Did blended learning finally arrive in 2021?

2021: still bad but better

In my review for 2020, I wrote ‘Goodbye – and don’t come back’, a reaction to the horrible year caused by Covid-19. Well, Covid-19 is still with us, and doesn’t look like ever going away completely. My new word for 2021 is now ‘endemic’ rather than ‘pandemic.’ It’s a depressing thought, added to the catastrophes suffered here in British Columbia from climate change.

However, at least we now have effective vaccines, and life here, at least in BC, with nearly 80% fully vaccinated, is returning closer to normal. I have seen both my sons for the first time in two years, and my wife and I managed to take two short getaways within the province. If you have to be stuck anywhere, British Columbia has incredible scenery and places to visit, if you can manage to avoid the wildfires, floods and landslides (and we even have scorpions in the Okanagan; locusts probably next year).

In terms of online learning, there has been considerable progress. We learned a lot about online learning during Covid-19, and while not all these lessons were good, the landscape of teaching and learning has altered, in general for the best. It’s these developments that I want to discuss in my review of the year.

I will draw heavily on my summary of research reports on Covid-19 and emergency remote/online learning.

Lessons learned

Same as 2020

Most of the lessons learned about emergency remote learning for 2021 are the same as they were in 2020. I identified 10 lessons in my 2020 review:

  1. Online and blended learning will increase substantially post Covid-19 (or perhaps ‘into the future’ is now more accurate.)
  2. Support for instructors is essential for quality online learning
  3. We know how to do quality online and blended learning, but we can also learn from emergency online learning
  4. COVID-19 showed the need for more flexible assessment methods
  5. COVID-19 resulted in innovative teaching, but will it stick?
  6. We are beginning to see the advantages of media and open educational resources for teaching and learning
  7. More attention needs to be paid to online access and equity
  8. We need more flexible learning spaces
  9. Administrators need to plan for flexibility and resilience in delivering teaching
  10. We need more (and better) data.

Nothing that happened in 2021 changed my views on these 10 lessons but there were some new developments worth mentioning.

An increase in blended learning

The growth of blended learning appears to have jumped considerably in 2021 (although, unfortunately, the evidence for this is mostly anecdotal – we don’t have good data on this radical change in education, although the CDLRA is doing its best).

Students were already integrating online learning into their campus-based studies even before Covid-19. Now even those instructors who disliked emergency remote learning or were formerly openly hostile toward online learning seem to be embracing some of the elements of blended learning, such as recording their lectures for later use by students (asynchronously), or teaching in-class and online students synchronously (sometimes called ‘bi-model’). This though is a relatively small change in teaching methods.

More importantly, some instructors (still, anecdotally, a small minority) are re-thinking their teaching to combine the best of online learning with the best of in-class teaching, such as using on-campus teaching to prepare students and for review of work, and using online learning for student research and study. This is really the future of blended learning but it needs an awareness of and respect for the relative affordances of both online and in-person learning, which we are still learning.

There are all kinds of new terms for these moves toward blended learning, such as flipped, hyflex, hybrid, and these terms will continue to evolve and confuse, because there is no dominant pedagogical model or even theory for blended learning. Everyone is learning by the seat of their pants, and this may not be a bad thing, at least initially. What is important is that these developments are encouraged, recorded and evaluated, so that eventually best practices can emerge.

The big question is whether there will be a long-term shift away from large in-person lecture classes. The University of Manchester in the UK promised to end ‘non-interactive’ lecture classes as part of a permanent and comprehensive move to blended learning, and Ryerson University’s School of Continuing Education is moving all its classes into a fully online mode, through a mix of deliberately designed asynchronous online courses, and previously classroom-based courses moving to synchronous online learning, at least until the School has the time and the money to re-design such courses. Are these just bubbles that will quickly pop, or the start of a major shift in program delivery?

