Putting Blended Learning Back on the Map

Periods of financial uncertainty and casual political ruination can do strange things to good ideas. Rarely they can refine or perhaps redefine them, but all too often they can be ridden bridle deep into clod. Does anyone remember blended learning? Back in 2003, when the Black Eyed Peas were asking where the love was (it’s certainly not in 2012, will.i.am) and I commuted to JISC every day in a mauve Cavalier “Expression”, blended learning was obviously the perfect transformational convergence of technology into teaching. The Fergie and will.I.am of educational delivery strategy and I had the Venn diagram to prove it.

Fast-forward nearly ten years and what happened? The Cavalier “Expression” has long since limited its edition in a provincial scrap yard, The Black Eyed Peas have stopped the party and are on an indefinite hiatus and I haven’t shown anybody the Venn diagram since I produced it dog-eared and feculent in a departmental meeting and had a faux homemade cookie pitched at my naïve face. Boom Boom Pow.

So, Donald Clark, the University of Derby Online (UDOL) Conference. For those of you who don’t know Donald, he’s a self-styled bullshit samurai, a one man bespectacled slaughter-house of sacred cows and he’s coming to a lecture theatre near you. I like Donald.

His shtick is that lectures prop up a hopelessly outdated pedagogic technique, paraphrasing his Harvard friend, the physicist Eric Mazur, “the lecture is the transfer of notes of the lecturer to the notebook of the student, without passing through either”. Make sense?

Well, yes. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that many aspects of “the lecture” aren’t fit for purpose and never have been, irrespective of technology or the lack thereof.  Episodic and semantic memory we are told are best served by a tautologous “multi-modal” approach, which is crudely put, to do the same thing again and again in as many different ways until it “sticks” to your frontal lobes like a homemade cookie. Yet the lecture gives us a single chance, one bite of the cherry and if we don’t get “it”, tough! Analogously speaking, the equivalent of an author reading their book out-loud once, you don’t get a copy! We learnt this apparently from German psychologist and specialist in recall, Ebbinghaus in 1885. I learnt it from Wikipedia.

Not content with a single pronged assault, Donald Tasers the lecture with a swift, flanking pincer movement along the learning curve, by rallying social learning theory. The lecture is the opposite of a social experience. The lecture is, if you like, anti-social and students become anti-social because of the lecture. They don’t sit together; they leave an empty chair for their laptop rucksack between themselves and the alienated being “next” to them. The chairs are bolted to the floor and the whole thing resembles a “sans comic” Socratic amphitheatre where our flock are ritually bored and made ritually boring. You could cut the atmosphere with an acetate.

So, how can technology improve this situation? Well, we can video lectures, in fact Donald tells us that it’s criminal that not all lectures are filmed, in fact he goes further and tells us that it’s better to see a “first-class” lecture on video than in the flesh. Presumably this would make Ebbinghaus a very happy man. As an avid TED viewer and subscriber this appeals to me and presumably my episodic memory.  Although could we, as Donald says, scrap the lecture completely and survive as an educational institution?

Statistically, 200,000 students at the Open University suggest that we could; the lecture is dispensed with yet student satisfaction is undeniably very high. But unlike the OU we are beholden to an age-old estates agenda, which continuously reinforces the lecture paradigm by flexing its capital muscle in building expenditure. Like most Universities, our campuses are huge, yet in “teaching spaces” occupancy is often undeniably low. How can we counter this problem, if indeed we ever accept that it is one? Over the last year LEI have introduced B226 as an innovative teaching space and if you’ll allow me to make the leap, helped to explicitly bring the blended approach back to the table in terms physicality. That is, the room actively encourages blended learning.

By establishing a new distance online business unit, University of Derby Online (UDOL), there is a potential risk that the wider University will once again unwittingly play a reductionist role in defining “e-learning” as a distance delivery methodology rather than a catch-all for the blended approach. Over the past five years and in various guises, the Learning Technology Team have made great strides in supporting tutors to embed technology into face to face teaching practice, whilst simultaneously assisting them in the tutoring of a distance cohort, sometimes in the same module area! Although an antiquated academic workload model often impeded both, common consensus suggested that the closer “distance” and “face to face” were in terms of content and cohort, the richer the experience. Consequently, the blended model, which had become the inherent way in which we designed and delivered content, may once again have to be the creatively fertile “differentiated learning” turf that we stick our flag into!

