Recently, a colleague asked me to help them write a chapter on blended learning. Here are my contributions to that chapter, which serves as a quick and dirty guide to understanding what blended learning is, some thought about the Community of Inquiry's Triad model of assessment, and some thoughts about the future (and end) of blended learning as a phrase.
It may be that the limited exposure to the power of online learning through blended learning is helping to fuel online learning’s rise in popularity and legitimacy. As Rees (2016) recently opined,
"Old style faculty will become dinosaurs whether they deserve to be or not. That’s why I recently made a commitment to start teaching online, beginning in the fall of 2016. My plan is to create a rigorous and engaging online U.S. history survey course while I am still in a position to dictate terms. After all, if I create a respectable, popular class that takes advantage of the Internet to do things that can’t be done in person [emphasis ours], then it will be harder for future online courses at my university (or elsewhere for that matter) to fail to live up to that example.
At its most basic level, blended learning seeks to take advantage of the Internet to do things that cannot be done in person. Google Docs, Wordpress blogs, and wikis (inside or outside the LMS) make learning more collaborative and the process of learning more visible to the instructor than ever before. Hill (2016) suggests that online learning has firmly entered the mainstream – despite lingering criticisms from those weighing in on the practice of online learning who have no experience with online learning – especially the experience of learning in online learning contexts that have been well planned and designed with the rigor, engagement and affordances mentioned by Rees above. If it is true that online learning has firmly moved into the mainstream, it is all the more true for blended learning.
We would argue that blended learning fueled (and continues to fuel) a “pedagogical renaissance” (we refrain from using the term “revolution”). The heated debates which sought to prove (or disprove) the effectiveness of blended learning or face-to-face learning has caused a deeper exploration of teaching practice, as well a more complex understanding of how students learn. It has been argued by Jensen, Kummer and Godoy (2015), for example, that the improvements of a “flipped classroom” may “simply” be the fruits of active learning. The flipped classroom is the most basic blend, where recorded lectures, instructional videos and/or animations, or other remotely accessed learning objects or resources are accessed “outside” of class, and when students are “inside the classroom,” their online learning experiences are complemented by active pedagogical approaches, such as problem-based learning, case studies, and peer interaction. Developing meaningful active learning activities is far from simple, but blended learning’s success has certainly caused fundamental re-thinking of course design and what teaching and learning looks like. Further discussion on flipped learning occurs later in this chapter.
In their quasi-experimental study, Jensen, Kummer and Godoy (2015) looked at unit exams, homework assignments, final exams and student attitudes to compare non-flipped and flipped sections of a course, and what they determined was that “the flipped classroom does not result in higher learning gains or better attitudes over the non-flipped classroom when both utilize and active-learning, constructivist approach [emphasis ours].” The effectiveness of active learning has been established in studies like this and in four major meta-analyses (Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor Jordt and Wenderoth, 2014; Michael, 2006; Prince, 2004; Hake, 1998), which indicate that the key advantage for blended learning is that it enables students to be active and engaged in various ways, depending on the context and design of the course.
The simplest way to understand constructivist teaching is to separate content delivery (transmission) from concept application. What blended learning has done, most of all, is cause a fundamental rethinking of learning-as-delivery, of content as an item of mechanistic transfer, and to refocus discussion on how to design learning environments so that students are offered the best opportunities for engaging at a deep level with the content and with those in the learning environment. As Feldstein and Hill (2016, p. 26) observe, when “content broadcast” (content attainment) is moved out of the classroom, it provides more space to “allow the teacher to observe the students’ work in digital products, so there is more room to coach students” in the concept application phase of learning.
In blended learning, technology becomes "an enabler for increasing meaningful personal contact" (Feldstein & Hill, 2016).
The Community of Inquiry's Triad approach to assessment highlights how digital technologies support various forms of assessment. Below are some examples for how these tools have been used to create dynamic and robust assessment approaches.
