Learning 2.0

Authors of new book explain how "blended learning" can improve traditional education, when online interactions can be better than lectures and more.
November 13, 2007

As online tools become more ubiquitous inside and outside the classroom, and the growth of distance learning continues, education researchers have begun to focus on how best to harness new technologies. Advocates for the classical lecture experience still exist, of course, but the general trend has been toward incorporating various technologies into the classroom, from course management software to digital photography. One approach, called "blended learning," mixes traditional "face to face" techniques with cutting-edge developments in theory and technology.

A new book, Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines (Wiley, 2008), summarizes the current theory behind blended learning but offers practical guidelines (with examples) on how to transform existing courses into the new framework. The authors, D. Randy Garrison and Norman D. Vaughan, of the University of Calgary, discuss the ideal conditions for a blended learning experience, how a blog and a wiki can enhance a class and how exclusively face-to-face encounters can lead to short attention spans.

Q: In a time of increased attention to a results-driven focus on assessment, does blended learning offer more accountability of the learning that's actually occurring both online and offline?

A: Blended learning has an inherent accountability focus considering the core of a blended learning design is to fundamentally rethink the goals and activities of a course of studies. For this reason, there are well-defined goals and a more open desire to assess and refine design changes.

Q: Skeptics of the increased use of technology to supplant more traditional teaching methods might wonder how to achieve what you call "active engagement" in a blended learning environment. That is, what is "presence," and how can instructors engage students who are spending part of their time for the course online? Can online tools replace the classical lecturer -- or is that besides the point?

A: Considering the large lecture classes and financial constraints of higher education, the use of innovative designs that include technology are the only way to provide more engaged learning opportunities. We talk in the book about communities of inquiry to enhance student engagement. It is virtually impossible to engage students in purposeful and meaningful inquiry without the Internet and communication technologies to precipitate and sustain discourse that is central to higher order learning. Well-designed blended learning can be a much more engaged and meaningful learning experience than sitting passively in a lecture hall. It is interesting that of the three presences in the Community of Inquiry framework, there may well be enhanced cognitive and even teaching presence online. While there may be some advantages of a face-to-face context for social presence at the start of a course, online interpersonal communication offers possibilities not possible in an online context. In short, we believe the lecture should be largely replaced by more engaged face-to-face and online learning experiences. This is the potential and goal of blended learning.

Q: Online learning tends to be more widely embraced on the community college level where cost-effective means of educating as many students as possible are emphasized. Is blended learning better suited for certain levels of attainment?

A: It is true that from a cost-effectiveness perspective, blended learning may well have the greatest impact on large introductory classes. However, we have found that combining the best and distinctive aspects of face-to-face and online learning can greatly enhance the learning experience regardless of class size or level of study.

Q: Even proponents of technology in the classroom warn against using the latest breakthroughs for the sake of it. How does one differentiate between "innovative" and "substitutive" uses of technology? On a related note, where does Second Life fall on that spectrum?

A: We concur that technology must not be the driver of blended learning. Our efforts at course redesign always start with what are the intended and worthwhile educational goals. Certainly there is a place to experiment with innovative technologies but great care must be taken that they serve a useful purpose, are not a distraction, and are reliable. Technology should never be used simply to substitute for face-to-face. It must clearly offer an improved educational benefit. Thus, the use of Second Life would be appropriate if a virtual reality environment directly contributed to the learning outcomes and corresponding assessment activities for a blended learning course.

Q: Most people, when they think of online courses, imagine classes with large enrollments with students working from a distance. How can blended learning be incorporated into smaller classes with students on campus?

A: We have argued that blended learning offers an opportunity to embrace the traditional values of higher education. That is, to create and sustain communities of inquiry that would simply not be possible in a face-to-face environment, even with small classes. For this reason, blended learning has a place in large and small classes. The reality is that it is being incorporated in smaller classes for these reasons, although it has not been labeled as such.

Q: What are some concrete ways that a professor can adapt blended learning techniques to more traditional material? How can Wikipedia or online portfolios supplement a class on Plato or a remedial math course?

A: The evidence shows that the interest in blended learning is very high and that it is being adopted in a variety of formats. This adoption is often accompanied by student use of social networking tools such as wikis and weblogs. For example, wikis can be used to collaboratively summarize weekly online discussion forum sessions that students self-select to moderate. The activity can be designed as follows:

  1. A series of online discussion forums are created in a learning management system, such as Blackboard. These forums are directly related to the key modules/topics for the course.
  2. Groups of students (2 to 3) choose a module based on course readings, previous experience and/or interest in the topic.
  3. Each student group is responsible for moderating and summarizing their selected online discussion for a specified time period.
  4. The groups then use a wiki application (i.e., http://pbwiki.com) to make draft notes and a final summary of the online discussion based on guidelines co-created by the students and the course instructor.

Weblogs can be used to facilitate student self-reflection and peer review of course assignments. For example:

  1. Students can create their own course weblogs using Google’s Blogger application.
  2. After completing each course assignment, and review of the instructor’s assessment feedback, the students then post responses to the following reflective questions on their weblogs: (a) What did you learn in the process of completing this assignment? (b) How will you apply what you learned from this assignment to the next class assignment, other courses and/or your career?
  3. In terms of peer review, students paste or attach drafts of specific course assignments to their blogs. Other students in the class then review these documents and post responses to the author’s weblog. Guiding questions for the peer review process can include: (a) What did you learn from reviewing this document? (b) What were the strengths (e.g. content, writing style, format and structure) of the document? (c) What constructive advice and/or recommendations could you provide for improving the quality of this document?

Q: Is blended learning especially suited to a new generation of students with stereotypical traits such as shorter attention spans, different learning patterns, and more collaborative tendencies?

A: Student attention spans are short because most educational experiences are passive and lack meaning. Blended learning is intended to address these issues. On the other hand, there is evidence that technically savvy students are very critical about how technology is being used. It is clear that any use of technology must be justified and student expectations addressed. If this happens, then students will engage in more meaningful learning activities and assume greater responsibility for their learning.


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