3 Designing Blended Learning Courses


Arguably, we seek to understand blended learning so that we might identify whether it has any benefits to offer us. Such affordances are perhaps made most evident by considering the range of approaches to blended learning design. McGee and Reis (2012) analyzed 67 “best practices guides” (p. 9) for blended learning and found that a “loosely articulated design process allows variability and flexibility in the design of blended courses” (p. 17). However, designing any course is an exercise in balancing control and emergence.

Blended Learning Design as a Controlled Process

In 2002 Troha asked “why do so many blended initiatives turn into frustrating boondoggles, consuming far more time… than anyone anticipated?” (Troha, 2002, para 2). Unfortunately, the undesired outcomes often appear during the implementation of the course, or even long after substantial amounts of time, effort, and enthusiasm have been expended. How can the practicing teacher avoid blended learning pitfalls? McGee and Reis (2012) suggest that the answer may lie in the design process: “There is clear consensus that the best strategies for design begins [sic] by clearly defining course objectives before coming up with course activities, assignments and assessments. Course objectives are particularly critical for blended courses because objectives can inform content delivery mechanism (in class or online), pedagogy (bridging between the classroom and online activities), and requisite amount and locations for class meetings and interactions” (p. 11).
This section develops a model of best practices to reduce the potential headaches and realize the promise of blended learning. The importance of planning is reinforced. At each stage, control needs to be maintained from the beginning of the planning stage to ensure desired results. It is assumed that a course design process is being pursued that starts with learning objectives and that includes a general outline used to guide the development of the course, its delivery and evaluation. Guiding questions such the following are helpful to keep in mind: “What’s the best mix of traditional, live, teacher-led presentation and synchronous or asynchronous, technology-driven methods of teaching?” It is important to determine your role as a teacher in the learning process. Should it be one that is primarily directive or facilitative? Also, decide the importance of interaction amongst the students. These questions may be answered differently depending on the teaching/learning context. In any event, blended learning lends itself to learner-centered, teacher-guided (as opposed to teacher-directed), interactive, and student-collaborative learning.
Content and learning activities that provide for ample practice must be introduced into the course if the student is to achieve course goals. Blended learning is advantageous to the learner. Research has shown the limitations of applying a generalized style of teaching, rather than modifying lesson plans to fit the needs of the student. “Increasingly, organizations are recognizing the importance of tailoring learning to the individual rather than applying a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.” (Thorne, 2003) Of course, common needs exist, but blended learning allows the teacher to look for creative ways and use a variety of media to address the specific needs of his students.
When a teacher designs his lesson plan, it is important to note the type of learning activity (e.g. lecture, case study, role play, simulation, game, etc.) that best conveys the objectives of the lesson. There are two reasons for listing traditional teaching methods only at this point, instead of both classroom and online activities:

  1. We as teachers usually establish on paper the “ideal” learning experience when you work under a more familiar, traditional style of teaching. It is live, face-to-face, instructor-facilitated and student-collaborative.
  2. Once you have established the lesson plan for the “ideal” learning experience, you can systematically analyze the elements that can be delivered online without compromising learning effectiveness. You will discover here what might be best left in a classroom setting.

Blended learning is not simply adding an online component to a face-to-face course. Technology in a course should be used wisely – to facilitate student learning. Technology should not be used just to show off technology. Excellent opportunities exist for teachers to make learning interactive, dynamic, and fun when used properly. The technology aspect of a lesson should be like a good baseball umpire – it (like the umpire) is good if it (he) goes unnoticed.
“Since the intent of blended learning is to enhance learning by combining the best of both
worlds…elements of the outline that appear to lend themselves to self-study online should be highlighted. Such elements tend to include easy-to-interpret, straightforward information that is relatively easy for the (student) to accurately grasp on his/her own.” (Troha, 2003) Students should be able to perform required tasks online with little or no prompting by the instructor. Of course, teachers should guide their students along, but when a student can accomplish a task online with limited assistance, that student encounters a learning experience that is deeper and more rewarding.
Blended learning courses are dynamic by their very nature. Revisions will need to be made to adapt to the learning needs of its students. Knowing what works and what does not comes with experience. The best resource for teachers to create and implement a blended learning course is another teacher or a network of teachers who have had experience with launching such courses.
With purpose and context in mind, the designer can select, combine, and organize different elements of on-line and traditional instruction. Carman (2002) identifies five such elements calling them key “ingredients” (p. 2):

  1. Live events. These are synchronous, instructor-led events. Traditional lectures, video conferences, and synchronous chat sessions such as Blackboard Collaborate or eClass Live! (Adobe Connect) are examples.
  2. Self-Paced Learning. Experiences the learner completes individually on her own time such as an internet or CD-ROM based tutorial.
  3. Collaboration. Learners communicate and create with others. E-mail, threaded discussions, and wikis are all examples.
  4. Assessment. Measurements of whether or to what extent learning has taken place. Assessment is not limited to conventional tests, quizzes, and grades. Narrative feedback, portfolio evaluations and, importantly, a designer’s reflection about a blended learning environment’s effectiveness or usefulness are all forms of assessment.
  5. Support Materials. These include reference material, both physical and virtual, FAQ forums, and summaries. Anything that aids learning retention and transfer.

