CONTEXT FOR BLENDED LEARNING
The COVID pandemic and the shift to remote or distance learning has ignited or re-ignited peoples’ recognition and support for teachers and their critical role in the learning process. It has exposed even further existing education inequities and the underbelly of the so-called ‘digital divide’ between over-resourced and dramatically under-resourced communities. But it is much more than just access to technology, hardware and bandwidth, it is just as much about access to teachers’ presence and engagement in the learning process, supportive and safe homes, and community networks.
The shift in ways of teaching and learning remotely has proved challenging for students, teachers and parents. Many schools did not overhaul the concept of teaching and learning nor ‘pivot’ rapidly or smoothly from face-to-face to remote learning with a clear strategy in place. This is not to criticise but to reflect on what we have learned and can apply in the event of comparable crises and turbulence in the future. The initial evidence indicates that those schools and systems more adept in their transformation were those with investment in online learning and digital technologies; where teachers and students were comfortable and prepared with an online learning environment; and in the use of platforms, interactive digital resources, collaborative tools and approaches to pedagogy including online teaching and learning that will supplement their fundamental skills face-to-face (blended approaches).
There were already inroads into effective digital and blended (or what some refer to as ‘hybrid’) models of teaching and learning. These serve many purposes, not as a substitute for brick and mortar schools but to enable more young people in less advantaged areas to access schooling; to provide access to great online open source resources and to aspects of interactive and cooperative learning in different ways with more relevant face to face experiences; to enable kids to take greater control of their learning and to have an option for anytime, anywhere learning; and to give them access to teachers and courses globally they may not otherwise be able to readily access locally. It’s called schooling in the 21st century.
WHAT IS BLENDED LEARNING
For our purposes, blended learning approaches combine face-to-face and virtual (online) learning and instruction. They require a fundamental re-think of instruction and how best to deliver the right resources and interventions to reach the right students at the right time. It means creating or adapting learning environments that work better for students and teachers - rethinking how class is structured, how time is used, and how limited resources are allocated. Blended approaches use a combination of classroom redesign, schedule redesign, online learning, peer learning and tutoring to deliver a more personalised learning experience. By having more control over the pace, path, time, and place of learning, students can take greater responsibility for their learning. Blended learning typically involves a mix of: traditional instructor-led training; synchronous online activity like online meetings, virtual classrooms, web seminars/broadcasts, coaching, instant messaging, conference calls; and asynchronous self-paced study with documents and web pages, web/computer-based, training modules, assessments, tests and surveys, simulations; and recorded live events, online learning communities and discussion forums.
Some learning is more effective in a face-to-face environment, some in a digital/online mode, and more in supplementary blended learning approaches. Self-guided online learning by itself is problematic. In K-12 settings, blended learning approaches involving various combinations of online activities (synchronous and asynchronous) supplementing face-to-face teaching are excellent ways for students to engage in learning at their own pace in more personalised ways and be guided by input and facilitation from teachers, with peer collaboration in semi-structured learning environments. A curriculum focus could be on local resources and collaborative work around real-world issues with engaging online interactive activities that also facilitate self-directed learning; and with delivery platforms enabling peers to co-create, co-write and converse and teachers to oversee and support plus engage in online assessment and provision of timely feedback. These models are predicated on the availability of skilled teachers who have prepared, trained and had opportunities to engage in adapted teaching and learning practices; and who have in turn engaged learners in better preparing them for these different and exciting modes of learning.
One further positive development complementing this learning is the move towards online adaptive assessment where suitable test items for each student are derived from their responses. This enables all students to experience both success and challenge and enables teachers, schools and systems to identify concepts that require further attention and work.
Technology does not have to be the centrepiece of the curriculum and the teaching and learning experience, but it certainly has to be an acceptable and available medium. So, key reflections for schools and education systems are the extent to which they have the digital and tech infrastructure and well trained and prepared staff, students, parents, to: create and engage in effective online teaching and learning environments; access and use digital assets and resources; and deploy and interact on customised learning management systems.
IMPLICATIONS OF BLENDED LEARNING AND CHALLENGES FOR TEACHERS AND PEDAGOGY
Teacher presence is a distinctive and important element of blended pedagogy. Again, it’s not as straightforward as applying face-to-face know-how to the online world. Hence, why most teachers need training and preparation and planning time as they transition to some form of online teaching to supplement their face-to-face time. Teachers’ experience and strengths typically are with face-to-face and they need to focus on how to ‘work differently’ as they integrate the online into the total teaching and learning experience.
