This post was prompted by a tweet from @rkiker that linked to an ongoing debate between Justin Marquis Ph.D. (pro) and Donald R. Eastman (con) on whether or not online learning is “the real thing.” I would prefer, for the most part, to ignore this debate: of course many individuals will learn via “distance education” (which, as people my age recall, long predates electronic means). Any either/or framing does little justice to either argument. The issue should be how to maximize learning for the greatest number of learners. I assert that an approach which blends face-to-face (F2F) instruction with the types of asynchronous? access both authors are talking about is a superior pedagogical model.
Canada’s Collaboration for Online Higher Education and Research (COHERE ) is “a collaboration of universities focusing on the research and practice of blended and online learning within higher education.” In their 2011 Report on Blended Learning they report findings from a survey of the current use of “blended learning” in Canadian universities. Listed are the many benefits they see emerging, including “improved teaching and learning, greater flexibility for learners, greater student satisfaction, improved student performance, a confluence of literacies for the knowledge economy, and optimization of resources,” and some barriers to adoption, for example, “faculty resistance, student reluctance to move from a passive to an active student role, insufficient pedagogical and technical support, and absence of a clear institutional policy and strategic plan and appropriate leadership to support and sustain blended learning initiatives.” As the report puts it, “Despite these barriers blended learning at Canadian universities continues to grow.” Certainly none of these factors, nor the phenomenon of growth, are limited to Canada.
On page 5 the report describes a graduate course in education offered at York University entitled “Issues in Digital Technology in Education,” and describes its innovative blending with the undergraduate course “Teaching and Learning with Digital Technology.” I took this course in 2011 as a Master’s candidate and participated in the “mentoring” of undergraduates. The report’s summary about the structure of the courses and mutual satisfaction of participants is absolutely accurate. This remains perhaps the most rewarding course I’ve taken as a graduate student. Page 5 also refers to a Provostial White Paper (PDF). The class read the paper in depth and debated both sides—should York expand on this model or not?
Among the course assignments was a collaborative presentation on an issue in digital technology in education, and I was in the group that presented on blended learning; I’m familiar with the topic. I agree with Donald R. Eastman on nearly every point he makes, but most emphatically with the statement, “[Students] benefit most from participating in learning communities, in which they live, study and socialize with other learners.” See for example, Wenger (2006), Smith (1999) and Cousin (2006) in order to better appreciate the importance of this point. Justin Marquis is correct that online environments can be as supportive as any other, but the overall slant of his argument seems to be the reduced cost and added convenience, and I find the entire section “Growing Up is Hard to Do” utterly condescending. His piece, employing as it does the language of disruptive innovation that has its roots in Harvard Business School (Fouchaux, 2009), comes off as a sales pitch, and his call for a truce sounds more like a declaration of victory.
What is blended learning?
The task of defining “blended learning” has been undertaken by many, but we’re still having some trouble with consensus (Osguthorpe & Graham, 2003). The York White Paper qualifies blended as follows: “Typically a course is considered to be blended if the online component varies between 30% and 80% of the total course time.” (e-Learning working group, 2010, p.8).
Diagrams can be helpful… here you can see dozens. For our class presentation I created this one, which is more metaphorical: students and instructors can blend many different ingredients of learning and teaching, and play with the recipe until they get the mix that tastes best.
Blend ingredients, sweeten to taste
First, some people would learn regardless of whether they ever went anywhere near a course. Indeed it has been argued in some quarters that old‐fashioned models of ʺtime‐servingʺ on‐the‐job apprenticeships represent the best way of learning skills (and the knowledge which underpins them).
Second, disciplines and subjects are very different. There is no single curriculum design which will suit all of them, even in terms of their values. I want a fine artist to be creative; I donʹt want my pharmacist to be at all creative; whether or not I want my accountant to be creative is a matter for debate!
Third, trying to create a course on the basis of all these competences leads to what is vividly called a ʺstuffed curriculumʺ. Not everything it contains is of equal value, but nothing gets thrown out.
—James Atherton (2007)
I’m not calling for a truce, I’m suggesting a marriage.
Atherton, James (2007) How do people “get” it? Web, UK [http://www.doceo.co.uk/tools/On_getting.pdf] retrieved October 3, 2011.
Cousin, G. (2006) An introduction to threshold concepts http://www.gees.ac.uk/planet/p17/gc.pdf, retrieved January 27, 2012.
e-Learning working group (2010), E-Learning Business Case For York University, http://irlt.yorku.ca/reports/E-learningcasefinalversion.pdf, retrieved June 23, 2011.
Fouchaux, Richard C. (2009) Disrupting disruption: how the language of disruptive innovation theory and the “tools of cooperation and change” can change the way educators respond to the neoliberal marketization of education (unpublished essay) http://www.rcfouchaux.ca/pdf/Fouchaux_(2009)_Disrupting_Disruption.pdf
Osguthorpe, Russell T.; Graham, Charles R. (2003), Blended Learning Environments: Definitions and Directions, Quarterly Review of Distance Education, v4 n3 p227-33 Fall 2003.
Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘The social/situational orientation to learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/learning-social.htm, Last update: December 01, 2011.
Wenger, E. (2006) Communities of practice, a brief introduction, http://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/06-Brief-introduction-to-communities-of-practice.pdf, retrieved October 12, 2011.
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e-Learning Fundamentals: Didactical models retrieved from
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development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall
Professional Advisory: Electronic Communication, Social Media from Ontario College of Teachers Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iMLjqIptBc
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Thor, L. (2010). The Right Mix. Community College Journal, 81(1), 38-43.