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Blended learning - the new normal

Blended learning is the natural next step to making teaching more interactive, finds Hannah Vickers

Posted by Hannah Oakman | October 13, 2016 | Business

The way students are educated is constantly changing. We’ve moved a long way from when children sat silently, scratching away at slates while the teacher stood unmoving at the front of the room, teaching through drilling and repetition. Teaching has become a more interactive and dynamic experience over the years and developments in education have escalated even more recently, with the rapid evolution of technology and the growth of the internet. Schools and universities are now moving away from traditional teaching methods to embrace blended learning, a methodology that redefines the roles of student and teacher and empowers students to take control of their own learning.

Blended learning is a system of education that turns teaching on its head. It’s a hybrid teaching methodology, making technology and e-learning a more integral part of the classroom experience. It’s more than having computers in classrooms; it’s about combining e-learning, traditional teaching methods, and independent study to create an entirely new learning environment for students.

Blended Learning replaces purely face-to-face teaching with independent online learning on the student’s own time, giving the individual more control over when, where, and how they study. Supporters of the methodology say that blended learning is the future; that it’s the way to make the most of class time, while making sure that students get all the background material they need to support their classroom learning.

But, is it better than the tried and tested teaching methods we’ve been using all these years? Northampton University’s Director of Institute for Learning and Teaching, Ale Armellini says yes – as long as it’s done right. “The opportunity for exposure to, and focused engagement with, relevant digital resources, followed by an interactive face-to-face session that prompts reflection and consolidation are also key benefits,” he says.

Flexibility and personalisation are two of the main benefits the methodology offers, says Ale. The combination of real-time teaching with online work at times to suit each individual student means that the student is able to tailor their learning.

He argues that blended learning has become increasingly the norm in the classroom and, if implemented well, it can enhance the student experience tenfold. “All courses use, one way or another, some degree of blended learning. Blended learning is our new normal,” he says.

Jillian Mansolf, CMO at Xirrus, agrees. She points out that technology has been integral to students’ learning for years now, and that blended learning is the natural next step to using technology to make learning a more interactive experience. Institutions across the country, and internationally, are already taking advantage of new BYOD (bring your own device) initiatives, electronic textbooks, and interactive whiteboards for years. Blended learning is just the latest in a series of innovations to make the most of technology in the classroom, Jillian says. 

“According to the research, almost 75% of schools questioned now publish their course materials online. At Redhill Primary School, for example, teachers rely on Microsoft SharePoint to do this and expect students to access the materials from their personal mobile devices. More than two-thirds (67%) of the respondents said that they also use Wi-Fi for group work and collaboration. The UK’s schools also seem to be following the general trend seen across the country’s businesses and recognise a growth in BYOD, with 62% of schools reporting an increase from children, teachers and visitors,” she says.

Jillian points out that introducing students to using technology and the internet early on in their education prepares them for a career in the increasingly connected world we live in. 

“Learning to use Wi-Fi also prepares students for later life, where they will be expected to conduct business with mobile devices and understand the basic principles of document sharing and cloud computing,” she adds.

How does blended learning work?

Blended learning differs slightly from classroom to classroom, depending on how the facilitator feels it works best with their course material, but it has three main components. 

1. In-person classroom activities led by the facilitator

One of the biggest advantages of blended learning is that it frees up class time to focus on interactive activities, making the classroom experience more dynamic and allowing students to use their all-important class-time to work on projects with peers to make the most of face-to-face time with the facilitator. Taking silent study out of the classroom changes the learning environment hugely, and moving the role of teacher doling out information to that of facilitator helping the student access and digest information switches up the roles of teacher and student.

2. Online learning materials and study resources

Materials that the students can study online can include pre-recorded lectures – often by the same facilitator leading the classes. They’re always accessible, so the student can control the time, place, and pace of study.

3. Structured independent study time with material from the lectures, and using the skills the student has developed in the classroom

Having students access resources on their own time and outside of the classroom puts them at the centre of their own education, encourages them to take responsibility for their own education, and empowers them to take an active role in their learning. It also allows them to develop their skills that they’ve developed in the classroom, with guidance and support from the facilitator.

It enables the instructor to really focus on the key issues and learning outcomes during the valuable face-to-face time for individual students

Blended learning is not without its challenges, though. 

Amanda Cheung, Head of Strategic Marketing, Learning Solutions, at publishers Cengage Learning EMEA, warns that the transition from traditional teaching methods can make blended learning difficult to implement. Staff need to be trained in their new roles of facilitators and acquire the new skills they’ll need to support students in their learning. But, she says, it’s worth it for the benefits that blended learning offers students.

“Both universities and schools can benefit from this pedagogical approach because it enables the instructor to really focus on the key issues and learning outcomes during the valuable face-to-face time for individual students,” she says.

Ale emphasises that blended learning needs to be implemented with care. Digital literacy and digital fluency among staff and students is key to making the most of this new learning model. He says that there needs to be evidence and support for the transition from traditional teaching methods to blended learning to succeed. 

“Evidence of benefit and enhancement – for example, evidence that it works elsewhere, so it is likely to work in their context. Support means that if I embark on a potentially time-consuming process, such as redesigning my modules for blended learning, I will not be on my own: there will be trained, experienced and knowledgeable colleagues around to help me,” he says.

Ale says that Northampton University works to avoid the potential pitfalls by implementing a research to practice to policy approach when introducing new methodology. They have used research, student feedback, and consultations with stakeholders to inform their decisions. The University is closely monitoring the impact of the change on learning styles on student performance and will be reporting back in 2017, but Ale says that they’re pleased with how it’s going so far.  

“The results are positive in terms of the implementation of creative approaches to active learning, assessment and student centredness. Many staff members have critically reviewed their practice as part of the redesign process, which is excellent for their professional development, as well as for our students and the University,” he says.

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