So, what does ‘work differently’ mean?
a. Consider the fit for purpose of blending in the class/course/program i.e. integrating face-to-face and online learning? What is the optimal blend in the context of what students need to learn? Why move some learning activities out of the classroom and into an online environment? What value does the technology add?
b. Focus on teaching skills. Successful blended learning challenges the traditional role of the teacher and the concept of learning environment. It requires teachers who are able to design instruction and develop learning activities, integrate face-to-face and online activities, facilitate discussions, lead one-on-one and small group interventions, and use data to enhance learning outcomes. Teachers need to communicate via a variety of media and be able to explore, identify and use an assortment of online tools and resources to personalise learning activities, develop collaborative communities of learning, engage students online in critical discourse and reflection, and provide timely feedback and guidance. They should think about when to have synchronous engagement (eg, instant messaging, videoconferencing) and asynchronous engagement (not all present at the
same time, eg, email or discussion boards); teacher-centred and learner-centred strategies; encourage students independently or in small groups; and have report back sessions to the class either face-to-face or online and independent written activity.
c. Focus on the role and needs of the learner. Consider differences in age, background, IT literacy, take account of disabilities and access to high-speed internet; how to personalise the learning objectives, how to stage learning experiences, for how long to meet as group, how long and often with individuals (possibly meeting more frequently but briefer), how to ensure the privacy of each student, how to empower students emphasizing autonomy and engagement. When blended learning is done right teachers have more time to provide individual instruction and support and feedback to improve learning outcomes for individual students; and students are free to collaborate with one another on learning activities; and provide peer-to-peer coaching/assistance to students who need help.
d. Determine how content and resources will be different and used differently with, for example, some outstanding digital assets now available that provide for highly relevant, interactive, experiential learning. This means adapting instructional design principles for use in the blended learning environment in: defining learning objectives i.e. what will the learner be able to do as a result of instruction and how does it get used in real-life; determining content and activities i.e. is there existing content in a useful form and what media and tools will be helpful; providing guidance and maintaining engagement i.e. in thinking about the interface and tools, what look and feel is needed, how will learners enter and get around, how will they communicate and collaborate; confirming understanding by applying their knowledge; providing and receiving feedback for formative purposes; and formally assessing to measure performance and achievement of learning objectives.
e. Consider how interactions will be different as we think about synchronous and asynchronous instruction strategies and also the tools needed for effective online peer collaboration. Are there spaces for discussion, for co-creating, for collaboration; and are there clear rules, protocols and ways of working about all of these? Also, do we have, for example: links to the workplace via videoconference with industry partners or community members; links to classes of students in other schools; online discussion boards and shared problem-solving activities; guest presenters for a scheduled synchronous (or asynchronous) contribution to online discussions?
f. Consider how assessment and feedback will be different given the nature of adaptive and other digital assessments? Blended classrooms can have a stronger sense of community and collaboration thus serving as venues for more authentic and peer assessment. Digital assessments can be personalised to meet needs of students in terms of timing, form (paper, online) and being adaptive. They can enable frequent feedback, differentiated intervention and deeper student reflection; a combination of large-class and self-paced learning; use of e-portfolios to document and publish work; and collaborative and peer reviews via wikis, blogs, discussion boards and so on.
g. Consider the implications for ‘classroom management’ with strategies like digital grouping, ‘breakout rooms’, ice-breakers, team-building, quick informal checks for understanding, using a timer, being intentional with transitions, validating self- and peer-reflection and feedback.
h. Build familiarity with different tools and apps for different uses and purposes. Consider how best to provide intensive practice on cognitive or skill-oriented challenges via simulation, gaming, and interactive components; and how social networking technologies, such as blogs, wikis, podcasting
and RSS-feeds can be particularly useful for engaging students in online learning communities for shaping student thinking and for teachers and students to provide feedback. Provide user-generated content tools to enable students to produce and share representations of their learning; and enabling the teacher to guide independent learning for individuals and groups working together online. Provide additional assistance and guidance for in understanding internet protocols especially those of cyber safety and intellectual property.
i. Technically they may also need to manage course management systems and platforms to organise content, learning activities, assessments and interactions. For example, providing searchable resource links organised by curriculum and year level; instructional guides and videos; repositories of online assessment item banks and digital resources; spaces for hosting curated and created content; moderated forums for discussions; collaborative and co-creation spaces; and assistancd with technology issues.
j. Monitor the success of the strategies and approaches in an ongoing way by talking and getting feedback i.e. is there a chance to provide feedback, are there multiple ways to receive and provide feedback, are the responses timely, is everyone’s particular circumstance acknowledged and are the mechanisms easily navigable.
