Blended and Online Learning

Whether instructional goals originate from curriculum documents, students’ expressed interests, or a mixture of both, students are more likely to achieve the goals if teachers draw on a wide variety of resources. As a practical matter, this means looking for materials and experiences that supplement—or occasionally even replace—the most traditional forms of information, such as textbooks. Precisely what resources to use depend on factors unique to each class, school, or community, but they might include one or more of the following.

The Internet as a Learning Tool

The Internet has become a fixture of modern society, and it offers a huge variety of information on virtually any topic, including any school subject and any possible grade level from kindergarten through university. However, the vastness of the Internet is not entirely a blessing. A major problem is that the sheer volume of information available, which can sometimes make searching for a specific topic, article, or document overwhelming and inefficient. The newer search engines (such as Google) can help with this problem, though they do not solve it completely. When searching the term photosynthesis, for example, Google and other similar search engines return over fourteen million web pages that discuss or refer to this topic in some way! If a teacher is planning a unit about photosynthesis, or if a student is writing an essay about it, which of these web pages will prove most helpful? Choosing among web pages is a new, somewhat specialized form of computer literacy, one that can be learned partially by trial-and-error online, but that also benefits from assistance by a teacher or by more experienced peers (Ragains, 2006).

Another problem with the Internet is the inequity of access. Even though virtually all schools now have access of some sort, the access is distributed quite unevenly across communities and income groups (Skinner, Biscope, & Poland, 2003; Parsad & Jones, 2005). Schools vary widely in how much Internet service they can provide. In general, well-to-do schools and those in cities provide more access than those located in less well-off areas or in rural areas—though there are many exceptions. A richly endowed school might have an Internet connection in every classroom as well as multiple connections in a school library or in specialized computer rooms. Students, as well as faculty, would be able to use these facilities, and one or more teachers might have special training in Internet research to help when problems arise. At the other extreme, a school might have only a few Internet connections for the entire school, or even just one, located in a central place like the library or the school office. Usage by students would consequently be limited, and teachers would essentially teach themselves how to search the Internet and how to troubleshoot technical problems when they occur.

In spite of these problems, the Internet has considerable potential for enhancing students’ learning, precisely because of its flexibility and near universality. Some of the best recent successes involve the creation of a learning commons (sometimes also called an information commons or teaching commons), a combination of a website and an actual, physical place in a school or library that brings together information, students and teachers so that both (though perhaps especially students) can learn (Haas & Robertson, 2004; Beagle, 2006). A learning commons includes an online library catalog and online Internet service, but it also offers other services: online information and advice about study skills, for example, as well as access to peer tutors and support groups, either online or in-person, that can help with difficulties about writing or doing assignments. As you might suspect, using a learning commons effectively sometimes requires reorganizing certain features of teaching and learning, chiefly toward greater explicit collaboration among students and teachers.

Blended and Online Learning

Online courses are those in which at least 80 percent of course content is delivered online. Blended (sometimes called hybrid) instruction has between 30 and 80 percent of the course content delivered online with some face-to-face interaction. Blended and online courses not only change how content is delivered, they also redefine traditional educational roles and provide different opportunities for learning. As described by Palloff and Pratt (2013):

The online classroom is a potentially powerful teaching and learning arena in which new practices and new relationships can make significant contributions to learning. In order to harness the power this creates in education, instructors must be trained not only to use technology but also to shift the ways in which they organize and deliver material. Making this shift can increase the potential for learners to take charge of their own learning process and facilitate the development of a sense of community among them. (p.30)

Research on Blended and Online Learning

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education released a meta-analysis and review of empirical studies focused on online learning in K-12 schools and higher education from 1996-2008. Their findings revealed that “students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction” (p. xvi). In addition, they reported that blended instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage than purely online instruction (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia & Jones, 2010).

Although these results suggest that blended learning environments can provide a learning advantage when compared to purely face-to-face instruction, the researchers emphasized the findings “do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium…It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages” (p. xviii, original emphasis). In other words, it’s important for the instructor to create an interactive, supportive, and collaborative learning environment for students to reap the potential benefits afforded by online learning.

