Thinking Horizontally and Vertically About Blended Learning

Blended learning has gone from being an interesting new hybrid of traditional and online courses to being an expected part of American education. When the Sloan Consortium last studied blended learning in 2007, it found “a lot of room for growth” in the market for blended courses. It found “consumer preference for online and blended delivery far exceeds reported experience,” indicating that demand was ahead of supply at that point.

Today, blended learning has become a more mature market. Many traditional classes have blended elements integrated into their structure, and we now have concepts like “the flipped classroom,” indicating a strategy in which delivery of informational content occurs outside of class instead of during in-class lecture, freeing the face-to-face time for interactive activities.

Think about what it takes to make a blended learning class successful. Of course, you need a faculty member who is able to teach the course, a robust set of learning objectives, a clear instructional design that integrates both the online and face-to-face aspects, and the instructional content required to successfully teach the course. But you also need support of librarians who can help students with varied types of assignments, academic advisors who can effectively counsel students into the right kind of blended course for their learning style, plus various student support services that can help students with variable campus attendance requirements navigate registration, book purchase, and payment. Indeed, the decision to offer a blended course or program can influence the entire university.

This is the crux of a recent presentation at the Sloan Blended Conference, by presenters Edward C. Bowen, Director of New Course Design & Development for the LeCroy Center of the Dallas County Community College District; Laura Pedrick, Special Assistant to the Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Executive Director, UWM Online University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and Barbara Wolf Shousha, Director of the University of Nebraska High School. Their presentation invited attendees to explore some of the issues surrounding “horizontal” and “vertical” strategies for successful blended learning.

Defining horizontal and vertical
First, it is important to consider which elements of a university’s blended learning offerings might be considered vertical, and which might be horizontal. The vertical dimension includes all of the elements that go into construction of a course. This includes how the faculty are prepared, how the course is designed, and what supports are available for design as the course is constructed.

The horizontal dimension is populated with all of the institutional systems that go into supporting students in their studies. Pedrick gives the example of her own university, at which there are different levels of blended courses available – some courses may meet predominately online, with only an occasional face-to-face meeting, while others may have regular meetings with content supplemented by online elements. This variability in degree of blendedness was seen even in the original 2007 Sloan report. This report proposed a continuum of blendedness dependent on the proportion of content delivered online, with a “blended” course having 30 to 79 percent of its content online. These proportions have become more fluid over time, but the need to communicate the degree of face-to-face time vs. online time expected of students has not changed.

In Pedrick’s example, faculty members enter information about the frequency of required meetings into the registration system to aid the students in registering for classes, but this needs to be made possible by those handling the registration system. The degree of online work required also has implications for student support services, like those dealing with accessibility issues and those running the help desk. It is easy to see how a simple decision regarding number of face-to-face meetings made by a faculty member or instructional designer can impact the work of many other individuals and offices in the institution.

Because of this impact on many university offices and functions, it is important to form relationships across the institution. “Blended courses exist in a matrix of other things,” says Pedrick. She recommends identifying “your go-to people” across the institution and figuring out what messages need to be conveyed to all constituents involved. “It’s about policy, process, and values,” says Bowen.

Excerpted from Distance Education Report, 17.14 (2013): 1-2. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.