Is Blended Learning the Best of Both Worlds?

Research has found that blended courses have the potential to increase student learning outcomes while lowering attrition rates in comparison with equivalent fully online courses.Blended Learning’, EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research

globe_mouseBlended learning is a method that has proven to be not only effective in terms of learning outcomes, but ranks high on ratings of satisfaction with students and instructors (Dzuiban, Hartman & Moskal, 2004). Yet there has been little coverage of blended learning in higher education news in recent months. It seems we’ve gone from zero to one hundred without passing GO and collecting $200—where ‘0’ is traditional classroom learning, and ‘100’ is 100% online courses. There has been little consideration of the blended approach, which falls somewhere along the continuum of learning modalities.

Blended learning, also referred to as hybrid learning is a combination of learning modalities involving face-to-face instruction and Web-based learning delivery, and is carefully designed using a customized instructional strategy that leverages the strengths of each. When implemented effectively, a blended learning program can make better use of instructional resources and facilities, and increase class availability thus speeding up the pathway to graduation for students (Dzuiban et al, 2004). This kind of program could be at least part of the solution to California’s current crisis in its public higher education institutions.

With the impressive results and options of blended learning, and in light of the current crisis within several state universities, it appears that this modality deserves further exploration. Over the next few posts, I’ll be focusing on this hybrid approach from an instructional design point-of-view, and will share with readers the latest research on blended learning models, design principles and the pedagogical principles that underpin successful programs. My aim is to also share the best practices in blended programs by examining institutions that have been successful with their own programs.

Definitions of Blended Learning
Definitions of blended learning vary. Below is table presented in Blending In: The Extent and Promise of Blended Learning in the United States (2007), where the definition relies upon a ratio of web to traditional instruction.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 9.50.00 PM

The Sloan Consortium defines blended learning as a course where 30% to 70% of the instruction is delivered online. While this is a useful guideline, it may not be sufficient to define fully an institution’s blended program.

The ratio definition should be viewed as a guide, I prefer the descriptions by University of Central Florida (UCF), which approaches blended learning somewhat differently.  UCF describes mixed-mode or blended learning as a modality that “combines the effectiveness and socialization opportunities of the classroom with the self-directed and active learning opportunities that the online environment offers” (Dziuban, et al, 2004). At UCF blended learning is offered in two out of the five modalities available through the school’s Center for Distributed Learning.  Both options, use different formats, 1) video streaming lecture content, labs, web activities and select face-to-face interactions including proctored exams, and 2) instruction that has both required classroom attendance and online interaction, activities and content delivery.

Purpose of Blended Learning
A critical element to the blended learning concept is reduced seat time. Reduction of time that students spend in a face-to-face, traditional classroom format serves several purposes that offers several benefits including:

1) Institutions have the potential to manage instructional and facility resources more efficiently, teaching more students within a semester.
2) This approach is beneficial for students, providing the convenience and flexibility associated with online learning, freeing up time for work, family obligations or extra-curricular activities.
3) Blended learning develops a skill set for students that otherwise would not be possible in exclusive face-to-face instruction. Skills include digital citizenship, information management skills, self-directed learning, and web research and collaboration skills.

Blended Learning’ by giulia.forsythe, Flickr

Implications of Blended Learning on Institutions
Implementing a blended learning initiative is a significant undertaking, more so than beginning an online initiative. Institutions that have implemented successful blended programs are explicit about the implications and the work and collaboration required among departments, administration and faculty.  This excerpt from the Blended Learning report highlights this:

The transformational nature of blended courses creates complicated interactions among many components of the university similar to those found in the literature regarding complex and social systems theories. Forrester offered insights about interventions in complex systems (such as universities), suggesting they have the following common characteristics:

  • Predicting the way interventions will impact the institution is virtually impossible.
  • Final outcomes are often counter-intuitive.
  • Unanticipated side-effects, both positive and negative, must be confronted. At times, those effects have more impact than the originally planned outcomes. (Dziuban, et al, 2004).

A blended program can be the best of both worlds, and though a significant undertaking, once implemented successfully, such a program has significant benefits for the institution and students. Students embrace flexibility, embrace being in a connected world that the web provides, it’s no wonder that blended programs rank high in learning outcomes and  satisfaction.  UCF also discovered that faculty give high marks to their instructional experience with a hybrid model. Blended learning programs truly are the best of both worlds for students, instructors and the institution. My next posts will delve into the instructional design models for blended programs.