Julia Sargent

Blended learning: more than just equal access

Julia Sargent Institute of Educational Technology, Open Univeristy Thursday 6 September 2018

When I first came across the term ‘blended learning’, I (like others) was confused as to what it referred to. The term is being used with increased frequency in academic journals and conferences, as well as educational magazines. Some have suggested the term is a hybrid of sorts, referring to educational practice that mixes face-to-face delivery with distance delivery (Osguthorpe and Graham 2003). Arguably, this definition presents a rather simplistic perspective – that blended learning can be achieved by using both face-to-face delivery and delivering some of these learning materials to those at a distance. More recently, others have contended that blended learning aims to integrate traditional learning with technology, such as e-learning and mobile learning, in order to create a new learning environment that enhances learning effectiveness and enriches the learning experience (Cheung et al 2018). Enriching the learning experience is particularly pertinent as blended learning is more than just access to learning resources. It needs to support learning.

In order to deliver learning resources at a distance, practitioners have been turning to the availability of digital technologies, such as the internet, which have greatly expanded the options available to learners and instructors alike. However, the prevalence and widespread use of digital technologies in the classroom have begun to blur the distinction between traditional face-to-face learning and learning from a distance. The questions concerning this blurring relates to that of, ‘What resources do we “blend”?’ – as well as to the increasingly pertinent question, ‘Are we putting our preferences for technology before teaching and learning?’

‘If we intend to enhance learning rather than just providing access to materials online, we must continue to negotiate our “borderless classrooms” and be reflective about our teaching with digital technology.’

At the Open University and the department in which I work, we have been exploring the use of blended learning to deliver training workshops. At first, I was intrigued by the ability to teach and deliver through technology platforms (such as Adobe Connect) while also supporting teaching in a face-to-face setting. I, alongside some colleagues, created some guidelines to help others understand how to use the technology. However, like Douce (2018), I soon realised that this understanding may be too simplistic and, indeed, one must think about the teaching, learning and the knowledge in context in order for the use of technology to be meaningful. For the use of technology to be meaningful in blended learning, and indeed to indeed emphasise the learning aspect of the term, it needed to blend time (in terms of synchronous communication) as well as facilitating the learning activities. We created discussion areas in the learning platform for the online learner to discuss tasks with their peers, and to serve as personal spaces of reflection. The learner was also given the option to feedback through written, verbal or emotive icons (the learner can raise a hand or present a ‘thumbs up’ in the form of a temporary emoji that can be viewed by the teacher).

With our ongoing reflections on this practice, it became vitally important that the use of a facilitator (separate to the main teacher or presenter) – whose focus was on answering online queries, checking learners’ understanding and sharing resources – worked particularly well in facilitating the blended learning process. Through these practices, the technology can act as the means to blend learning opportunities for both face-to-face and online learners. Yet the facilitator can begin to take some tentative steps forward in creating new learning environments that enhance the learning experience.

Douce (2018) recently highlighted the contemporary currency of the term, and argued that blended learning is a concept that will be increasingly examined as its benefits and challenges are more thoroughly understood by both practitioners and researchers. Indeed, as the digital nature of education continues to differentiate, it is an approach that calls for critical analysis, theoretical investigation and practical exploration. If we are to be true to the term and intend to enhance learning rather than just providing access to materials online, then we must continue to negotiate our ‘borderless classrooms’ and be reflective about our ongoing teaching with digital technology.


References

Cheung S, Wang F, Au O and Xie Y (2018) ‘Guest editorial: Innovative practices of blended learning’, Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning 33(2): 80–82

Douce C (2018) ‘Introductory editorial’, Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning 33(2): 79

Osguthorpe R and Graham C (2003) ‘Blended learning environments: definitions and directions’ Quarterly Review of Distance Education 4(3): 227


Dr Julia Sargent is a research fellow working at the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University. Julia is supporting research in academic professional development and learning and teaching innovation. Her role is mainly focussed on the use of technology to enhance professional learning and staff development. She also looks at digital pedagogies and how digital technology can support learning and learning materials. @julia_sargent iet.open.ac.uk/people/julia.sargent