Clickers. Student response systems (SRS, aka clickers) offer a powerful and flexible tool for teaching and learning. They can be used peripherally or they can take a central role during class, but even with minimal use, significant differences have been found in final grades between sections of the same course (Caldwell, 2007; Lantz, 2010). In our experience with student response systems, clickers can be used to increase student participation, integrate with other commercially provided learning resources to provide useful feedback to instructors on student learning, and increase opportunities for fun through formative assessment practices. In a small community college, instructors used clickers in various ways, including using them as comprehensive review at the end of a module, or for students to “get their head in the game” and activate prior learning at the beginning of class with five to 10 short questions. Other instructors used them with icebreaker activities to solicit student opinions on controversial topics to which they might be reluctant to admit without the veil of anonymity, as a way to launch discussion. Others used it for team-based games where students competed for top points. Students enjoyed the increased interactivity and faculty felt more able to assess the learning of the entire class rather than random, individual students. Based on student content attainment, faculty developed remedial lectures on specific elements and were able to reflect on whether or not their instructional approaches were successful. Through think-pair-share (or test – teach – retest), the opportunities for peer instruction are endless, where students teach each other concepts through discussion.
Wikis. Wikis can be used to assist in group assessment. Group assessment, as Caple and Bogle (2013) point out, is “a fraught yet increasingly popular, indeed necessary, method of undergraduate assessment.” Group assessment is often necessary because of the massification and “scalability” of higher education, where some undergraduate courses have upwards of 1,000 students, and it has become popular because the collaborative nature of the assessment task provides the opportunity for students to develop interpersonal skills such as leadership and communication.
Blogs. As the term “blog” was coined in the late 1990s, blogs are now one of the older forms of user-generated content. Blogs are so “old school” that they have given way to other social media platforms, such as Twitter (micro-blogging), and the popular blogger Seth Godin (sethgodin.typepad.com, June 1, 2016) has suggested that Google and Facebook no longer want people to read blogs because they are free, uncensored, and exist outside their walled gardens. Still, blogs remain an effective strategy for a form of student engagement that fosters collective and reflective learning (Mansouri & Piki, 2016). While students primarily use blogs for entertainment and personal fulfillment, it has been suggested that “we would be more effective teachers if we helped students solve their real-world personal, professional, and academic writing problems by building on existing practices, including the flexible use of the composing technologies that permeate their everyday lives” (Moore et al., 2016). Blogging remains a powerful option for formative assessment, whether it takes place within the closed environment of the LMS or out on the open web as a way to facilitate collaborative learning, reflection, and social support. As Garrison and Akyol (2009) suggest, this venerable Web 2.0 tool goes beyond simple interaction, giving learners the opportunity to engage in purposeful discourse to construct meaning, share meaning, and consolidate understanding both at personal and conceptual levels. Blogs may produce greatest benefits for students who are shy, introverted or naturally reflective (Ciampa & Gallagher, 2015).
This brief look at clickers, wikis, and blogs highlights the dynamic and flexible digital tools that can be used to create sophisticated blended learning environments that enable faculty and learners to engage with and critically monitor and assess the quality of learning taking place in any form of educational provision. These standard tools are now being complemented by other social networks, such as Twitter, to expand assessment approaches. Twitter has been used to enhance social presence in large enrollment online courses (Rohr & Costello, 2015), or increase concept retention, course enjoyment, and student achievement by creating avenues for student engagement that “transcended traditional classroom activities” (Junco, Heiberger & Loken, 2011). Others (Barnard, 2016) have taken advantage of Twitter’s strict character limit and the imposed brevity to teaching creative writing and storytelling skills in new digital environments. As mentioned earlier, the affordances of these tools provide limitless opportunities to invent more creative assessment approaches.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of flexible learning and assessment is contained within the concept of differentiated assessment, which is “an educational structure that seeks to address differences among students by providing flexibility in the levels of knowledge acquisition, skills development, and types of assessment undertaken by students (Varsavsky & Rayner, 2013), rather than the “middle of the cohort teaching approach.” There are significant challenges and opportunities provided by giving students choice for how they will provide evidence of learning. Again, massification, scalability, reduced funding, and/or developing rubrics that can be fairly and meaningfully applied in a high choice, high variability environment are all significant challenges. However, differentiated approaches to assessment in higher education provide “perhaps the most genuine framework for student learning”(Varsavsky & Rayner, 2013) because they recognize that learning is, by its very nature, an individual experience. Differentiated assessment also applies sound adult learning principles, such as giving students, particularly adult students, control over how they will be assessed. By allowing participation in the creation of their assessment, learners become co-creative participants in their experience, affording them the opportunity to generate ideas about what would be the most meaningful, valuable, and hands-on way to demonstrate learning.