Blended Learning Design as an Emergent Process

Can you make patterns from clouds?

“Part of the plan is knowing that the situation will compel you to change your plan”. – Vella (2006)

A course plan can take on a variety of shapes, and is always informed by context: the audience, the venue, and the resources you have available to you. It is also informed by the educational values, beliefs, and philosophies of the design team. With so many possibilities and unknowns, how can we work towards a common language of what planning is all about?
The most basic question to begin with is, why design an online course. The emphasis here can be on the word why, or on the word design. A very common response to the question why is that learners will be geographically distributed, and having a course online is an obvious solution. However, an online course, or a course enhanced with online resources and communication tools, will add educational value to any face-to-face course by making resources available to learners and by providing opportunities to deepen learning through dialogue and sharing. In this sense the divisions between online courses and campus based courses are becoming hazy. So the question of why is shifting from technology as a means to change the delivery method to technology as a means to enhance learning.
A more philosophical but very practical question emphasizes the word design. Is it important to create a structure in a virtual environment? How much design work should be done before involving the learners in the curriculum process? These questions have challenged educators for some time, and they seem especially complex when applied to designing online courses. Where then do we turn for guidance?
Some would argue that instructional design literature does little to guide the process of planning online courses because there is insufficient consideration for the social context of learning (Le Blanc, 2003). Furthermore, the recent advances in technologies to support networked learning, or more informal connections among people and information, are challenging our notions about advance planning and fixed design of online spaces. [For interesting discussions and resources related to networked learning see the work of Leigh Blackall http://www.leighblackall.blogspot.com] Consider this description by George Siemens:

By recognizing learning as a messy, nebulous, informal, chaotic process, we need to rethink how we design our instruction.

Instruction is currently largely housed in courses and other artificial constructs of information organization and presentation. Leaving this theory behind and moving towards a networked model requires that we place less emphasis on our tasks of presenting information, and more emphasis on building the learner’s ability to navigate the information—or connectivism.

Blogs, wikis, and other open, collaborative platforms are reshaping learning as a two-way process. Instead of presenting content/information/knowledge in a linear sequential manner, learners can be provided with a rich array of tools and information sources to use in creating their own learning pathways. The instructor or institution can still ensure that critical learning elements are achieved by focusing instead on the creation of the knowledge ecology. The links and connections are formed by the learners themselves. (Siemens, 2002)

The best plan will anticipate learner experiences, but provide plenty of opportunities for learner-defined goals and assessments. In broad terms, this would be called design for flexible learning. However, in practice, a systems and linear approach is often favoured because it ensures consistency and is more easily administered and supported at the organizational level. By planning out each module carefully in terms of instructional goals, content, assignments, and assessments, each course can undergo rigorous quality control.

Flexible and systems approaches represent opposite ends of the course planning spectrum, one more learner-centred (or more favourably referred to by Jane Vella (2001) as learning-centred ), and the other more teacher-centred. With each approach there are obvious considerations for your own context. While a systems approach may require substantial resources, it may be more effective for managing quality control and for preparing and supporting instructors. Brent Wilson (1995), a pioneer in e-learning, has been cautioning online course designers about the downside of a systems approach for the past decade: An environment that is good for learning cannot be fully prepackaged and defined A more flexible approach will open the doors to more possibilities based on learner goals and needs. However, as pointed out by Bates and Poole (2003), “a flexible approach requires a high level of skill to be effective”.

So to revisit the central question: Can we work towards a common language of what planning is all about? What are the patterns in the clouds?

There are many helpful models to guide the design process, each informed by learning theory and each providing a set of actions by phase (often overlapping) in the design process. There are too many to expand on in this short chapter—an Internet search on “instructional design models” will yield a dozen or more. [See http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/idmodels.html for a comprehensive list.]

A model is useful for providing a framework for managing course design and ensuring that all decisions are attended to. Furthermore, a good model is cyclical so that evaluation and reflection on implementation will always inform the next iteration of the course design. Keep in mind that while learning theory and prescriptive models help to guide the work, a model “should be used only to the extent that it is manageable for the particular situation or task”. In other words, context is always at the core of the planning and design process.

Prepare by considering these four tips:

  1. Begin with relevant metaphors for learning. Often the language commonly used to describe elearning dismisses the notion that learning with technology is a valuable experience in its own right. When we speak about “distance learning”, “covering course content”, and “delivering courses” we are imposing an intent and framework for learning that calls for little involvement from the learner.
  2. The focus should be first on the learning, and second on the technologies that will support that learning. Think of your primary role in the planning process as keeping learning, and not technology, at the centre of the design process. Plan to include team members in the design process who can provide the expertise required to carry out your plan and also take full advantage of the medium.
  3. Creating good online learning experiences requires effort. While the basic planning guidelines are the same for both face-to-face and online courses, “the process of planning a quality elearning experience is very likely to be more complex and time-consuming than planning a conventional classroom experience. (Anderson & Elloumi, 2004)
  4. Context is king! You can choose an instructional model that suits your project and personal beliefs about teaching and learning, but always be prepared to adapt.


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