There is no such thing as blended-learning.

September 30, 2011

There is no such thing as blended-learning. Or rather there has never been anything except ‘blended’ learning. Of course we all know that, we’re just lazy with our language and as Orwell(1) said “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Maybe it’s worth thinking about the terminology we use.

I have no problem with a conversation about the right blend, indeed I rather like the verb ‘blend’, it’s the noun ‘blended/ing’ I find problematic. Let’s stop talk about the ‘blended approach’ and describe instead our model of learning. Let’s agree on our underpinning theoretical structures (if you like that sort of thing), identify our context and that of our learners (culture, expectations, destinations, prior experience, infrastructure), and let’s describe our model.

Teaching Online 2008 - VoiceThread in Sakai

Teaching Online 2008 - VoiceThread in Sakai

What we have in the contemporary ‘blended’ debate is a healthy concern with what students’ do, and where, how and when they do it. Rather than teaching our one-hour lecture and our two our seminar and despatching students’ into the dark dusty stacks or the ‘short-term loan’ mêlée, we now seek to engineer the ‘blend’ of approaches we want them to take. The scrap for the library carousel and scouring the desks of the studious for the only copy of the ‘reference-only’ gem has now been replaced by a broader concern for the ‘design’ of the students’ learning. We blended twenty years ago and we blend today, only the context has changed. This is a good thing.

So why don’t we call it that, why don’t we call it ‘our learning model’? Since here is so much pressure on Universities to differentiate themselves why don’t we seek to develop, articulate, refine and promote the Massey Learning Model, the Athabasca Learning Model, the Wisconsin Learning Model.

‘Blended’, like many terms in education, has been in vogue and now risks being taken for granted and misused. Alternative terminology also has its supporters; ‘mixed-mode’ and ‘hybrid’ are also used synonymously. The most common conception of blended learning is one in which there is a combination of face to face, real-time, physically present, teaching and computer-mediated, essentially online, activity. The term has come to imply an articulated and integrated instructional strategy. The term blended is often used to imply something more than the evolution of digital materials ‘supplementing’ face-to-face instruction, rather it implies that each ‘mode’ can serve a student’s learning in different ways. In practice this might mean that a two-hour lecture and a two-hour seminar become a web based lecture, a face-to-face seminar and several web based activities, allowing more time for contributions, more time for voices to be heard.

The contemporary argument is often simply maths. In a class of 40 where one would hope to have a thoughtful 10-15 minute contribution from each student, a seminar would need to be 8 -10 hours long. Online that same reflective and expressive opportunity is unbounded by class-time.

There are many reasons to reconsider the reliance on face-to-face instruction.

Participation, the opportunity to contribute, is one. But there are also opportunities for content to be paused, reviewed, annotated, questioned, spliced and shared in ways that live synchronous face-to-face contact cannot be. Media-rich course content, video and audio, interactive resources, formative assessments, all serve to allow the student to choose not just when, but also where, to study. The ‘where’ question then also gives rise to the other popular motif amongst University leaders, mobile learning.

The reason it is so difficult to establish what the right ‘blend’ is, is simply because the context of the learning determines the nature of the blend. The students’ context establishes what can and can’t be done in a specific mode, what time parameters exist, what technology restrictions and what assessment evidence is ultimately required.

Perhaps the biggest argument in favour of a blended approach (20 years ago and today) is simply that it requires engagement. Managing to access content and activities, participate appropriately and incrementally develop a portfolio of formative assessment towards a final summative goal, requires, self-management, discipline, at least some digital literacy today, and some motivation. Turning up and sitting in class is not hugely onerous (although arguably it demonstrates time-keeping).

So if you’re an institution considering the ‘Blend’, I’d like to offer a suggestion. Don’t. Instead consider the nature of your context (past-present-future) and articulate the learning model around which your exemptions and exceptions will develop, articulate a learning model to rally staff to a shared concept of learning (believe me, ‘blended’ won’t excite them) and articulate a model that learners will say “I recognise that, that’s my concept of myself as a learner, I’ll go there”.

Take a diagnostic model (here’s one I prepared earlier…) and define your own unique model of learning (better still invite me to come and work with you on it), and I guarantee you will be blending (verb) but you won’t have to try and sell the stillborn ‘blend’ (noun).

(1) Politics and the English Language” (1946) George Orwell

Contextual Learning not Blended Learning

August 22, 2011

Terminology in education is a fascinating thing. Words are after all concepts. Concepts change, evolve and mutate frequently more quickly than the words associated with them along the way. Learning once meant to go to the place of learning associated with what one wanted to know, the monastery to learn about religion, the blacksmith to learn about metals, learning was learnt at the foot of the master. As European notions of learning evolved so did our concept of what was valuable to be learnt. The book gave rise to libraries, and libraries to Universities. Where else would one go to study the ‘learning’ in the books?

Our concept of learning has now reached well beyond the word itself, and so we have created prisms through which to view its process, pedagogy, andragogy, heutagogy; and an array of theoretical lenses, constructivist, social-constructivist, connectivist.

No where is this mis-match of word and concept change more evident than in the very new domains associated with e-learning in its multitude of forms. Even a ‘simple’ concept such as ‘online’ when associated with learning in the 1980s usually meant CBT (Computer-Based Training and a dedicated PC ), in the mid 1990s with home based dial-up browser based access (lots of CMC- computer-mediated-conferencing), in the mid 2000s with moderately rich multi-media VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments). In 2011 being online can mean all of the above, and access through tablets, television, game-stations and hand-held devices, in the office, at home and literally anywhere there is a wireless or data access point. Being online is changing.

Blended is the perfect example of this. Blended as a concept becomes fairly meaningless the more it is discussed. The addition of some online (see above!) activity to a campus based programme was in the 1990s deemed ‘blended’, although many would suggest a blending of lecture and self-study, reading and discussion had long been a feature. Blended meant blended with technology. But, as the technology environment evolves (the current notion is the ‘digital ecology’), the nature of the ‘blended’ learning experience necessarily changes. This environment or ecology is fluid, variable (by social-access and geography most notably) and so the nature of the learning opportunities associated with it are also fluid.

It is not only the contemporary nature of technology, its ‘here and now-ness’, it is also the contextual nature of technology. The choices I make about what I am prepared to access and when are not the same as someone who happens to be my age, or share my job title, or live in the same street. My context is unique to me. Hence my ‘blended’ opportunity is totally unique to me. Mark Brown’s summary of
The Golden Rules: Review of Distance Education Literature is insightful.

Learning designers who attempt to design effective ‘blended’ learning opportunities frequently fail to satisfy their students’ expectations. Not because some are digital natives and some are not, as Open University research demonstrates. So why? Because my notion and your notion of blended are simply different. What I can do as a learning designer is to design into your opportunities for study, into the learning that I am able to support and believe is appropriate, the flexibility for you to make the very best use of your context. Your digital ecology context, your prior learning context, your social context and professional context, we can design learning that allows you to ‘blend’ it into a meaningful learning pattern for you. It doesn’t matter if we mean different things with the words we use. Blended should come to represent as a concept the choices we facilitate not the technology we provide.

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