Overall, good teachers get it but just need time to think, to plan, to schedule; to locate readily available and relevant assets or develop their own; and opportunities to practice using the available technologies. However, many teachers will require training, technically and pedagogically in working online and remotely; in ways to motivate students and maintain engagement; in online collaboration and interaction; and in providing synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning moments. Teacher training needs to include and refine competencies in taking on a more facilitative role: skills such as questioning, creativity, observation, differentiation, scaffolding, facilitating collaboration and understanding of online protocols. They require access to agreed tools, platforms and interactive web-based, developmentally appropriate resources including teaching strategies, interactive online assets, and assessment items. They also need to be more deliberate in understanding their students’ home environments and engaging parents/caregivers in the learning process.
There are also implications for school and system leaders. They should identify relative strengths of staff within and across schools and empower them to work on behalf of all staff to bring their expertise to the table (or preferably in shared online space); and then as required to supplement this with external expert advice and support. Importantly, they should develop and sustain a culture that encourages innovation, is accepting of change and risk and looks to overcome issues, and to challenge students to do better.
ADVANTAGES OF BLENDED LEARNING
There are some that argue blended learning does not deliver better outcomes than face-to-face learning. It is not about whether one is better than the other. Clear decisions can be made about what is best taught or learnt online (synchronously and asynchronously) and what is best experienced in a face-to-face or brick and mortar context. It does come down to educational choices but how, when and how much it occurs will also be down to teacher, parent and student choices - as well as constraints around funding and equity. Blended approaches are viable and can vary depending on circumstance and context. For example, some online (home or school) and some face-to-face; some students online and some face-to-face on rotation; some direct synchronous expert delivery into classrooms facilitated by paraprofessionals; or some asynchronous supplemental instruction.
When done well, blended learning approaches can enhance the learning experience and impact positively on learning outcomes by providing:
more differentiated and personalised instruction building on student interests and abilities with some level of control over the pacing of the learning; and incorporate into the curriculum more authentic student driven tasks
more varied and deeper student-teacher and student-student interaction, using communication tools like discussion forums, blogs and shared web content
capacity to preserve face-to-face time for interactive activities like higher-level group and class discussions, debates, and physical activities and demonstrations
greater flexibility with anytime, anywhere access to resources, experts and learning opportunities
higher student engagement and skill development through online collaboration, self-paced activities, and opportunities to curate and create more engaging digital content
greater opportunities for collaboration beyond the classroom including involvement of the wider school community.
With all the talk in the last year of the successes (and disappointments) with attempts at distance and hybrid learning, we must not lose sight of following:
a. Face to face classroom interactions and brick and mortar schools will continue to have a significant place in education. There are some curriculum intentions that cannot be achieved any other way and the socialisation function of schooling is a priority for children.
b. The online and digital aspects of learning should, at least for a while, be seen as supplementing the face to face or synchronous teacher-student interaction as part of the blended approach to teaching and learning.
c. Any online learning must go beyond the notion of “flipped learning” where the digital bit is about watching videos or reading background texts and the real interactions occur in classrooms. The online component of blended learning must by necessity involve interactive elements of media, resources, activities as well as collaborative spaces for students to co-create, co-develop and interact with each other and with the teacher.
d. For online teaching and learning experiences to be interactive, meaningful and engaging they necessitate a different mindset for both the learner and the teacher and this requires training, practice and patience in online and blended pedagogies.
Moving forward, this last year has created opportunities that over time will be transformational, bring schooling into the 21st century and better prepare schools and education systems for the next inevitable crisis. These include:
a. More resourcing, better preparation and training for teachers in online and blended pedagogies to supplement face-to-face teaching.
b. Greater opportunities for students to engage in blended learning models that offer online experiences to supplement face-to-face teaching and learning.
c. Greater demand, access and provision of freely available online education resources; and curation and development of innovative and interactive digital and online resources and assets.
d. Establishing and normalising learning management systems and platforms for online collaboration, delivery, assessment, data creation and storage.
e. Increasing collaboration and sharing between schools, teachers and students - locally and globally; and building stronger connections with parents/caregivers and community
f. Increasing partnerships between governments, not-for-profits and private enterprise to ensure more young people globally have access to quality teaching and schooling.
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John is an astute and strategic thought leader with extensive project and team management expertise, and an exemplary record leading the development and implementation of major complex reforms. He has successfully led multi-function teams to agreed outcomes and timelines; established efficient and effective business processes and workflows; and successfully facilitated groups to problem solve and effect change. John has a solid education network around Australia and overseas, and successes in building and maintaining productive customer relationships. He is proud of his record to date in delivering system and individual improvement to very high standards; in guiding, coaching and developing people; and in building organisation capacity and transforming practice in an ethical and sustainable manner. John exemplifies personal integrity, has a strong work ethic, holds and models high standards of ethical and professional behaviour, and insists on transparent processes with strong collaboration and effective communication.