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Meeting in the Middle with Blended Learning

Blended, or hybrid, academic courses are gaining a lot of attention these days. While there is no universal definition of what constitutes a blended course, in the context of higher education it usually includes both online and face-to-face (F2F) components, ideally offering the best of both worlds – the convenience and flexibility of online learning with the in-person contact and interaction of a traditional classroom.

In a 2010 report from The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), entitled "Class Differences: Online Education in the United States," blended/hybrid courses are defined as those in which 30-79% of content is delivered online. Sloan-C describes the typical blended course as one that uses online discussions and has a reduced number of in-person class meetings. EDUCAUSE also states that, "a key component of the blended learning definition is that classroom attendance ('seat time') is reduced relative to a traditional face-to-face course." [PDF]

The University of Manitoba offers examples of blended learning that include the following:

  • A conventional F2F lecture/seminar based course in which online discussions are enabled for students. The discussions are assessed and participation in the discussion is used as the basis for part of a student's grade.
  • A course in which all course materials, readings, and resources are online. Students meet F2F at pre-determined times.
  • A conventional F2F lecture/seminar course in which students work collaboratively to find or construct online resources (e.g. through blogs, wikis, web quests). The student work is assessed. Class time is allocated to this activity.

A combination of in-person and online activities allows for a different use of time and effort and the blend can take on many forms. While online course enrollment has steadily increased in recent years, there are arguments that not all learning can take place, or be assessed, as efficiently online as in a traditional learning environment. The blended approach allows for a mix of interactions in which there is a F2F component that allows for immediate instructor feedback and direct observation of student performance. Each blended course can be designed with the needs of that course, the learning objectives, and the learners in mind.

Sample a Blended Course

Each institution or program determines how time will be spent in a hybrid format course and how the courses will be designed. For example, will lectures that take place in the face-to-face portion of a blended course or will they be recorded for presentation online? A wide variety of instructional strategies and technologies are available. Review the following examples provided by three institutions to get a better idea of the range of options that are possible.

  • The University of Central Florida's Blended Learning Toolkit includes a host of resources related to blended learning in addition to model courses. Templates for both composition and algebra courses are posted, as well as a generic version that could be used to guide the structure of blended courses in other disciplines. These resources are free and open, and made available through a recent grant from the Next Generation Learning Challenges program.
  • Montgomery College provides examples and guidelines for online and blended course syllabi. These documents include sample rubrics, expectations for students, and technology specifications.
  • The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee makes it possible to access several hybrid courses (or at least the online course sites) as a guest. Look for syllabi, course assignments, class schedules, and discussion forums for details about how the courses are designed in terms of what happens in the traditional classroom and on the course site.

Benefits of a Blended Approach

Students, instructors, and administrators may all benefit from the implementation of a blended format.

  • Student engagement: Multiple delivery platforms create different opportunities for students to interact within the course. Classroom Salon is just one example of how course reading and discussion can be facilitated online, prior to class meetings, in order to more effectively use limited F2F time on deeper discussion and learning tasks.
  • Flexibility and convenience: Online delivery of course materials allows students to control to some degree their pace in completing course requirements online, as well as when and where they work on these components of the blended course. Instructors also realize the benefits related to the convenience and flexibility of online access.
  • Personalization: A student-centered approach, possible with the blended learning model, allows for options in which students can choose how they will interact with course content, each other, and assignments. Discussion participation, for example, may take place, and be assessed, in the traditional classroom setting or through online threaded discussion forums.
  • Reduced costs: Higher education institutions may also find benefits in blended course delivery. Less "seat time" scheduled in classrooms may eventually reduce the need to establish and maintain additional physical facilities. While this point is particularly relevant for traditional campuses, the reverse may be true for predominantly online schools that move to blended delivery options.

Student learning. All of these efforts may lead to enhanced student learning in blended courses, although research continues in this area. A 2010 meta-analysis study [PDF] published by the U.S. Department of Education found that while there may be positive effects related to online and blended learning, there is no clear evidence "for choosing online versus blended instructional conditions." Other studies conducted by various universities and educational researchers find increased student understanding, better preparation, and higher test scores with blended formats.

Course design. Getting the mix right can be complicated and it depends on many factors related to the context of the specific course, the academic discipline, the learners, and the institution. The benefits of a blended approach depend on how well the course was designed, how well the online and traditional components are integrated, and how closely all course activities are linked to specific learning objectives.

For more information. There are events and publications that cover blended learning specifically and provide information and resources for finding the best mix of online and face-to-face interactions for learning. A few examples are listed below to get you started:

  • The Sloan Consortium organizes an annual conference dedicated to blended learning. The 2012 event will be held in Wisconsin and feature sessions related to teaching and learning, research, student support, faculty development, and leadership and administration as related to blended course offerings.
  • The International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning is an academic publication that includes articles related to the theory and practice of blended approaches.
  • The EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative's (ELI) Discovery Tools series includes a Blended Learning Workshop Guide. Materials for the eight units of this workshop are available as PDFs online and each provides guidelines, resources, and examples that may be useful in your own research about the blended approach.

As online schools establish more regional campus locations and traditional schools add more online courses, this blended approach may lead to new techniques for delivering academic content and support services to all students. Have you experienced a blended learning environment? If so, consider sharing your perspective with us here.

September 30th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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