I was in some meetings this week where the phrase ‘blended learning’ was used more than once, although always in a sentence with ‘where appropriate’ . Appropriateness is good. Appropriate allows considerable leeway for institutions to identify which, and how, technologies may be used in specific contexts.
I did feel like I had stepped back a few years, but nonetheless I cheerfully carried on.
Blending learning offers an exciting and challenging opportunity for researchers and practitioners in learning technology in HE and particularly for those working in traditional universities. The integration of technology into practice requires a considered and reflective approach to course and curriculum design ensuring that learning needs and teaching aims are met.
Blended learning means more than having some face-to-face and some online elements. It describes the extent to which these elements work together to give a cohesive learner experience and the choice of the best tools for the task. Litttlejohn (2007) suggests that the design and subsequent success of a blend is subject to three contexts: The technology context, the learner’s context and the teacher’s context. The technology context includes: The technology available within the institution; the tools offered in the VLE; the other tools on campus and the availability of that technology, at work, at home and in the classroom. The learner’s context is shaped by their familiarity with e-learning tools and approaches; their opportunities for peer interaction; their opportunities for interaction with teachers; their level of study; previous knowledge and their level of digital literacy.
University teachers are currently working in an environment where the skills of students at admission vary widely and levels of competence, experience and expertise in use of technologies are ill defined. ‘Student expectations’ are often cited but are not consistent. The teacher’s own context for use of technology is equally diverse. Their starting point includes their familiarity with technology tools; the availability of e-resources in their discipline; the nature of the content being taught; the assessment criteria and mode; the support available and their own digital literacy and skills.
The meetings identified that the main barrier to the take up of new methods of teaching continues to be the time it takes to learn and use new tools and how that fits with workload models. A quick leap to point to staff development and staff skills as the areas for attention.
Developing digital literacy skills to use in the context of higher education teaching, study and research can be a challenging experience with steep learning curves. Staff and students struggle with expectations for collaborative working and managing information overload. With a changing demographic of staff working in higher education and new wide-ranging sets of skills amongst students, the training offered to each will shape the extent to which they succeed in a blended learning environment.
For technologists the challenge is to offer applications and tools so useable that the new learning required is minimal and to provide an ‘appropriate’ and appropriately supported technology context. The challenge for units which support, promote and train in learning technologies continues.