Blended learning is a term which has gained prominence in education over the past decade and is once again in the spotlight due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Put simply, blended learning is typically a delivery method of education which combines face-to-face delivery with technology-powered online learning.
How education providers choose to combine these two elements will depend on a number of factors such as the level of study, student profile, infrastructure and course content. However, it has become generally accepted that optimised blended learning occurs when technology is used to consume content that aids developing knowledge and understanding, while face-to-face class time is used to open up more student engagement with the material, or to zone in on problem areas.
Indeed, the data shows remarkable successes when blended learning is implemented in this way.
According to Centre for Digital Education’s (CDE) 2015 survey, blended learning improved the following areas:
- Student engagement increased by 69%
- Student retention rates rose by 39%
- Test scores improved by 28%
- Grade rates up by 22%
- Attendance increased by 22%
The COVID-19 situation has affected many aspects of education such as teaching, learning, assessments and student support, and blended learning has become more topical than ever. Schools, colleges and universities find themselves urgently seeking solutions to the challenges around adhering to social distancing.
Despite the challenges, the current situation is an opportunity for education providers to fully embrace modern best practices and new technologies, even if this means breaking out of the comfort zone. This is where blended learning can assist with these challenges. In its normal mode, blended learning essentially aims to reduce the amount of time students need to spend on site. At a larger scale this then inevitably leads to a reduction in overall students on site at any given time.
The new norm we find ourselves in looks set to remain for a good while yet. In that time, new adopters of blended learning will be encouraged to find ways of making it work for them, not only for the next few months but for the foreseeable future. Many providers may find that blended learning is not only necessary to survival, but an essential delivery method for long-term success.
To avoid the typical pitfalls when implementing blended learning, the following five aspects are worth considering:
1. Get buy-in from the top and bottom
There should be no shortcuts when it comes to blended learning. Implementing it is a labour-intensive, complex process. It’s essential that blended learning has buy-in from top management and leading academics within an institution. Those in leadership also need to recognise that it’s not going to be perfect immediately and that teething problems will be inevitable. For blended learning to flourish, patience is required all round but particularly from the organisation’s leadership. Tutors and lecturers may have spent their entire careers delivering in a very traditional approach and may find themselves out of their comfort zone.
Staff managing the library and academic support services will be able to complement tutors as far as managing student support is concerned. Involving students in the implementation will help to develop staff-student partnerships, which could go a long way to sustaining this change. It will also ensure that student feedback is considered throughout the implementation process. Defining what blended learning means for your institution would be a great first step, so that all stakeholders have a common understanding and work towards a shared goal.
2. Inductions matter
Students thrive when they have the confidence of knowing how systems and processes work. Inductions are a great opportunity of setting your students up nicely for the upcoming academic year and making the most of their curiosity to learn. You want your students to be engaging with the content, rather than working out how to navigate the platforms.
Ensure that you have comprehensive, easy-to-understand inductions on your platforms and systems, and that the induction has been tested by a range of students.
It’s also essential to provide students with planning tools, such as recommended study plans and notifications/reminders about deadlines. Induction will be especially important for students who are new and who will be experiencing college for the first time. They will have little or no idea of what to expect, who their peers are, how to seek help, how to use the college systems or even where to find the timetable.
As you plan next year’s induction have a look at what was done in the past, student surveys/feedback and plans for next academic year. This will help to retain elements which worked well, replace/change the irrelevant ones and add/develop new ones aligned to the teaching and learning strategies for 2020-21. You can include certain activities and/or content targeting students who are new to the college and do not have the same experience as the ones who are progressing to the next level.
3. Pre-session activities and post-session reflection are essential
Getting students to apply their minds to content before a face-to-face session has a huge bearing on the level of engagement of students during the sessions. Try to avoid the trap of merely sending them reading material. Use a variety of pre-session activities, such as getting students to watch a video, listen to a podcast, solve a crossword, complete a quiz or create a mind map. Explain how this pre-session activity is relevant to the session.
Challenge them with questions or ask them to bring their opinions on the material to the session. Another great tactic involves giving students a problem to solve, and to come ready to discuss their methods and thinking in the session. You could also use a pre-session survey to identify what topic students would be most interested in or need support with and prepare accordingly.
Similarly, reflection is equally important. Lessons should never be done in isolation. During face-to-face sessions, whether virtual or physical, ensure that you initially link back to previous lessons, pre-session activities and progress, so that students have a clear picture of how the content works together. Reflection could be included either towards the end of the session or as an asynchronous activity, which students could complete in their own time. You could use some of the following questions and give students an opportunity to perhaps choose one or more questions they would like to answer:
- What did you learn in today’s session?
- What did you enjoy the most?
- Anything to share which you did not get a chance to during the session?
- How would you improve this session? Any suggestions?
- What will you do differently?
- How will use what you have learnt during this session to prepare for your assignment?
4. Adapt face-to-face for a virtual world
A key element of blended learning is that face-to-face contact time is usually scheduled as classroom sessions conducted on campus. Even if students are unable to visit the campus due to travel restrictions, the face-to-face element can still be achieved very successfully. It could be converted to a virtual face-to-face session using any of the video-conferencing platforms available and accessible to tutors and students.
This may be tricky at first and take some getting used to, but this shouldn’t change your approach, and ultimately shouldn’t change your results. However, recognising the differences between a synchronous virtual and a face-to-face session will be beneficial to you and your students. For instance, a virtual session should last for a maximum of 45 minutes to an hour. If a virtual session is scheduled for an hour, the first 5-10 minutes could be used for an informal catch-up with the students and the last 5-10 minutes could be reserved for reflection or informal feedback.
Having regular interactions (once every 15 minutes) during the virtual sessions via chats, polls or Q&A will keep students engaged. Virtual sessions could be structured in various ways so that students don’t find the format repetitive and lose interest. For example, you could conduct assignment workshops, host a Q&A session, or schedule a discussion or debate between different student groups related to a certain topic.
It is essential that students have plenty of opportunities to communicate with their tutors and peers and feel that they are a part of an online community. If students feel isolated or intimidated, it can negatively affect their communication and hamper their overall success. Various tactics can assist with this, such as vibrant discussion forums with students being appointed as moderators and supported by tutors, picking out individuals to give feedback during group sessions either verbally or in written formats and assigning collaborative projects. Delivering virtually shouldn’t stop these activities taking place.
Transition from face-to-face to a virtual world should be carefully planned and demonstrate a balance of asynchronous and synchronous activities. This balance will provide students with an opportunity to work with their peers, as well as independently. One way of identifying this balance is to ask students for their preferences and consider individual circumstances such as childcare, health issues or other commitments and constraints.
5. Keep it simple
Considering the huge variety of online tools, apps, platforms currently available and new ones being developed as a result of continuous improvement and rapid innovation, it becomes difficult to choose or identify the ones most appropriate to use. Always consider the tool, app or platform which will help you create or design an activity, which you would like to use for a particular topic/unit or learning outcome, and the student experience. Quite often shiny and new does not necessarily mean effective and user-friendly. Also, if students are not able to access the activity easily via the chosen app, tool or platform they will be reluctant to engage with it.
The most important aspect is getting students to engage and for them to benefit from the learning experience rather than using the latest tool. You could begin by testing certain apps or tools you would like to use with your colleagues, friends or family before getting students to use it. Alternatively, you could ask if some students would like to volunteer to test some of these tools before you use them for the entire class. Using the feedback from the small group of student volunteers, you can refine or change your approach.
Finally, don’t be worried about failure. As educators we should also take our own advice and keep trying until we succeed!
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