there are so many examples, guidelines and variables as to how that happens, when it happens and in what context it happens, that there’s nothing super-definitive. I have to remind myself that often folks apply an industrial age model and thinking to current modern day problems or issues. We look for, and even want a one-size fits all process – it’s efficient, it turns out a lot of product. I think however, that we need to allow for courses that are deemed ‘blended’ to be differentiated in the same vein that we look to differentiate in our instruction to individuals. There are some ‘tenets’ for how blended courses should look or feel, or be organized, but there’s levity within that framework. I would best describe it along the same lines as how there is fluidity and variability within music terminology.
One of the things I’ve found most enlightening is reading through much of the current research on the topic, especially that of Graham C. out of his Blended Learning Systems: Definition, Current Trends, and Future Directions. In attempting to visualize what a researcher from the University of Wisconsin coined as a ‘continuum of courses’, I developed the following model as a way to think about hybrid courses using the various blends that Graham differentiates.
Modeling theories, processes or concepts helps me to better understand how they relate to other processes, concepts, or theories. What I’m now focusing my work on is that middle area – the part between the 1’s that Graham terms “Enabling Blends”. I’m persuaded to think that blended learning’s ‘ethereal definition has lent to the wide swath of courses that are so termed. Yet it’s also within lack of definitive boundaries that I see freedom in leveraging the best of what both online and face-to-face bring to the table for any course.