Elements of Successful Online and Blended Learning

As noted above, the research suggests that when facilitated effectively, online education can not only match, but also surpass traditional face-to-face learning (Means et al., 2010). Here are some of the potential benefits of online education:

  • Learner-Centered Education: Palloff and Pratt (2013) explain that an effective online instructor is someone “who is open to giving up control of the learning process” by making students active participants in their learning process (p. 24). A learner-centered approach acknowledges what students bring to the online classroom—their background, needs, and interests—and what they take away as relevant and meaningful outcomes. With the instructor serving as a facilitator, students are given more control and responsibility around how they learn, including the opportunity to teach one another through collaboration and personal interactions (Palloff & Pratt, 2013).
  • Collaborative & Interactive Learning: Research has found that online instruction is more effective when students collaborate rather than working independently (Means et al., 2010; Schutte, 1996). There are a variety of ways for students to collaborate online, including synchronous and asynchronous discussions and small group assignments. In addition, the relative anonymity of online discussions helps to create a “level playing field” for quieter students or those from typically marginalized groups. When posed questions in advance, students have the opportunity to compose thoughtful responses and have their voices heard, as well as respond to one another in a manner not usually afforded by face-to-face instruction (Kassop, 2003).
  • Metacognitive Awareness: Since online learners have more autonomy and responsibility for carrying out the learning process, it’s important that students understand which behaviors help them learn and apply those strategies proactively. This awareness and knowledge of one’s personal learning process involves increased metacognition—a key practice for student success (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000).
  • Increased Flexibility: Online learning offers more flexibility because students can control when and where they learn. By self-monitoring their time and pacing, students are able to spend more time on unfamiliar or difficult content (Aslanian & Clinefelter, 2012).
  • Immediate Feedback: Online learners generally have greater access to instructors via email and are able to have questions answered by their peers in a timely fashion on discussion boards. In addition, online tests and quizzes can be constructed with automatic grading capability that provides timely feedback (Kassop, 2003). Immediate and continual feedback throughout the learning process is beneficial for gaining an understanding of difficult concepts, as well as triggering retrieval mechanisms and correcting misconceptions (Thalheimer, 2008).
  • Multimodal Content: The Internet provides an abundance of interactive and multimodal materials that can be used to increase engagement and appeal to diverse learners.

Good Practices for Blended and Online Learning

Designing Your Online Course

  • Know Your Learner: A recent survey of 1,500 individuals nationwide, who were recently enrolled, currently enrolled, or planning to enroll in an online course found that a wide variety of students were drawn to online learning (Aslanian & Clinefelter, 2012). However, they also identified the following key themes in online students’ responses:
    • Most online students have several responsibilities in life, so they seek convenience and flexibility when furthering their education. Millions of post-secondary students have turned to online education because it enables them to fit education around their work and family responsibilities and to study anytime and anywhere (p. 16).
    • Online students unquestionably value independence, self-direction, and control online education offers them. Among several factors that drive them to online programs, students most often point to “the ability to study when and where I want” and “the ability to study at my own pace” (p. 17).

As you design your course, it’s important to develop as comprehensive a picture as possible of the specific students who will be enrolling in the class (Angelino, Williams & Natvig, 2007). Gaining a sense of their prior knowledge and technology competency will help you to know what supports they will need and tailor your instruction accordingly. A few ways to gain these insights include asking students to complete an online survey, concept inventory, or pre-assessment. In addition, students can reflect on their prior knowledge and experiences through an online discussion or blog post.

  • Develop Learning Goals: As with face-to-face instruction, it’s imperative to begin with the end in mind by developing learning goals first (Froyd, 2008). Ask yourself, what are the key concepts and/or skills students need to master by the end of the course? The answer to this question will help in developing course content, activities, and assessments that align with your learning goals, as well as choosing the appropriate technology (Caulfield, 2011).
  • Have Clear Expectations: Present clear guidelines for participation in the class, as well as specific information for students about course expectations and procedures. In addition, use rubrics to clearly communicate learning objectives and grading criteria for each learning activity in the course (e.g., quality online discussions) and incorporate them into student assessments (Palloff & Pratt, 2013).

