Blended Learning – theory or instructional design?



[Taken from my PhD thesis lit review]

Literature on online learning eulogizes distance education (or distributed learning) as a concrete affordance made available by way of trans-located communities mediated by real-time technologies. Much subject matter explores the potential for the MOOC (Massive Online Open Conference) to connect remote learners operating from globally dislocated places. There are contexts where this has more potential than others, for example in Higher Education, in individuals pursuing informal interests in their own time (, or with geographically remote communities who may have an innate and intrinsic motivation to achieve (as Mitra shows). In the former case here, the MOOC has often become a means of transferring one-to-many lectures online, which may be questionable in terms of impact on low-motivated and low-ability students, or the ability to turn inert and passive discourse into more active practice. Anderson et al criticise the “big distance education models” (9: 2001) as unsuitable for some subjects where active participation is more necessary.

Nevertheless, a MOOC is one of the projects held up for mass online provision for Maths (‘Citizen Maths’, Learning Futures 32: 2014). This is a purely online form, quite distinct from traditional learning. Here, ‘traditional learning’ needs some definition. Because I am concerned with the English GCSE syllabus, traditional learning is used to mean the notion of meeting in a classroom for a specific unit of time for specific learning outcome-based purpose.

Blended learning is promoted as the combination of sporadic physical interpersonal meetings (cited as ‘traditional’) and the opportunities afforded by an online community of practice (whether that is structured learning, access to resources, communication within the group for various purposes). In this sense, the online aspects are not a substitute locus of activity, but augment the face-to-face activity.

Remote access (to an ecology of resources, to a teacher and to a community) may not always resonate with emotional and motivational factors in terms of student difficulties. An alternative is suggested: that of blended learning, explained as “the organic integration of thoughtfully selected and complementary face-to-face and online approaches and technologies” (Garrison and Vaughan, 2008, 148: 2008). Driscoll defines blended learning (2002) as

  1.  To combine or mix modes of web-based technology (e.g. live virtual classroom, self-paced instruction, collaborative learning, streaming video, audio, and text) to accomplish an educational goal.
  2. To combine various pedagogical approaches (e.g., constructivism, behaviourism, cognitivism) to produce an optimal learning outcome with or without instructional technology.
  3. To combine any form of instructional technology (e.g., videotape, CD-ROM, web-based training, film) with face-to-face instructor-led training.
  4. To mix or combine instructional technology with actual job tasks in order to create a harmonious effect of learning and working

There are various other descriptions of the form and detail of blended learning, as outlined by Oliver and Trigwell (2005), in a discussion of the problems of defining what the varying terms means. For the purpose of deployment in this study, the closest fit is supplied by Valiathan (2002):

  1.  skill-driven learning, which combines self-paced learning with instructor or facilitator support to develop specific knowledge and skills;
  2. attitude-driven learning, which mixes various events and delivery media to develop specific behaviours; and
  1. competency-driven learning, which blends performance support tools with knowledge management resources and mentoring to develop workplace competencies.

The first notion importantly configures a consideration of the teacher presence as supportive to the interaction; the second pays heed to the behaviour, affective and attitudinal factors discussed earlier, and the third fits closely to the context of the FE sector and learner aspiration (vocational and work-based skill sets). Overall, the definition is relevant as it can be aligned to the purpose: promoting a Community of Inquiry, with its constituent domains of teacher presence, but focusing on the contextual sector. Oliver and Trigwell’s report seeks to avoid the conflation of arbitrary terms, such as online learning, or traditional delivery.  Blending affords the opportunity to circumvent difficulties teachers may have in embedding technology holistically, for example in aspirations to flipped learning where content is accessed remotely, so that more meaningful activity (problem-solving, Sayer, 2007) can occur face-to-face. As seen already, students and teachers may not have the requisite skill sets for meaningful online provision, described as rudimentary in a study by the Pamoja Institute (No citation, ref. )

Blending, then, is a way of integrating technologies to be more familiar for students.

Some learning activity at a superficial level (in terms of types of learner activity, producing the right level and type of work, meeting targets and deadlines, presenting work for assessment) may be shifted online without friction. Even a learner checking they are ‘right’, can be met with some basic assurances from a remote teacher or community. These are isolated parts of a student’s experience – what a student needs to do, but not specifically how it is done at a cognitive or prcoedural level. It is also unclear whether those processes of activity are optimal. As is shown in Point 2 above by Driscoll, blending may also include multi-faceted pedagogical approaches, so due consideration needs to be paid to this.

Blending learning may include provision and access to resources from remote points, such as Learning Management Systems or in-house college Virtual Learning Environments like Moodle.

‘Blending’ is not a learning theory, as such, but a strategic instructional design that ensures students have access to an assistive ecology of online resources for a range of activities, combined with face-to-face context modes. Educational Design Research – or design based research – is the development of practical principles for curriculum redesign. Given its supportive nature in readying teacher’s for online learning pedagogical models, blended learning affords a scale towards multimodal literacies and Web 2.0 affordances in both classroom and remote contexts. An issue still remains what emergent pedagogies consist of – and how they ensure inclusion at the rate of support needed by all students.


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Filed under Educational theory, FE, Learning technologies, Mobile Learning, Uncategorized

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