The value of a good theory
The psychologist, Kurt Levine, said there is nothing more practical than a good theory. When faced with conflicting facts or difficult circumstances, a good theory will help in making appropriate decisions. We have indeed many theories for teaching and learning, under the general heading of pedagogy (or andragogy).
It is my view that modes of delivery – online learning or campus-based teaching – are by and large agnostic with regards to pedagogy. You can teach most ways in either delivery mode, although historically (if I can use that term for a phenomenon hardly more than 20 years old), asynchronous online learning has generally reflected a more constructivist approach. Lecture-based campus teaching reflects a more behaviorist or didactic approach. But it doesn’t have to be so in either mode of delivery, as with emergency remote learning, or with small group seminars on campus.
So why would we need a theory for blended learning? Just because you can teach in any way online or face-to-face, doesn’t mean that you should teach that way. This is why best practices or guidelines for quality online learning have been developed. If we are faced with conflicting facts or challenging decisions to make, having some appropriate theory – or theories – to draw upon can be very helpful.
‘Best’ practices and guidelines, such as the need for structure in the delivery of online learning, for feedback and communications, for instructor, cognitive and social presence, are very much driven by theories of learning. They are also driven by experience and research, that is, through the testing of such guidelines in the real world. Empirical events suggest theories; theories are tested by empirical events.
What would a theory of blended learning look like?
I would argue that we need to identify the educational affordances of both face-to-face and online teaching so we can make good choices: in my subject area, and for my students, what should be done online and what face-to-face? What theories or guidelines will help make such decisions?
So what would a theory of blended learning look like? Answering this question is made more difficult by the relative newness of blended learning. We don’t have a lot of experience in using blended learning; little research has been done on its effectiveness, and in particular what works and what doesn’t.
Even defining it is difficult, because blended learning is a fast-evolving phenomenon. There are many different possible designs, such as:
- hyflex (face-to-face and online or a mix, all being offered at the same time),
- ancillary online work to support a face-to-face event,
- hybrid learning, where the course is redesigned to exploit the benefits/affordances of both online and in-person teaching and learning
- a mix of semesters wholly on campus and wholly one online
- flipped classrooms.
Any theory of blended learning must also accommodate the vast array of different contexts for teaching, such as
- student demographics (age, etc.), lifestyle (for example, full-time or working students), and prior study experience of online or in-person learning
- the demands of the subject matter (for example, the need for hands-on experience),
- instructors’ epistemological positions (for example, objectivist or constructivist)
- the affordances of the mode of delivery (for example, synchronous or asynchronous)
- general existing theories of learning and how well they will fit the context.
So I am suggesting that a good theory would generate a set of questions for instructors to answer, and eventually a set of criteria for making decisions that will improve the quality of blended learning.
What’s wrong with existing theory?
It also must be acknowledged that we may not need a new theory; we may be able to reach design and evaluative decisions about blended learning though the application of existing, tried and tested, pedagogy/andragogy. For instance, could we take what we know about best practices in face-to-face teaching and best practices in online learning and use those to determine how best to use each? Or will combining them create a new context that requires new guidelines? In other words will existing theory be helpful but not sufficient?
And even if we do need a new theory, it is unlikely to consist of general hypotheses that can applied in all teaching and learning contexts. But that is the value of a good theory; it enables you to draw boundaries around a problem and focus on the issues that are relevant in a particular context.
Let’s get started
Certainly, focusing on what face-to-face learning is best for, and what online learning is best for, within a particular educational context, is going to be increasingly important for developing effective teaching. Let’s do some thinking about how to develop appropriate guidelines for this exciting new development, based on a sound theoretical position.
What are your views on this? In particular:
- do we need a theory for blended learning or is it the wrong question?
- is blended learning unique or just old wine(s) in new bottles?
- are existing pedagogies/andragogies/best practices sufficient for guiding the design of blended learning?
- how do we evaluate the success or otherwise of blended learning?
I hope we can use this space for generating a practical approach to developing guidelines and best practices for blended learning.