We will consider models for blended interactions from two vantage points. First, we will explore the apparent dichotomy between faculty guidance and learner self-direction from the stand point of designing learning environments. Then, we will consider how students’ own need for personal expression may be leveraged in blended learning.
Minimal or Guided Learning?
Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) question the tenets of problem-based learning, highlighting the unsettledness of the debate between instructor or learner control in learning activities. They argue that the constructivist views of learning are accurate, but the “instructional approaches suggested by constructivists” are not necessarily effective. Of particular concern for the authors of the paper is the degree of instructor (or expert) presence during the learning process. They assert that minimal guidance is not as effective as guided instruction due to different approaches evident in how experts function (epistemology) in a domain and how learners best learn.
Gardner (2006) states that the distinction between an expert and novice is found in how information and ideas are related to each other: “But shorn of their connections to one another, to underlying ideas, to a disciplined way of construing this pile of information, facts are simply ‘inert knowledge'” (p. 28). The conceptual network of an expert is more richly connected, nuanced, and diverse than that of a novice.
In contrast with strong guidance, Sugata Mitra (2007) details an experiment he conducted in India (now commonly known as the “hole-in-the-wall” experiment) where he placed a computer with an Internet connection in a wall facing a ghetto. Within days children aged 6-12, with minimal education and limited understanding of English, were able to browse the web and perform other tasks – such as drawing – on the computer. The self-taught, minimally-guided nature of the experiment led Mitra to the conclusion that children do not require direct instruction to acquire basic computer literacy skills. [See a video of Mitra describing his work in a TED Talk.]
Research by Darken and Sibert (1996) on “wayfinding” explores a similar theme of the learner-in-control approach to learning; how participants in large virtual worlds orient themselves in their environments in order to achieve certain tasks or arrive at certain locations. With wayfinding, the effectiveness in achieving objectives for learners/participants is determined by the design and incorporation of environmental cues. Minimal guidance is also reminiscent of game design concepts like player challenge and scaffolding. Asbell-Clark et al. (2012) explain that
In game design there is a constant tension between what is enough scaffolding to get players motivated and able to pursue the mystery and how much can be left open-ended for players to learn on their own. Too much scaffolding can easily feel “school-like” and procedural, taking away from players’ initiative to tinker around to discover things on their own. Too little scaffolding may leave players lost and disengaged.” (Asbell-Clarke et. al., 2012, p. 53)
Whether self-directed and initiated (Mitra, 2007) or aided through advance consideration of design (Darken and Sibert, 1996; Asbell-Clark et al., 2012), it is clear that many learning objectives can be achieved without in person direct guidance.
The concern of minimal guidance in learning is compounded by the growth of online content created by amateurs. The criticisms leveled at knowledge sources created by the self organizing “masses” are often applied to the concept of learner-directed activity. Two significant challenges arise when considering learning as being largely under the control of learners themselves. The first is generally found in some variation of “how will the learners know what they need to know?” The second relates to the rapid decentralization and distribution of most of society’s channels of communication – newspapers, television, radio, and, more recently, academic publishing – and raises concerns of how learners are to make sense of information in a field that is fragmented and distributed, rather than well organized and coherent (such as information found in a traditional textbook).
Personal learning environments (PLEs) offer a future model of learning that incorporates a greater range of tools, largely under the control of the individual. PLEs are “not a piece of software…[but] an environment where people and tools and communities and resources interact in a very loose kind of way” (Wilson, 2008). This general idea, although perhaps not this label, has been popularized in recent years through the prominence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in which large groups of interested individuals swarm around a topic of interest and interact with one another to enable learning. Some MOOCs, referred to as xMOOCs are more overtly structured, while others, referred to as cMOOCs are less centralized but still feature a facilitative instructor presence (Morrison, 2013, April 22). Dziuban, Hartman, and Mehaffy (2014) observe that
Ironically, the same technologies that allow for disruptive strategies like MOOCs also enable a variety of blended learning models. Technology uncouples students from being continually present in the classroom. In the best of circumstances, technology allows professors to offload responsibilities that can be taken up by technology. (p. 332)
The Role of Educators in a Networked World
The role of the educator and the process of instruction have been under pressure to change for over a century (Egan, 2002). While different camps, as discussed, often fall into conflict on principles of minimal or guided instruction and instructivism or constructivism, the nuanced and complex nature of learning suggests each approach may have value in different contexts.
