Where are the blended learning champions?

A look at blended learning across the uni, college and school sectors to find out how deep they are prepared to go and how barriers are being overcome

Online learning has grown up. No longer the new kid on the block, it now makes use of sophisticated technology, is created and monitored by competent teachers, lecturers and education technologists and, crucially, is blended with face-to-face learning. Hence blended learning: the very best of computer-based instruction with all the benefits of interacting with others – including a tutor – in a face-to-face setting. Not only that, but there’s also an emphasis on the student working through the digital materials at their own pace, which is why you’ll often hear blended learning and personalised learning in the same breath.

At Southampton University, there’s no doubt that this approach is working. Students in the anatomy department check out their lecturers’ Twitter feed, and then, when prompted, watch videos and screencast lectures on the dedicated YouTube channel or other online resources. They also have a specially written ebook which some use to prepare themselves for practical work, while others explore it for revision. Effectively the students blend their own learning by choosing how and when to learn – all supported by face-to-face time in the department. It’s an effort for teaching staff that many would avoid, but Principal teaching fellow Dr Scott Border said: “When you get that opportunity to be creative and then look at the impact it has – particularly if it works – I think that’s where the rewards come, and that’s what makes it worth doing.”

Proponents have argued that blended learning allows for more personalisation, allowing students to really take control by learning in a pace and style that suits them. Rachael Hartley, Senior Client Account Director for Education at Cognizant IT services, said: “This trend means educators can focus on student understanding, rather than the delivery method itself. As a result, blended learning can enhance the softer skills and competencies required for the future workforce, developing skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving.”

James Hayden, manager at the learning technologies supplier Netex, highlighted a further benefit of harnessing technology: data. He explained: “When do we find out what students think of the course, the materials, the teaching? Not so long ago, the answer to these questions was ‘when it is too late’!” Now, though, Hayden explains that live learning analytics empower teachers to see how students are engaging with their course, and target support and extensions appropriately. He also noted the impact on the widening participation agenda: “Digital technology has helped to make education more accessible by offering more choice for students choosing to participate in formal education. Blended, distance and online courses have meant learning can be offered in more flexible formats.”

Of course, all of this assumes a level of digital confidence among staff. At Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT) the moment of embracing digital learning came in 2015, when a report from FELTAG (Further Education Learning Technology Action Group) recommended that the college incorporate digital skills education into 10% of every course. Before they could start, however, the staff themselves required training in digital tools. James Leonard, Head of UK Education for Google, explained: “An ongoing training programme was created to build teachers’ confidence and provide guidance on blended learning in their classes.” Several students who’d shown demonstrative technology skills volunteered to become digital leaders and conducted training for staff on tools and social networks including Google Drive, YouTube and Twitter. From then on teachers at the college were able to start combining technology with traditional teaching methods. The blended learning lessons were tied into the curriculum to help generate student engagement and the college proceeded to include an hour of blended learning for every course.

But while blended learning can lead to greater innovation in both face-to-face education and online activities, Hartley argues that it’s not enough just to move what used to be face-to-face content online. She explained: “For the full benefits to be realised, the content and course design must be reworked to fit the desired learning outcomes, subject, delivery models and assessment methods. This has often been a challenge and a barrier for blended learning adoption.”

The reason it’s a challenge, she argued, is that the majority of classes are still designed around traditional face-to-face learning, with online activities used to supplement the process. As a result, she says that few universities have integrated technology into their actual teaching models and syllabus design.

Challenges for practitioners include the time taken to prepare the content, support students’ use of it and training required for staff. It’s the same story in the schools sector. Hartley explained: “Rather than blended learning, we are currently seeing learning that is supplemented with technology, offering some personalisation but without fundamental change to course designs.” She explained that half of UK school students have already taken an online course to supplement their studies, an illustration of the appetite for blended learning among pupils, despite the lack of provision.

What’s next? “Although the term ‘blended learning’ has been around for some time, it has yet to embrace the potential of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality,” Hartley said. Were those technologies to become more affordable and useable for educational institutions, the potential for student learning outside of class could be even greater. Blended learning courses may even prove easier to update than regular ones, leading to potential time-saving once the initial investment has been made. But it will take a leap of faith to really reap the benefits.

For more inspiration, check out #blendchat and #blendedlearning on Twitter