Published on 2019/03/18

Finding Balance: Blended Learning for Practitioners and Researchers

The EvoLLLution| Finding Balance: Blended Learning for Practitioners and Researchers
It’s outdated to ask whether online classes are as effective as in-person instruction. With blended learning becoming more and more common, educators don’t have to choose between the two.

Since the earliest days of distance learning, educators have debated whether delivering instruction electronically actually works. Whether through VHS tapes in the earliest correspondence courses or today’s complex and adaptable learning management systems (LMS), the educational community has been presented with a false binary: Educators either share knowledge in person or share knowledge via electronic means. Direct human-to-human interaction is generally perceived as the best way to teach students.

Fortunately, we no longer have to choose just one modality. Since the early 2000s, blended learning has mixed face-to-face and technology-enabled instruction to provide educators and students with the chance to build on the efficiencies and experiences made possible by each medium. For example, students can learn concepts at their own pace by watching recorded lectures before class then practice applying those concepts through project- and team-based learning with professors and teaching assistants available in class for just-in-time help.

Forthcoming from MIT Press is the volume, Blended Learning: A Guide for Practitioners and Researchers, edited by Amanda G. Madden, Lauren Margulieux, Ashok Goel and myself, sharing fourteen chapters that include rich descriptions of how instructors at the Georgia Institute of Technology have interwoven video instruction, online quizzes and discussion forums, software, and simulations with the types of hands-on practical problem solving found in classrooms.

The volume sets the stage by discussing the concept of blended learning. As stated in the introduction, “Blended classrooms infuse learning with technology-supported instruction and often include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning” (Madden et al., 2019, p.1). Instruction type ranges from students passively receiving content to actively applying content, and delivery medium ranges from delivery via the instructor to delivery via technology. The authors then point to the MIX Taxonomy (Margulieux, McCracken, & Catrambone, 2016) as a useful matrix for identifying blended learning along two axes: Instruction type and delivery medium. As the chapters unfold, each Georgia Tech instructor’s experience of blended learning in his or her course is introduced by placing it in the MIX Taxonomy.

The book begins by exploring the potential benefits of blended learning. These include:

  • fostering deeper conceptual understanding
  • encouraging increased mastery of content
  • cultivating enhanced metacognitive skills to enhance further learning
  • increasing student engagement
  • preparing students for employment through teamwork and project-based learning
  • promoting the formation of learning communities.

However, the editors also identify several barriers or challenges to blended learning, including:

1. Instructor adoption barriers: It is difficult to implement a blended class if one has to go it alone. Further, it can be frustrating and time consuming to convert a class to a blended format. 

2. Institutional barriers: There can be a lack of support for new initiatives like blended learning. For example, departments can be reluctant to provide instructors with release time so that they can develop blended courses. In addition, there is often outright skepticism about blended learning having greater value than a standard, sage-on-the-stage approach.

3. Technological barriers:Educators must have the tools and software they need to produce lecture videos, to allow students to collaborate digitally on course-specific projects, to provide digital content, etc. The cost of these resources may need to be carried or supplemented by the instructor (e.g., video instruction) and/or by the students (e.g., software)

4. Physical space barriers: Especially in lecture halls with immovable furniture, it can be difficult simply to have students work in groups.

Each chapter points to critical issues and approaches to overcoming some of these barriers, as well as best practices for capitalizing on the strengths of blended learning.

Several chapters point to the value of leveraging the resources in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in a blended format. Harris and Ferri demonstrate that using the lecture videos, quizzes and online forums from a Georgia Tech Circuits and Electronics MOOC provide consistent instruction for large, multi-section on-campus courses focused on the same topic. Whereas earlier versions of the course had variations in up to 25 percent of the topics covered by multiple different teaching assistants in classroom-based instruction, the use of the MOOC resources made it such that all students received the same lecture material and were quizzed using the same questions. Meanwhile, by having students watch the videos outside of class, in-person meeting time was freed up for project-based learning with guidance from the instructors and teaching assistants.

In part, the book is devoted to conducting research in blended courses, providing primers on research methods and data analysis. Certain chapters focus specifically on qualitative and quantitative approaches to gathering and analyzing data with an aim of contributing to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

The volume also provides case studies to help readers understand and solve common teaching issues. Madden, for example, demonstrates the power of immersing students in the popular video game Assassin’s Creed II in order to better instruct a first-year composition course. Meanwhile, Bankoff and Knoespel encourage diversity of thought in a global issues and leadership course by remotely blending sections of students on Georgia Tech’s campus with students at Sciences-Po Paris so as to conduct synchronous lectures and discussions on international affairs.

The goal of the volume is to fill the knowledge and practice gaps currently found in the field of blended learning. Traditionally, two different types of publications are found in blended learning literature. On the one hand, there are research studies with complex designs and data analyses that often leave the non-specialist without enough how-to instruction to successfully blend their own classes. On the other hand, there are practitioner publications that provide how-to instructions but are lacking in attempts to collect data and evaluate the effectiveness of the blended approach. The goal of Blended Learning: A Guide for Practitioners and Researchers, as well as the goal of blended learning in practice, is to find balance.

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Madden, A.G., Margulieux, L., Kadel, R.S., Goel, A. (2019). Blended Learning: A Guide for Practitioners and Researchers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN: 9780262039475

Margulieux, L.E., McCracken, W.M., Catrambone, R. (2016). A taxonomy to define courses that mix face-to-face and online learning. Educational Research Review, 19, 104-118.

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