Monday, April 26, 2010

Make it Blended!

Blended learning is not a new thing. It is not a radical concept. It is not a new-age way of thinking about learning. As Elliott Masie puts it: “We are, as a species, blended learners.” So, the blend existed much before we understood and (re)defined it.

What does blended learning mean? 
There are many definitions of blended learning. Some focus on the technology (aka Internet) and others focus on the theories to be blended. For yet others, a blend is all about the media – combination of instructor-led and elearning. There are a few who only call it a blend when it’s a combination of different types of elearning:

• Blended Learning is a blending of different learning environments. This can mean also blending methods, techniques or resources and applying them ...
• Learning methods that combine e learning with other forms of flexible learning and more traditional forms of learning such as face to face classes.
• Learning events that combine aspects of online and face-to-face instruction.
• A Learning approach that includes the use of appropriate combinations of information technologies--videoconferencing, audioconferencing, Internet, CD-ROM, and other media, combined with appropriate learning technologies, on-site facilitated activities, and strong learner support systems.
• An educational formation the integrates elearning techniques including online delivery of materials through web pages, discussion boards and/or email with traditional teaching methods including lectures, in-person discussions, seminars, or tutorials.
• Learning that involves both online and in-person activities.

I like the definition by Heinze and Procter who have developed the following definition for blended learning in higher education:

"Blended learning is learning that is facilitated by the effective combination of different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning, and is based on transparent communication amongst all parties involved with a course."

For me, this definition is more complete since it allows instructional designers to create a blend of many more aspects that just Internet-based vs. face-to-face learning. And it focuses on transparent communication – more on that later.

So, what can you blend?

Well pretty much everything! You can blend theories of learning and use different learning models for different learning outcomes. You can blend the media components (perhaps most common) and provide enough variety to the learning process. You can also blend different styles of learning as understood today. The important thing to remember is that it needs to be integrated and seamless. That’s where good communication or transparent communication (from the definition above) comes into play.
This is not an exhaustive list. But here are some possible components of a blend:

Synchronous face-to-face
• Instructor-led classroom training
• Workshops
• Conferences
• Coaching/mentoring
• On-the-job (OTJ) training
• Work teams

Synchronous online
• Webinars
• Live elearning (Virtual classrooms)
• E-mentoring
• Chats
• Work teams
• Immersive technologies (such as SecondLife)

Asynchronous online
• Email
• Bulletin boards
• Communities
• Discussion Forums
• Documentation
• Job-aids online or on PDAs
• Online assessments
• Web-based learning modules
• Online resources
• Simulations and virtual labs
• Audio, video, and mobile learning
• Workbooks
• Social media

Is there the perfect blend?
Is there a single blend that prescribes the best way of producing the right mix? No. They can never be. This is because the term ‘blended learning’ and what it means keeps changing depending on the context in which it is used. Today, the blend is of face-to-face and Internet-based media. Tomorrow, the blend will be based on mobile and social learning, Web 2.0, and 3D immersive environments. Today, the social media elements are a probable component of the blend. Can’t say this was a possibility 10 years ago.

Is blended learning for everyone?
Blended learning provides the much needed extension of learning in both space and time. It has been proved to be an effective way to learn. But it is still not for everyone. Like Garrison and Vaughan, 2008 put it:
“Blended course redesign requires a willingness to step back and consider the goals and range of possibilities, strategies, techniques, and tools.”

There are many things to consider before designing a blended learning intervention for example:
• The learning outcomes or objectives
• The design and content of the course
• The learner analysis – motivation and comfort with multi-media
• Use of technology and new media elements
• The degree of collaboration/interaction
• The degree of feedback and level of instruction
• Assessment and evaluation of training
• The role of the instructor/facilitator

To make blended learning a success think why before you think how.