February 21st, 2011

Putting the Learning in Blended Learning

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Blended learning involves using a combination of face-to-face interactions and online interactions in the same course. Students still regularly meet in the classroom in a blended course, but the frequency of those meetings is usually decreased. The goal of blended learning is to facilitate greater student learning and could thus fit within a learner-centered paradigm.

Many discussions about blended learning, however, focus not on learning but on blending. “Blended” is an adjective and “learning” is a noun; why has our focus been directed at the adjective? Do we assume, as is often done in the teaching paradigm, that learning is automatically assumed? I think that blended learning has become widely established enough that attention can now be paid to the learning portion of the name.

In higher education learning must be the focus—the push for learner-centered teaching is a noble, pedagogically defensible goal. Improving the cost-effectiveness of teaching should play only a secondary role. An instructor should not begin a blended design by asking how many face-to-face hours are really necessary, even though some administrators may use reduced hours as a starting point. The course should be designed to maximize learning.

Blended learning course design
In designing a blended course, a simple way to start is to imagine a discrete unit of learning, for example, a particular topic or a chapter of the textbook. Here is a three-step process:

  1. Establish clear learning goals for the topic.
  2. Design activities to help students meet the learning goals.
  3. Sort the activities into two categories: online and face-to-face.

None of these steps is particularly easy. Writing effective learning goals is a skill that teachers must constantly hone. Designing activities requires a creative mind that is pedagogically grounded. Addressing the third step could be the easiest of the required actions but requires much pedagogical savvy. In considering each step, the following questions might help:

  • What do I really want students to learn?
  • How can I ensure that students read the book prior to class?
  • What lower-level activities can student complete online prior to class?
  • What higher-level activities can be accomplished during class?
  • What higher-level activities can students complete after a topic has been discussed face-to-face?
  • Which activities require a grade and which activities will students do because they can immediately see the link to other graded activities?

As small decisions are made about individual topics and the instructor decides the balance between face-to-face and online learning, the bigger picture will emerge. The teacher must start with small decisions then step back to see the picture that is emerging about the course, in much the same way that we step back from pointillism to see the picture that is created from thousands of small paint dabs.

Ike Shibley, PhD. is an associate professor of chemistry at Penn State Berks, a small four-year college within the Penn State system.

From Putting the Learning in Blended Learning. Online Classroom, February 2009, 1,8.