Blended learning always was a good idea and the polemic approach of Donald, last Monday, made me recall those halcyon days of the Cavalier and the Venn diagram, but the context of Donald’s “lecture” (oh, the irony!) troubled me. With the advent of the University of Derby Online (UDOL), LEI have to make sure that they (we) are in a position to transmit good-practice between on-campus and online provision and not let dissonance between delivery mechanisms become the standard in pedagogic design. If we can do this effectively then I think the blended approach can be re-established as a dominant force in content creation, but perhaps more importantly it can be the model which serves as an interface between UDOL and the wider university as a whole. I can feel a new Venn diagram coming on!

4 thoughts on “Putting Blended Learning Back on the Map

  1. Well done Chris, I think LEI do a wonderful job and agree with the points that you make. Also I must say that B226 is a wonderful addition to the university facilities but we need more rooms like this. There is a need to get students to understand and use the materials that we are lecturing them on and while some subjects can do this through lab based practices others need the option to start class debate or problem based learning in groups. We have a great many excellent experienced people at Derby we could do so much more if we could link together and see what is outside the box that we are in danger of being shut in.

  2. Terminology is always a problem.
    For many years ‘eLearning’ was used to refer exclusively to modules delivered exclusively online and those of us employed to support ‘eLearning’ were seen by academics to be not interested in the development of on-campus learning.
    As Chris notes we have, or rather the University has, made significant advances in reversing that misperception.
    We can’t afford the use of ‘online learning’ to repeat that problem. But language isn’t, of course, the problem exclusively. Terms may help people understand relationships, structures and concepts but there may be terminological confusion despite good relationships etc. and vice versa
    The whole idea that ‘eLearning’, ‘online learning’, ‘learning 2.0’ (or whatever other term is used) is one integral ‘thing’ is wrong IMHO. There are dozens of technologies that people might use in all possible learning relationships.
    TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) is a good term, despite its length and acronymic nature, because it makes that a little more explicit. So let’s make that clear that that is what we need to drive forward. If you are involved in learning you will want to use technology to its maximum advantage for learning and there are many advantages in introducing new technologies even with on-campus students.
    Indeed from an institutional point of view, new technologies, which are always going to have teething problems, are more easily introduced first in a blended learning (i.e. partial on-campus) environment. Because advice and support can be difficult to arrange for students whose computer screens you can’t see and whose frustrations may be partially hidden. We cannot replicate that support yet online even when we do our best to promote collaborative online relationships, improve induction etc.

  3. I agree with all of the above and have recently tried to explain this in terms of the need for accessible flexible spaces and furniture that allows staff and students to engage in creative learning whether that be technology enhanced or not.Personally I have really enjoyed using a variety of technologies and having the appropriate space to use them in would be great. sadly due to times of my face to face teaching with part time post grad students who are only in once a week i have not had the chance to use B226 because it was already booked – it would be wonderful if we could develop more spaces like this to ensure equity of access

  4. Thank you for your generous comments, both on here and in person.

    I was initially nervous about bringing up some of the issues raised, but I think it’s healthy to have an open debate about how we engage all of our students using technology, both now and in the future and no matter what the delivery mechanism. We (LEI) have spent a lot of time working on our technology roadmap over the last few months and I’m confident that by striving to work ever more closely with colleagues in faculty and UDOL that we can make good our commitment to communicate good practice across both areas. I hope by doing so we can be an agent in preventing the potential misunderstanding that UDOL is where all the TEL belongs.

    A good practical example of how this cross-collaboration can work is the Blackboard Collaborate (electronic delivery tool) project. We had a fruitful meeting with colleagues in UDOL this afternoon where we demonstrated Collaborate and although it has the potential to be a core tool of UDOL’s delivery model, it’s also a very powerful blended delivery tool. So, tutors currently using Wimba Classroom may well be interested in the upgraded functionality of Collaborate and those of you who have never used Wimba, now might be the time to get involved and run some virtual seminars.
    I’d like to think that eventually we can share expertise between distributed online tutors and on campus academics in the same staff development session, using the very tool we are evaluating.

    Watch this space!

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