2 What is Blended Learning?

What is Blended Learning?

Blended courses (also known as hybrid or mixed-mode courses) are classes where a portion of the traditional face-to-face instruction is replaced by web-based online learning. McGee and Reis (2012) point out that while there is not absolute agreement within higher education on the exact make-up of a blended course, institutions generally use “blended” (or related terms) to refer to some combination of on-campus class meeting and online activities. Graham, Henrie, and Gibbons (2014) concur that “[m]odels adopting the [combining online and face-to-face instruction] definition are the most prominent in the research” (p. 21). Blended learning is a phenomenon subjected to much on-going research. After reviewing over 200 masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations related to blended learning, Drysdale, Graham, Spring, and Halverson (2013) concluded that “[m]ore graduate research is being conducted on blended learning each year” (p. 98). Additionally, Picciano, Dziuban, and Graham (2014) have edited a collection of research on blended learning as a sequel to the landmark book published just seven years before (Picciano and Dziuban, 2007).

Nevertheless, practical questions often predominate in the minds of faculty and designers new to blended learning. For instance, how much of the face-to-face instruction must be replaced by online coursework? This question will vary greatly by class, discipline, and learning objectives. The Sloan Consortium (a professional organization dedicated to postsecondary online learning) defines blended learning as a course where 30%-70% of the instruction is delivered online. While this is a useful guideline, it may not be sufficient to cover every blended learning configuration.

The EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) provides many useful resources related blended learning, including a report on a national focus session and a framework for faculty workshops. ELI’s parent organization, EDUCAUSE, has also identified five chapter-length case studies of institutional blended learning models from the eBook Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies.

McGee and Reis (2012) observe that in blended learning quite often “the process of design is
emphasized as one of re-design, implying that those involved in the design process are willing and able to see beyond what has been done in the traditional classroom and re-conceptualize what can be done in multiple delivery modes” (p. 17). The addition of technology to any academic program must be accompanied by fundamental process re-design. The National Center for Academic Transformation has done a significant amount of work related to course redesign, including the innovative use of technology for blended learning. With funding from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) program, the Blended Learning Toolkit web site has been designed to provide an infrastructure for participating faculty and institutions that includes innovative technology, curricular reinvention, participant training, and ongoing assessment support, all of which are necessary for meaningful, sustainable, disruptive transformation of the status quo. (For more on affordances of “disruption,” please see http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts).

Benefits of Blended Learning

Blended courses have proven to be among the most popular choices for students at institutions where they are offered (Olson, 2003 cited in Drysdale, Graham, Spring, and Halverson, 2013 and Kaleta, Garnham, and Aycock, 2005). At first glance, this popularity seems intuitive because blended courses allow students and faculty to take advantage of much of the flexibility and convenience of an online course while retaining the benefits of the face-to-face classroom experience.

Although fully online learning has become well established in higher education, many institutions appear to be struggling with conceptualizing and implementing blended learning. Yet, where blended courses have succeeded, they have most often done so when strategically aligned with an institution’s mission and goals. The development and delivery of blended courses can be used to address a variety of institutional, faculty, and student needs.

  • For universities, blended courses can be part of a strategy to compensate for limited classroom space, as well as a way to think differently about encouraging faculty collaboration.
  • For faculty, blended courses can be a method to infuse new engagement opportunities into established courses or, for some, provide a transitional opportunity between fully face-to-face and fully online instruction.
  • For students, blended courses offer the conveniences of online learning combined with the social and instructional interactions that may not lend themselves to online delivery (e.g., lab sections or proctored assessments).

If an institution’s blended learning strategy can be designed to address the needs and dynamics of all three constituencies (institution, faculty, and student) simultaneously, then blended learning can become a powerful force for institutional transformation.

As cited in the U.S. Department of Education’s (2010) “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online
Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” “Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction” (p. xiv) and, notably, “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction” (p. xv). Not only do students perform better in blended courses, but the electronic resources inherent in the modality offer other advantages as well. For example, student performance analytics can be used to study and better understand student learning. Data analytics can also identify students who need early intervention, thus increasing retention. The online tools available in blended courses can also significantly enhance student engagement, ensuring that all students participate in course discussions and benefit from collaborative learning.

When properly implemented, blended learning can result in improved student success, satisfaction, and retention. For instance, the University of Central Florida has consistently seen such results over the 17 years of their own blended learning initiative. Since beginning this initiative, as of the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, UCF has delivered 8,620 blended course sections containing 299,815 student registrations and generating 554,681 semester credit hours. [A summary of these data is periodically updated at http://blendedlearningtoolkit.org/about/benefits-of-blended-learning]

Currently at the University of Alberta the Provost has established a committee to support the development of digital learning activities. One such initiative is the Blended Learning Awards, established in 2013, through which instructors across the university are able to collaborate with the Centre for Teaching and Learning to enhance learning experiences at the University of Alberta. [Information about this initiative, including case studies, can be found at http://blendedualberta.ca/]


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