The flipped classroom.
In addition to creating more active learning opportunities for concept application, the flipped classroom confers to students a level of temporal freedom (Anderson, 2003). In an ongoing research project at a small community college, when students were interviewed about the benefits of a flipped classroom environment, they responded positively to the sense of control they had in the instruction process. They studied in the kitchen, in cafes, or on their beds. They could rewind (or fast-forward) parts of the lecture, re-watch sections they were unclear of, and they had time to process, reflect, and develop more meaningful questions. They also had control over their energy. As one student put it, “In lecture, by the end of class, I didn’t want to ask questions because I just want to get out of there, and I know I didn’t absorb half of it because I’m tired.” With the flipped classroom, “I can do it when I know I am going to be able to focus.” This is a perfect expression of what Anderson (2004) called temporal freedom, and if students can interact with lectures multiple times and at times when they feel ready for learning, this will probably be evidenced in their assessments.
The new normal and the end of blended learning.
Guri-Rosenblit (2014) points out that “One of the main conclusions of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2005) study was that most higher education institutions use online teaching to enhance classroom encounters rather than to adopt a distance teaching pedagogy” (p. 109). She pronounced a meld of systems: “The clear and distinct function of distance education providers for over 150 years is not clear and distinct anymore” (p.109) because any bricks-and-mortar institution can extend itself to students outside its on-site campus and offer online courses in some format to learners regardless of whether they study on-campus or off-campus. Has this become the “new normal” over the past decade, since the OECD study? While more and more "blended learning" research continues to appear, its implementation appears to be comfortably embedded into global teaching practice.
As far back as 2006, Educause's Center for Applied Research (Albrecht, 2006) wrote that
"the battles over the efficacy of residential learning versus online learning have disappeared with the quiet adoption of blended learning. While an occasional attack surfaces, the attraction of mixed delivery mechanisms has led to implementation, often without transcripting and virtually without announcement (p. 2). Looking to the future, we echo Ololube (p.52), who in his chapter “A vision for the future of blended learning," in Advancing technology and educational development through blended learning in emerging economies (2013), concluded that:
"Blended learning combines mobile learning and (flipped) classroom sessions. The terms m-learning, e-learning, and blended learning have disappeared. People are learning with whatever device is available and the learning systems are flexible enough to allow everybody to start at the appropriate level. (p. 52)"
Similarly, Ontario’s distance consortium, Contact North (2012), when looking at the long-term strategic perspectives among Ontario college and university presidents, suggests that blended learning works because it is evolving naturally, because students like and demand it, and because faculty members find that it enhances, rather than replaces, their traditional teaching methods. In fact, Contact North suggests, “it is highly likely that such terms as 'online,' 'hybrid,' or 'blended' learning will disappear in the near future as the technology becomes so integrated into teaching and learning that it is taken for granted" (2012, p. 10).
Instructors and instructional designers need to be clear about the assessment choices they make; do they align with the learning outcomes and one’s teaching philosophy? Is the choice of a clicker, a wiki or a blog the most appropriate assessment method? Do these affordances enable increasingly meaningful personal and interpersonal contact, or greater learner choice and control? Are they selected to reduce grading loads, which is deemed by many to be a perfectly reasonable factor upon which to make an assessment decision? While there is no recipe for the perfect blend, these are the thoughtful considerations necessary as one rethinks assessment strategies in a blended learning environment.
Detailed APA citations available upon request.