Several educators have put forward models of educator and learner roles and interaction in a technologically-enabled era:
- John Seely Brown’s notion of studio or atelier learning
- Clarence Fischer’s notion of educator as network administrator
- Curtis Bonk’s notion of educator as concierge
- George Siemens’ notion of educator as curator
John Seely Brown draws inspiration for his atelier model (Brown, 2006, March; Indiana University, 2009, April 21; Brown, 2013) of learning from artists and architects and describes learning as “enculturation into a practice”. An art studio is generally an open space where students create their paintings, sculptures, and other art forms in full view of fellow artists. The “master” is then able to observe the activities of all students and can draw attention to innovative approaches. Students are not limited to learning based solely on the expertise of the instructor. The activities of all students can serve to guide, direct, and influence each individuals work. Blogs are particularly amenable to the atelier model of learning. For example, a class on creative writing – where each students posts their work in their own blog – permits the educator to highlight (and comment on) exceptional instances of writing. Students are able to read each other’s work and gain insight from both instructor and their fellow students.
Clarence Fisher (n.d.), blogger and classroom teacher, suggests a model of “teacher as network administrator”: Just as our mind is a continuously evolving set of connections between concepts, so our students and their learning can become placed at the centre of a personal learning network which they construct with our help. Helping students to gain the skills they require to construct these networks for learning, evaluating their effectiveness, and working within a fluid structure is a massive change in how the dynamics of classrooms are usually structured.
In Fisher’s model, a primary task of the educator is to assist learners in forming connections and creating learning networks. As learners encounter new information sources, they are encouraged to critically evaluate the source’s suitability as part of a holistic and diversified learning network. Gaps in the learning network are addressed by both learner (self-directed by active participation in the network and through self-reflection) and educator (through evaluating, with the learner, the nature and quality of the learning network (external) and how key concepts are related and understood (conceptual)).
Curtis Bonk (2007) presents a model where the educator is a concierge directing learners to resources or learning opportunities that they may not be aware of. The concierge serves to provide a form of soft guidance – at times incorporating traditional lectures and in other instances permitting learners to explore on their own. Bonk states:
We need to push students into the many learning possibilities that are ripe for them now. Concierges sometimes show you things you did not know were available or possible. Teachers as concierges can do the same things. We need to have quick access to such resources, of course, but as this occurs increasingly around the planet, so too will we sense a shift from prescribed learning checkboxes toward more learner designed programs of study. Now the Web of Learning offers this chance to explore and allow teachers to be their tour guides. (para 6)
While the focus of this chapter has been the higher education context, the affordances of blended learning models for the learning of primary and secondary (K-12) students has been identified by Staker and Horn (2012). Several of the K-12 blended learning models leverage technology to provide a more concierge-like role for the teacher. [See a video depiction of one such K-12 blended learning implementation.]
Curatorial Learning (Siemens, 2007) acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map. A curator is an expert learner. Instead of dispensing knowledge, he creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected. While curators understand their field very well, they don’t adhere to traditional in-class teacher-centric power structures. A curator balances the freedom of individual learners with the thoughtful interpretation of the subject being explored. While learners are free to explore, they encounter displays, concepts, and artifacts representative of the discipline. Their freedom to explore is unbounded. But when they engage with subject matter, the key concepts of a discipline are transparently reflected through the curatorial actions of the teacher.
Blending Expertise and Learner Control
The four models presented above share a common attribute of blending the concept of educator expertise with learner construction. The concerns of instructivist and constructivist education are addressed in the focus on connection-forming in learning. Whether seen as master artist, network administrator, concierge, or curator, the established expertise of the educator plays an active role in guiding, directing, and evaluating the activities of learners.
This chapter is a remix containing materials licensed under a variety of open licenses including:
- derivative work of content from The BlendKit Reader, edited by Dr. Kelvin Thompson, available under a CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 license;
- derivative work of content from New Learners? New Educators? New Skills? in the Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning by George Siemens and Peter Tittenberger under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Canada license