Blended Learning: Integrating Online and Face-to-Face Courses

Blended learning entails more than simply replacing class time with online course elements or supplementing an online course with face-to-face meetings. To be successful, the online and face-to-face modes need to be integrated by taking into account the learning objectives and the affordances of each mode and deliberately linking what occurs in each mode.

Depending on one’s starting point, a blended course may be viewed as either a face-to-face course with online enhancement or an online course with face-to-face enhancement. If you do not carefully think about and implement measures to integrate these two learning modes, students may perceive them as separate contexts that have very little to do with each other or they may consider parts of the course irrelevant or busywork.

When the online and face-to-face components complement each other as integrated activities in each setting, there is a clear purpose and students understand the relevance of both modes.

In an interview with Online Classroom, Kelvin Thompson, assistant director of course design and development in the Center for Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida, and Susan Wegmann, associate professor at UCF’s College of Education and director of programs and research at the Morgridge International Reading Center, gave the following recommendations for how to successfully integrate the online and face-to-face modes of a blended course:

  • Start with the learning goals. “Look at the learning outcomes of the course carefully before making any modality decisions. Is there something that’s going to support this particular learning outcome particularly well face to face or online or by using some combination of the two?” Thompson asks.
  • Make careful modality decisions. There are several factors to consider when making modality decisions, including:
    • The affordances of each modality. Each modality has its strengths. For example, with online interaction you have the ability to hear from every student, while limited time in the classroom makes this unlikely, Thompson says.

      The online environment also allows for differentiated instruction. For example, Wegmann finds that a case study assignment that has students make decisions about using reading assessments works better online. “To me it’s more helpful to be online with the case study so that students can immediately do searches of the terms they don’t understand or pull up an example from the text that’s unfamiliar to them,” she says. “The students may not know the terminology, so they can do a quick search and find out more about this case study without having to expose that to the entire class.”

      Using the same example of the case study assignment, Wegmann points out that with approximately 200 different reading assessments available, from a logistical perspective doing this activity online is more effective because it’s easier to access the materials online rather than face to face.

    • Workload/logistics. The goal with modality decisions is to maximize the effectiveness of the learning experience, but as with any instructional design decision, there are limitations to what can realistically be accomplished. Consider how much work will be required to create each learning activity versus the benefits to the learners, and put in the extra effort where you can make the biggest difference. “Otherwise you’ll never get anything done,” Thompson says.
  • Be deliberate in providing opportunities for interaction. “In terms of integration, communication is the key, and I think if we can allow our students to communicate in meaningful ways—both online and face to face—that will help bridge the gap. … If students can understand that the professor is very interested in communication and the social interaction that necessarily has to occur for us to learn, then I think that the students will buy into the fact that they need to be active face to face and online,” Wegmann says.

    Just because a communication tool or technique is available does not mean that you have to use it, Thompson says. “When you’ve got a solution in search of a problem, that’s probably a bad thing. For example, if instructor X for whatever reason thought that she or he had to ‘have an online discussion’ in a blended course but didn’t really have a sense of why … if there’s no discernible connection between that activity and the learning outcomes, and if it’s not designed particularly well … it will be perceived as meaningless busywork. And you lose credibility with students by doing something like that. Students shouldn’t have to be wondering why they are in either of those two modes. It should be clear to them.”

  • Reinforce one modality in the other. Be explicit in making the connections between the two modalities by acknowledging and extending the interaction in each. Thompson suggests taking time in face-to-face sessions to talk about online discussions by saying things such as “Wasn’t that a great discussion we had last week? Some things that stood out to me were x, y, and z. I thought we might take a couple of minutes and extend that.” Conversely, you can use something that occurs in a face-to-face session to begin an online discussion by saying things such as “That’s going to be our on-ramp to our online discussion this week.” Thompson says that making these explicit connections goes a long way toward using student-to-student interaction to support integration of the online and face-to-face modes of a blended course.

Excerpted from Blended Learning: Integrating Online and F2F, Online Classroom, 12.12 (2012): 1,3.