Organizing Course Content

  • Provide an obvious path through the material, and make sure guideposts are clear to the student. Savery (2005) explains that organization is essential since online learners need to fit the course into their crowded schedules. He emphasizes the importance of posting course assignments and due dates early and having clear directions. Shea and colleagues (Shea, Fredericksen, Pickett & Pelz, 2003; Shea, Pickett & Pelz, 2003) also explained the importance of clearly labeling and organizing course-level and section-level materials in order to create a path that students can follow.
  • Organize the content in logical units, or modules, in which each module is organized around a major topic and contains relevant objectives, material, and associated activities. In the introduction to the module, include information about how long the student should expect to spend working on the module. This helps to keep students moving along at a similar pace (Shea, Fredericksen, Pickett & Pelz, 2003; Shea, Pickett & Pelz, 2003). The course demo from Boston University here illustrates this modular organization.
  • Within each module, present content in chunks that are easily digestible (Smith, 2008).
    • When presenting text, format the content for the Web by breaking it into short paragraphs and using headings, bullets, graphics and other formatting devices that make webpages easier to read and comprehend. The “7+/-2”instructional design rule of thumb, based on the work of psychologist George Miller, suggests inclusion of 5 to 9 pieces of information in a segment. This self-paced asynchronous course from UC-Irvine demonstrates several of these principles.
    • When presenting audio or video, include a brief description and information about the length. Keep the segments short, from 2-15 minutes, to help maximize listeners’ retention (Smith, 2008). Strategically chunking content helps students to absorb the information, avoiding information overload and exhaustion (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001).
    • Help your students digest the chunks of material by providing short recall or application questions after each one. Research has demonstrated the critical role of retrieval practices for conceptual learning (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011; Karpicke & Roediger, 2008).

Facilitating Online Learning

  • Promote metacognitive awareness. Since online learners have more autonomy and responsibility, it is crucial that are supported in planning, monitoring, and assessing their understanding and performance (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). As mentioned earlier, providing clear expectations and a clear path through the material can help students monitor their pace. In “Promoting Student Metacognition,” Tanner (2012) offers a handful of adaptable specific activities for promoting metacognition, including pre and post-assessments, reflective journals, and questions for students to ask themselves as they plan, monitor, and evaluate their thinking.
  • Maintain a Social Presence: Stay present and be responsive to student needs and concerns (Savery, 2005). The instructor should engage in a balanced level of participation and communication—both publicly and privately—so students know he or she is engaged and available. This includes modeling good participation by frequently contributing to discussions by responding to students’ posts and asking further questions. The instructor is instrumental in creating a warm and inviting atmosphere that promotes an online sense of community (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; Jiang & Ting, 2000).
  • Promote Collaboration: As described by Palloff and Pratt (2013), “Collaborative learning processes help students achieve deeper levels of knowledge generation through the creation of shared goals, shared exploration, and a shared process of meaning-making. In addition, collaborative activity can help to reduce the feeling s of isolation that can occur when students are working at a distance” (p. 39). Collaborative learning can be promoted through a variety of activities, including small group assignments, case studies, simulations, and group discussions.
  • Promote Active Learning: Chickering and Ehrmann (1996) explain that “learning is not a spectator sport…[Students] must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves” (p. 5). Keeping in mind the characteristics of online learners, it’s also important to make tasks authentic for students. That is, complex tasks related to real-life experiences that can also be applied to future activities (Woo, Herrington, Agostinho & Reeves, 2007).
  • Incorporate Multiple Media: A key mistake instructors make is simply converting print materials for an online environment. Instead, leverage the possibilities of the Internet by considering various content sources and media formats to motivate learning and appeal to different learning styles (Mayer, 2001). CIRTL suggests that when selecting media for a course, think about how it accomplishes learning goals and how the medium will affect the learner (e.g., technology needs, download time, disabilities). In addition, Kapus (2010) recommends that when incorporating streaming media in a course to also post complete transcripts and encourage students to both watch the content and read the transcript.
  • Provide Adequate Technical Support: It should not be assumed that all students have experience with online learning or using the necessary technology. Provide ample technical support for learners by including links to resources, making yourself available to students, and promoting collaborative peer problem solving on the discussion board.
  • Respect Copyright Rules: The rules of fair use described here may apply to copyrighted material that you wish to excerpt.