What Constitutes “Blended” in Blended Learning?

While preparing this article, we tossed around a few sub-titles such as “Blended Learning: Tossing All Available Learning Tools At One’s Learning Program” or “Blended Learning: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means” or “Blended Learning: More Than Just Technology & Lectures.”  These subtitles seem to quickly explain most learning program’s approaches to blended learning.

When we at Edvance360 first launched into the business, terms like “blended learning”, “social learning”, or “learning management system” were being invented. Selling a Learning Management System with social learning tools twelve years ago made a school or corporation look at you crossed-eyed or caused a near-revolt among faculty. (I jest, but not completely.)

According to Wikipedia, here’s the definition of blended learning:

Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through delivery of content and instruction via digital and online media with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.[While students still attend "brick-and-mortar" schools with a teacher present, face-to-face classroom methods are combined with computer-mediated activities. Blended learning is also used in professional development and training settings.

A lack of consensus on a definition of blended learning has led to difficulties in research about its effectiveness in the classroom. Blended learning is also sometimes used in the same breath as "personalized learning" and differentiated instruction.

How’s that for an indefinite definition? The history behind the term makes it even more nebulous:

The terms "blended learning," "hybrid learning," "technology-mediated instruction," "web-enhanced instruction," and "mixed-mode instruction" are often used interchangeably in research literature. Although the concepts behind blended learning first developed in the 1960s, the formal terminology to describe it did not take its current form until the late 1990s. The term "blended learning" was initially vague, encompassing a wide variety of technologies and pedagogical methods in varying combinations (some making no use of technology whatsoever). In 2006, the term became more concrete with the publication of the first Handbook of Blended Learning by Bonk and Graham. Graham challenged the breadth and ambiguity of the term's definition, and defined "blended learning systems" as learning systems that "combine face-to-face instruction with computer mediated instruction." In a report titled "Defining Blended Learning" researcher Norm Friesen suggests that in its current form, blended learning "designates the range of possibilities presented by combining Internet and digital media with established classroom forms that require the physical co‐presence of teacher and students."

So, it might include technology. Might not. Might include Instructor-led interaction. Might not. Might include a webinar. Might not. Might include butts-in-seats. Might not.

Our (admittedly biased) definition of blended learning is this: Learning that is facilitated by a learning management system in some way (other than tracking or reports). Could be as simple as a post-course test in the LMS (Why not? It’s automatically graded there!), post-course surveys, or posting a video and tracking the views.

So the next question is: What constitutes good blended learning? After all, just because one posts content, doesn’t mean it motivates learners. Just because one lectures on a topic, doesn’t mean a student learns it. Just because a tool is available, doesn’t mean it gets the job done.

Some advocate the teachers changing and adapting. Others require the schools to change by increasing their adoption of new technologies—even just for the sake of newness. Others advocate 7-second snippets (we are told our students have gold-fish attention spans), fun and games, intense SCORM files that take months to create—the list is long. Most with no evidence of measurably higher completion or retention rates.

We feel the search for a single “silver bullet” feature that motivates learners, increases completion, inveigles faculty adoption, and is easy to work with does not exist. And shouldn’t. Just as humans are uniquely different, so instruction should be unique. Each course can and should take on a life of its own, based on the topics addressed, time constraints, and above all else: the result desired.

Instead, we advocate a full arsenal of learning tools should be made available and the benefits of each should be articulated and promulgated.

Each tool in the arsenal should be evaluated by the course designer based on the result desired.

  • If you want your learners to do something, you might assign learners to poll the public and have them turn in their results via the Dropbox in an LMS or better yet, build a wiki with the results. Or perhaps create a video and have their peers watch and vote for the best (saving you from having to watch all those videos). Or perhaps role-play (which can be done online via video conferencing tools, but is better suited to butts-in-seats real-time sessions).
  • If you want them to debate topics, use the Discussions in an LMS. Have peers determine the winner. If you want synthesis, use Discussions in an LMS but leave the commenting feature on. If you want a right/wrong answer (but don’t want to go through the trouble of building a one-question test or a SCORM file), use Discussions in an LMS but turn the commenting feature off. If you want originality and ownership in their answers, use Discussions in an LMS but turn the comment features to “after post is made” (if your LMS has this feature, obviously). If you want teamwork and investment, use a wiki.
  • If you want to learn from body language, meet in real-time. If you don’t need body language, consider a recorded video or an Authorstream-converted-PowerPoint, but do keep it short or they simply won’t take it in.
  • If you want to track how long they watched a video (or, at least how long it played) or how long they spent on a step, use Lessons/Modules in an LMS.
  • If you want to know what they already knew before they took the course, use pre-course tests or surveys and compare to post-course tests or surveys.
  • If you want interaction, defined as clicking on something, use SCORM files. If you want interaction, defined as discussion, use Discussions in an LMS or in real-time. If you want interaction, defined as thinking on one’s feet in response to situations, use 3D simulation or real-time role playing.  If you want interaction, defined as human response in real-time, use video conferencing, live chats, or some of the free polling tools out there (they use cell phones to take the data live and display on your screen as the results come in, which can go a long way toward making you the “cool prof”).
  • If you want them to memorize pre-defined terms, drill them. Test them. Then drill some more.
  • If you want them to use their brains and respond to situations, use wikis to present case studies and free-flowing discussions about how to respond properly.
  • If you want to make it fun for those who like to compete, make it competitive with badges. If you want to make it fun for those who like puzzles, use SCORM files.
  • If you want to know how they would write something, ask for a paper. If you want to know how they’d explain something, use Discussions. If you want collaboration on the above, use wikis. If you want to know how they think or feel, use blogs.
  • If you want them to prepare for a job or share their expertise, use ePortfolios.

You get the drift. Each tool is designed to elicit a specific response from a learner. Good blended learning blends the right tools to get the desired results. There’s no right way to build a blended learning course, but there definitely is a wrong way!