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Bridging the Gap Between Online and On-ground Teaching
Increasing numbers of studies are being done that seem to support the notion that blended course delivery or program delivery really captures the best of every possible world and, as such, is an effective way of learning for students.
One such study (2008) from the Democritus University of Thrace, Greece concluded, "The integration of an online learning environment and a classroom environment is likely to combine ideally the advantageous aspects of both types of instruction. But it is important for instructional designers and distance educators to offer more flexible delivery options and providing more controls to students and to carefully design distance courses to provide students with meaningful opportunities."
Of course, the fact that the study suggests that intentional design and assessment are key components of that success would emphasize that the foundational characteristics of effective teaching and learning remain the same. What changes is the efficiency of the instructional spaces and how students' time on task, interaction, and collaboration can be purposeful and focused.
Most of us who have taught or continue to teach online would agree that some of the efficiencies of effective online learning include the following:
- Self-directed approach: Students are able to manage their own learning. This also usually means that online degrees and programs of study require less time to complete, which is also very attractive to current students.
- Direct connection with instructor and other students: Direct responses and interactions.
- Direct utilization of available resources: Hyperlinks to a wealth of information online.
- Discussions and group work: Direct connections with every student and group member, both asynchronous and synchronous.
- Flexibility of time and space: The idea of anytime and anywhere has great appeal to students.
It should be noted, however, that "online" in a blended sense does not refer only to the conventional distance learning delivery using content management systems but can refer to other technology that mediates learning both in real time and asynchronously and involves students individually and within groups, both creatively and in a more conventional context.
Harvey Singh provides the following definition of more current views of blended learning that incorporates a variety of technology and modes of learning:
Blended learning combines multiple delivery media that are designed to complement each other and promote learning and application-learned behavior. Blended learning programs may include several forms of learning tools, such as real-time virtual/ collaboration software, self-paced Web-based courses, electronic performance support systems (EPSS) embedded within the job-task environment, and knowledge management systems. Blended learning mixes various event-based activities, including face-to-face classrooms, live elearning, and self-paced learning. This often is a mix of traditional instructor-led training, synchronous online conferencing or training, asynchronous self-paced study, and structured on-the-job training from an experienced worker or mentor.
Harvey Singh (2003)
Singh continues to provide what he refers to as "Dimensions of the Blend," stressing that while blended originally referred to a combination of on ground and online, now blended refers to a variety of delivery technology and mediation technology, as well as sometimes still having on ground sessions.
Among the list of dimensions, Singh lists the following:
- Blended offline and online;
- Blended self-paced and live collaborative learning; and
- Blended learning, practice and performance support.
For most of us who went to school and college and university in an on-ground format for the majority of our educational journey, we understand that there is both efficiency and inefficiency associated with these programs. That is, while it is a time to spend face to face with an instructor and fellow students, it can also feel that my own learning time is being intruded upon by others and I am, therefore, following someone else's pace in learning rather than my own. Additionally, there are the dynamics of every class group that play out in face to face environments, and, while experienced teachers can manage that kind of interaction well, inexperienced teachers often allow students to dominate through too much commentary or some students to feel undervalued while others seem to receive more attention. While some of these inefficiencies can also happen online, in an on-ground setting they become visible and therefore much more obvious.
Nevertheless, any on-ground learning environment also offers efficiencies that can connect well and work well with online. These include:
- Dynamic interaction, using face to face dynamics to produce excellent interaction and dialog;
- Immediate response to questions, helping the learning process can move more quickly;
- Direct access to instructor's time, allowing for an effective relationship to be built;
- Face to face connection with other students, leading to growth of a learning community.
While these can also happen through online learning, in an on-ground setting, these can happen more quickly when intentionally maximized by the instructor.
The Hybrid/Blended Balance
So then, where is the balance? How can the best of all worlds work together to form an effective and efficient learning experience for students? My sense is that there are some connectors which bring the worlds together. These include:
- Technology to support the process: When on-ground as well as online exchanges are supported, enhanced, and expanded through technology use, the mediation of the entire process is more succinct.
- Systemized content delivery: Content no longer should be exchanged in a face to face environment or an online environment that requires real time spent. All real time exchanges should build on the content already shared with students in some other way. This makes the real time much more beneficial and purposeful for the students.
- Intentional instructor intervention: Teachers should not "spoon feed" students but lead and guide students towards learner autonomy whether online or on-ground.
- Increased collaboration among peers: Socially constructed learning environments should be supported in either mode; much of the work in real time should be taken up with collaborating with peers and the instructor.
Additionally, the overall goals must not only maximize the strengths of each delivery method but work together to progress the student and facilitate his or her learning. Overall, the goals that are supported well by blended delivery are:
- Reaching autonomy quickly, which can happen more effectively and efficiently with blended that with distinct course delivery;
- Retaining flexibility of delivery so that students can maximize the delivery mode;
- Utilizing collaborative methods so that time is well spent; and
- Remaining student-focused so that students always feel their learning goals are being addressed and the course is worthwhile for them.
Therefore, while definitions of blended learning may vary depending on how students are organized, programs are delivered, and the technology used, the reality is that there is a blending taking place between real and asynchronous time and instructional exchanges. In general terms it still remains foundationally a blend in methodology as well as mode of delivery, and it is important to think intentionally about some of the benefits from each mode so that a blended balance can take place. The foundational characteristics of outcomes-based instructional design and assessment are still front and center regardless of which blend is chosen. However, as we move forward with new uses of technology and more complex blending of real time, mobile connectivity, and asynchronous connection, the balance of effective methods and student engagement must remain the same.
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Students' satisfaction from blended learning instruction, (2008) Maria Giannousi, Nicholas Vernadakis, Vassiliki Derri, Maria Michalopoulos & Efthimis Kioumourtzoglou
H, Singh (2003). Building Effective Blended Learning Programs. November - December 2003 Issue of Educational Technology, Volume 43, Number 6, Pages 51-54.
Ruth Reynard, Ph.D., is a higher education consultant specializing in faculty development and instructional design. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.