Blended Learning – Finding What’s Right For You and Your Students

No matter where you are in the process of incorporating digital learning into your program, it can help to have an outside perspective and expert consultation from those who have been through the process.

Blended learning is becoming a fixture of most contemporary course experiences. From K through college and onward, when it comes time to create or modify programs or learning projects, most teams aren’t asking if they should  take a blended approach. These days it’s almost a given. The question has turned into, which blended learning approach is right for us? It’s a question curriculum manager Leslie Cox has spent a lot of time contemplating.

“Research on blended learning shows that student success rates are better in a blended course than in either a traditional face-to-face or fully online course.”

Blended Learning Success

The key to this success, however, depends largely on getting the “blend,” or the ratio, of in person instruction to online instruction in your course just right.

Think of it as a spectrum. In the middle is a 50-50 even split, online and in person learning. The goal of the learning team is to adjust the proportions to find the right balance before you start designing.

“Some of this will have to be discussed at an institution level first. Leadership should set basic parameters by knowing if there any accreditation requirements that need to be met, for example. With general guidelines in place, then it becomes a question of carefully calculating the right blend for your project or program. Because it is possible to get it wrong.”

Just last month teens at the Secondary School for Journalism, a high school in Brooklyn, NY, walked out in protest over the school’s adoption of pre-designed online learning courses, complaining the course “forced them to stare at computers for hours” and “teach ourselves,” reported the New York Post.

“That’s an example where the blend was not serving its intended purpose, to make learning efficient and enjoyable.” Students need to not only experience the right amount of face-to-face and online learning, but they need to see how they work together to create a learning experience that works for them.

How do I make sure my approach to blended learning is right?

“To calculate your “blend,” you should weigh three main factors: your learners, your learning approach, and your organization.”

Know Your Learners

Understanding who will be using your learning program or product is central to all good design. The learning experience must meet the practical, social, and cognitive needs of your students.

For example, do you serve traditional students who are available for a full-time academic experience? Or are you serving working adults who are trying to fit in finishing a degree while juggling work and family? Where are your learners located? Is it convenient for them to come to your campus locations? Are the majority of your learner’s self-sufficient and motivated students, who don’t need a lot of coaching to be successful? Or do they prefer one-on-one guidance and peer contact to stay engaged like the teens in Brooklyn?

All of these factors can affect what ratio and what type of in-person and online learning you decide to offer and should be researched deeply before you begin building or adopting blended courses.

“The best way to determine your students’ needs is to ask them.”

Focus groups and surveys can help you determine which student needs aren’t being addressed. Another good idea is to survey the students who chose not to attend your institution. What was lacking that made them decide to choose a different college?

At one institution where I worked, the decision to create blended courses was made mostly due to survey results of students who were accepted but didn’t attend. The survey results identified that most students chose alternative colleges due to more flexibility and less time on campus.”

Know Your Learning Approach

Once you’ve figured out what your learners want, another important factor to consider is what they actually need and how it can be designed.

Some programs may be more effective with a higher online learning ratio, such as a Networking IT program. Robust online simulations are available that can make learning more efficient and cost-effective. Whereas in an introductory statistics course, students may benefit from a larger percentage of in-class or synchronous time to allow for direct teaching, small group instruction, and real-time feedback from teachers and peers.

“It can be tempting to value an exciting piece of technology and lose sight of the goals of the course and the needs of the students.”

Ultimately it becomes a process of defining the outcomes and understanding the students and then making numerous individual decisions. With more options than ever before, your multifunctional team of subject matter experts, learning designers, technologists, and curriculum managers are invaluable. This team can explore the options and create an optimal blend that incorporates sound pedagogy and technology.

Know Your Organization

Finally, a really big factor to consider when designing your ‘blend’ is your organization and its capabilities.

From its physical footprint, to technological resources, to the skills and expertise of its faculty and support staff, all these factors can affect how you proportion your blended course.
For example, smaller organizations with limited physical classroom space may adopt blended learning for purely practical reasons, to free up space. Other institutions may not have a robust technology team to respond to off-hour student tech help requests, making predominantly online courses harder to manage.

Student access to technology can be a big decider too. Do you have well provisioned and modern computer labs and libraries on campus, that may make the campus a good place for students to work with faculty guidance? Or can you offer students laptops and tablets to purchase through their financial aid to help move them into online first learning?

The organization’s culture plays a role as well. Are learning and course experiences standardized or is there a culture of faculty-led learning design, where faculty are empowered to create unique course experiences, class by class?

“If classes are standardized, it’s generally easier to transfer them into an online modality, but if the faculty voice is the main driver, each course will be unique. The approach will dictate what types of supports and resources must be in place, including what faculty training will be necessary to implement the blended learning. Faculty may need to be trained on both the technology and online learning theories.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Get a Second Opinion

As you begin to adjust for all these factors and as you research your blended learning approach, you should begin to get a sense of what your ‘blend’ will be. From there you can start small, prototype, test, try out pilot programs and survey your students to see how they liked their experience and how well they met the learning goals. Talk to your faculty and staff and find out how you can improve training and communication. But even before you do all that, you can gain a lot of value by sharing what you’re thinking with an expert.

“No matter where you are in the process of incorporating digital learning into your program, it can help to have an outside perspective and expert consultation from those who have been through the process, know the tools, have navigated past the pitfalls to launch successful blended courses.”

About The Teammate – Leslie Cox

I am a curriculum manager with 9 years in higher education, 3 of those dedicated to curricular design, and I have launched several blended learning programs. I believe the best educational experiences are the ones where students are allowed to try, fail, and correct as part of their education. My goal is to create safe learning environments where students can take risks and get feedback to help them move toward becoming experts themselves.

Leslie Cox, Curriculum Manager
Program Curriculum Developer

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