Given that Covid-19 is now endemic, as is influenza, will universities and colleges be willing to take the risk of large lecture classes in the future? I am waiting for the first student (probably in the USA) to sue if they get sick.

University of Manchester lecture theatre: will this be banned if non-interactive?

Extensive faculty development – but more is needed

What we did see during 2020 and 2021 was perhaps the greatest effort ever in professional development for faculty. Throughout 2020 and 2021, most staff in Centres for Teaching and Learning worked flat out to provide one-on-one support for instructors, and to develop online courses and resources for faculty development, driven by the need of instructors to improve their emergency remote teaching. It will take several years to see the consequences of this but it should lead to a general improvement in teaching, and some specific benefits for online and blended learning.

However, it also identified a new challenge: how to scale up instructional design and media support. When only 10 per cent of courses were online, one-on-one support for faculty was feasible. However with everyone moving toward some version of blended learning, the challenge of quality control and agile course design, especially for blended learning, has become urgent. How do we scale up support for instructors to ensure quality blended learning? The challenge of blended learning means moving from an ad hoc model of faculty development, based on instructors, often reluctantly, opting in, to a more systematic faculty development model that ensures everyone has exposure to best practices in blended learning.

We need to look at institutions such as the University of Central Florida, which has been using a blended learning model now for nearly 20 years, for guidance and help. For instance they have an open-access blended learning toolkit which instructors are encouraged to take before doing their first blended learning course. 

Equity of access is still an issue

This was highlighted also in my 2020 review of the year, but the issue is somewhat clearer. Especially in the k-12 system, there are significant numbers of students who do not have adequate Internet access or appropriate equipment for online learning. For such children, access to school is crucial. Online learning widens access only when there is an alternative on-campus experience for those without digital access. Binary thinking (either on-campus OR online learning) is not helpful. We need both.

Secondly at the post-secondary level, the numbers without adequate access are proportionately less than in the k-12 system, but still significant. More importantly, research on emergency remote learning showed that many students do not have an adequate space at home for studying. This makes it all the more important for campuses to ensure there are plenty of private study carrels with computers and Internet access so that students can work online even when on campus. 

There was also some interesting research in 2021 in diversity issues in emergency remote learning. Some special needs students suffered, while others, such as autistic children, seemed to benefit, though more and better research is needed on this. Certainly, more needs to be done to provide accommodation for special needs students studying online. More disturbingly, there were reports that in the USA, many black children (and parents) preferred online learning, because it avoided the systemic racism in schools.

More robust technologies

One important development over the last two years has been improvements in the robustness of commonly used technologies in online learning, particularly video-conferencing tools such as Zoom, which did have a security problem in 2020 that it has now rectified. Learning management systems though haven’t gone away and increasingly instructors and institutions seem to be integrating these two tools. Again, we need to explore more closely the relative affordances of video-conferencing and learning management systems, so each is used to best advantage.

Although MOOCs continue to expand and grow – 200 million students in 2021 – and we saw EdX swallowed up by a commercial platform, 2U, there was no major new technology that made a breakthrough in online learning in 2021.

Virtual reality and serious games are slowly growing but are still relatively niche applications. AI still hovers on the fringes of education, awaiting some radically new approach that can draw on the masses of data students generate online. Facebook is disappearing into the Metaverse, and I am making damned sure I don’t follow it (if I can control this, about which I am increasingly doubtful). Blockchain is yet to be exploited for educational purposes but offers promise in terms of microcredentials, and providing a more learner-centred way of managing credentialling. But LMSs and video-conferencing ruled in 2021.

What did I miss?

I’m sure there were other important developments that slipped under my radar. Please use the comment box below for your views on what changed – or should have but didn’t – in 2021.

Preparing for 2022

I still have a blog post to come summarising my activities in 2021, then after the holiday break I will take a look forward to online learning in 2022. If though you are already wrapping up the year, have a wonderful holiday break, and re-charge your batteries: you will need all your energies for 2022.


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