Pushed by the pandemic, most of us are back to online learning. Even sceptics now say blended learning is the future. While it may ease the tension between online and on-campus education, what problem is blended learning trying to solve? What are the challenges that loom in this mode?
Purpose and design
Online, hybrid, or blended are just tangential labels in the learning space. The critical issue is the learning experience we want to build for the students and the competency to target. Good teaching was never about the content. In a Google world, content is not where the greatest value of education lies. Yet, many online courses continue to focus on converting traditional course material into digital forms and delivering them over the Internet. This is a suboptimal way of using technology. Dependence on lecture videos and namesake quizzes will merely replicate digital boredom. Creative use of blended learning models can overcome this.
In the simplest model, teachers supplement classes with self-paced online courses. Under rotation models, students move on fixed schedules between classroom instruction and self-paced online learning. Under the flex model, most tasks are delivered online, supplemented by the personal support of faculty or tutoring in small groups.
Using flex and rotation models, we can customise the learning process and match it to the learner’s pace and style. It can standardise experiential learning with a personal touch. However, to capitalise on these benefits, student engagement is critical and digital equity is a pre-requisite. In short, a quality blended learning experience is a consequence of a superior learning experience design.
Blended learning design involves a portfolio of curated content, bundled activities, and break-out rooms stemming from a mix of methodologies. Prompts, videos, podcasts, news clips, statistics, storylines, readings, templates, worksheets, events, virtual tours, web tasks, and games come as raw materials. Their evidence-based blending with in-person support changes curriculum creation to experience designing. It is a co-learning space designed for engagement.
Question of engagement
To make learning engaging, the degree of blend required for each aspect of the course should be decided. For example, in biology, the concepts of the cardio system can be taught with visual graphics online. Some lab experiences can be replicated using Augmented or Virtual Reality labs, if accessible. But certain aspects, such as training for CPR, need direct supervision. This leads to a series of flipping decisions about what can be conducted online and what cannot.
The course can be structured around short projects based on skill levels and the standard requirements of the cohort. Responding with flexibility, engaging in conversations with peers from different backgrounds, and the feel of cohort-based blended learning will avoid the monotony of many MOOCs. Further, at a granular level, asking for a definition in an online learning environment is naïve. Instead, encourage students to find examples from different web sources and thread them together towards a definition through collaborative exercises.
Life outside the screen
To avoid digital fatigue, blended learning can be planned around less screen time. Just as a fitness app prompts you to do non-screen physical activity, the design of learning activities can prompt the student to do fewer screen-based exercises. Capping the video time will trigger alternative ways to teach. For example, identify the plants around, use Google Lens or a similar app if required, do a hierarchical classification, elaborate the process to a friend, upload the explanation for peer review, get in-person support and mentoring from the teacher to further the understanding. Spot real-world connections using available materials and people around, because any educational tool is only as good as its user.
Irrespective of the mode, most challenges of education remain the same, be it skill-building, employability, or developing critical thinking. Space, place, and technologies are pedagogically linked. By bringing clarity to this connection, we can better face the educational challenges.