I’ve just come back from visiting two universities in central Canada and I have also been getting feedback from pilot institutions on the questionnaire we are developing for a survey of online learning in Canada. Although I do not want to anticipate the results of the survey, some things are already becoming clear, especially about blended learning.
First of course there is the question of definition. What actually is blended learning? It clearly means different things to different people. I have tried to describe it as on a continuum of educational delivery (see graphic below):
Blended learning can be seen as
- nothing more than Powerpoint slides in a classroom lecture,
- extra homework online after a face-to-face class,
- a ‘flipped’ classroom where the lecture is recorded and available online, and the class time is used for discussion and questions about the video
- a totally re-designed course, where careful choices have been made about what is done online and what in class (hybrid).
When there are so many different meanings for the same phrase, it becomes somewhat meaningless. For this reason, one recommendation made to us most strongly was that in our survey blended should be counted only when there is a deliberate replacement of face-to-face time with online learning. At least that should be measurable. But what if, in a flipped class, the lecture time is merely replaced with a face-to-face seminar, with the lecture online? Same amount of face-to-face teaching but an increased workload for the student.
It’s not about quantity; it’s about quality
If we take the broad definition to include all or most of the points above, we can certainly make one fairly confident prediction. Nearly all post-secondary teaching, at least in North America, will be blended. In other words, almost all teaching will be either fully online, or a mix of classroom and online activities, if it is not already. Even in the most traditional lecture-based physics courses, for instance, students are likely to have online exercises to do associated with the course set book.
In fact we’ve been told in some of the feedback on the survey questionnaire that blended learning is already the norm in most Canadian post-secondary institutions. This may or may not be true – hopefully the survey will reject or confirm this assumption – but that seems to be the perception of many of those closest to the action. The issue then is not will blended learning become the norm, but how quickly, and my guess is that nearly all courses in Canadian post-secondary institutions will be online or blended within the next five years.
The key question then is not whether or not blended learning will be the norm, but will it be done well or badly? It is this question that keeps me awake at night, because there is no guarantee that classroom instructors drifting into blended learning know anything about the best practices for online teaching, or indeed whether these best practices will migrate successfully to the many different forms of blended learning that will emerge.
What do we do on campus when students can learn most things online?
One reason I lie awake at night is because we have no evidence-based research or theory that can guide instructors on this question. We certainly have a lot of opinions about what can best be taught online and what face-to-face, and we certainly have a lot of good research and theory, and best practice, about how to teach effectively fully online.
Indeed, it is the on-campus activities that are less well defined when students can study online. Or to put it more bluntly, what can we offer students on campus that makes it worth their time to get out of bed and on the bus on a cold and frosty morning that they can’t get by staying home and studying online? What is the added value of the campus or the classroom?
The answer to this question of course will vary from subject to subject. An experienced instructor will maybe intuitively work this out for herself, but there is a lot of scope for getting it wrong as well. I don’t want to under-rate instructor intuition, but theory and research on this question is desperately needed, at least to offset guessing and ‘I know best’ attitudes. Indeed, for far too long, many on-campus instructors have incorrectly assumed that certain teaching or learning activities can only be done well on campus when in fact we have found they can be done just as well or better online. In the future, if not at present, even laboratory work may be done as well online through the use of remote labs, online simulations and/or augmented reality.
So what guidelines or framework can we offer instructors in making these decisions? I have suggested in Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age four criteria and a simple process for making a decision about the mode of delivery but I am more aware than anybody how fragile and tentative this is without it being backed by theory and research. It is also one thing to decide to do a blended class rather than a face-to-face class, but quite another to decide what should best be done in each of the different modes of delivery.
Another factor which unfortunately is often the first issue that institutions try to determine when moving to blended learning is the organizational structure for the learning support units, such as those housing instructional designers, web and media developers, and technical support for LMSs, etc. For many institutions, it is recognized that mainline, on-campus faculty will need substantial learning technology and instructional design support if they are to move to blended learning, but the problem is perceived as having the support in the wrong places.
In many North American universities, this support is often concentrated in Continuing Studies, because, historically, this is the unit that has supported distance and fully online learning. Now that support is needed for on-campus activities. However, the units supporting fully online courses and programs are usually themselves over-stretched, just managing the fully online courses.
Although it is important eventually to align support to where it is most needed, the problem should not be seen as an organizational issue but as a resource issue: there is just not enough existing resources going into academic support to cope with an expansion into blended learning.
The scaling issue
This is the main reason for my lying awake at night. Institutions are already spending a good deal to support just the fully online courses or programs. We have good models here based on instructional designers and media specialists working in a team with instructors in developing fully online courses. This way, the special design requirements for students studying off campus can be met.
However, at the moment, fully online courses constitute somewhere around 10-15% of all the credit-based teaching in North American universities. What happens when we go to 85% or more of the teaching being blended? The current learning technology support model just won’t be able to handle this expansion, certainly not at the rate that it is being predicted. However, without a design strategy for blended learning, and adequate support for faculty and instructors, it is almost certain that the quality will be poor, and it is certain that all the potential benefits of blended learning for transforming the quality of teaching will not be achieved.
Trying to extend the support system from fully online to blended courses and programs will ultimately be unsustainable. Although support units will be essential to get blended learning successfully started, teaching activities must be economically sustainable, which means faculty and instructors will eventually need to become able to design and manage blended learning effectively without continuous and ongoing support from instructional designers and media producers. This will require a huge training and retraining effort for instructors.
As always, identifying a challenge is much easier than resolving it. But here are some suggestions (please suggest others):
- Develop an institutional strategy for teaching and learning. Give priority in terms of resources and support to those academic areas ready and wanting to move into innovative teaching, in whatever mode it takes.
- Identify additional resources for a move to innovative teaching, in the form of extra instructional designers, media producers and release time for faculty for initial course design and development. (This is a good indicator of just how serious the institution is about changing teaching). This will provide a core of support to get things going in an effective manner.
- Give priority to supporting innovative blended learning designs, where the course is re-designed with a clear rationale for what is being done online and what face-to-face.
- In particular give priority to supporting academic programs that have a clear strategy for blended and online learning and how it will be delivered across the program
- Encourage innovation in blended learning design, but ensure that it is properly evaluated and that there is a strategy, if the innovation is successful, for ensuring the design is more widely applied.
- Don’t mess with successfully operating support units that already exist. If they were needed before for what they do, they are still needed for that. Set up new units to support the move to blended learning and locate them close to the academic departments where they will be needed. Build an institutional community of practice so that the different support units can learn from each other.
- The most important suggestion of all: overhaul completely your faculty development and training. Start with an online or blended course on how to teach online or in a blended format. Make it mandatory for instructors getting institutional support for blended or online learning. Provide a teaching track for appointments, promotion and tenure to reward innovative teaching. Redesign the post-graduate experience to ensure that teaching methods and pedagogy are also covered as well as research expertise, and ensure a direct link between such courses and teaching appointments. Provide badges, certificates or post-graduate diplomas or degrees for instructors who can demonstrate they have taken courses on teaching in post-secondary education.
- Give research into blended learning a high priority in the SSHRC; this is going to be the norm and we need to know what works and what doesn’t. In particular we need some good theory on the pedagogical differences between online and classroom teaching – not comparative research about which is best, but what each is uniquely suitable for within a particular subject discipline and teaching context.
Then you will be ready for blended learning.
Over to you
Do you share my concerns or am I just a nervous Nellie? Should we just leave everyone to work it out for themselves?
Alternatively, what do you think needs to be done to ensure that blended learning is introduced sustainably and with high quality?
Does your institution have a plan for dealing with the move to blended learning? Is it a good plan?