Are we ready for Blended Learning?

Blended Learning

Blended Learning

Technologies for teaching and learning are a part of the current and proposed Teaching and Learning plan at Wits. If Wits is indeed going to be tech savvy, going beyond EdTech “solutionism”  and explore how a range of different modes for course provision can best be used, then it is appropriate that a range of campus stakeholders plot out how these two separate modes of teaching and learning (traditional face-to-face learning systems and distributed learning systems) should be combined.
When considering embedding technology, Wits has made progress in the following areas:

  • technology infrastructure
  • integrating the learning management systems with other learning technologies
  • help and support
  • instructional design
  • professional development
  • media production services

CNS is developing a campus infrastructure that can support the embedding of technology into teaching and learning. A wireless network, broadband and communication platforms offer teachers who want to incorporate digital technologies a backbone to support learning activities. Course and student management tools such as Sakai have been deployed and the tools therein are being used in a rudimentary fashion to communicate and disseminate information. Technologies used to support student learning, such as databases of research literatures, e-text books, video lectures, and other multimedia resources, are being piloted by the library and various faculties. eLSI offers training, help and support; CNS offers software and system specialists that can provide technical assistance.

The mechanics of electronic course delivery, however, remain a challenge. Difficulties in relation to servers, tools on Sakai, service levels from CNS, Internet availability, SIMS and other technology elements have been common and have hampered the use of “course portals” (as envisaged in the previous T & L plan). If e-learning continues to grow on campus, as envisaged by current and proposed T & L plans, greater organizational capacity will be required to assist with developing digital delivery, support for online students and teachers, and to carry out the myriad other functions that are needed to keep the system running.

Wallace and Young (2010) point out that the introduction of any new technologies in education will always result in debate and policy decisions around educational methodology, implementation, evaluation and costs. They argue that the introduction of Blended Learning is not only about the introduction of a new pedagogy, but issues about power, control over education, the culture of the university, the privilege of professors, the rights of students as ‘consumers’—not only ‘how’ something is taught, but what, when, why, by whom, and for what purpose. Wits should be aware that the introduction of blended learning is closely linked to these broader contestations of power, control and institutional culture.

The biggest challenges to the proposal to adopt blended learning are the institutional variables. Blended Learning intersects with so many sectors of a university and requires careful policy development and execution. Administrators need to consider the impact of this modality on infrastructure, programmes and planning. Academics will need to reconsider long held assumptions. Some students’ ability to navigate the existing educational system is already limited; Blended Learning could be even more inaccessible to them. For students, the benefits gained by a blended course are realized only if the associated risks are mitigated; for, without careful course planning and design, the blended format could offer the worst aspects of both the live and online modalities instead of offering the best (Dziuban et al, 2011).

Supporting blended learning is challenging. The range of professional skills needed to design and develop blended courses, create and deliver faculty development, produce instructional media content, conduct assessment, and partner with academic units to develop blended courses or programs is greater in scope and depth than exists at present at Wits. If Blended Learning is to succeed at Wits, then a range of macro and meso matters will need to be addressed before an institutional blended learning initiative is realistic.

  • A commonly understood definition among stakeholders for “blended learning”
  • A blended learning strategy that aligns with institutional goals
  • An effective organizational model to support the blended learning initiative
  • Qualified staff capable of supporting diverse faculty needs and lifecycle of courses
  • User support services to support blended learning
  • A robust planning process to identify blended learning faculty/courses to develop
  • A faculty development program to prepare faculty to teach blended learning courses, including incentives and rewards as part of the program
  • Learner support resources to prepare students to learn in blended learning courses
  • The ability to identify blended learning courses in the class schedule
  • Blended learning policies developed around accessibility, copyright, and intellectual property
  • An evaluation program to assess the impact of the blended learning initiative
  • ROI calculated based on resources dedicated to the blended learning initiative
  • Reusable courses and materials shared within departments engaged in blended learning

(From The Blended Learning Toolkit )

Blended Learning offers potential for improving the manner in which we deal with content; social interaction; reflection; higher order thinking and problem solving; collaborative learning and authentic assessment (Moskal et al, 2013). But institutionalising blended learning is not the silver bullet that will turn Wits into an “IT savvy” University and support 21st Century learning. Wits’ 2022 goals will not be accomplished by adopting the term Blended Learning; it will be necessary to align the Institution’s goals with all other stakeholders’ goals.

On a cautionary note, Moskal (2013) suggests that blended learning itself has a very weak statistical correlation with student success and argues that mode of delivery in general has weak statistical correlation with student success. Rather, he suggests a set of institutional variables (Institutional goals and objectives, organizational capacity, faculty development and course development support, support for online students and faculty, robust and reliable infrastructure, institution-level, longitudinal data collection and assessment, proactive policy development and an effective funding model) has come to be accepted as critical factors for blended learning success.

If more attention is paid to the issues of alignment by leadership, an institutionally-initiated blended learning programme can reap benefits that impact face-to-face teaching and learning across departments. However, significant investments in the areas mentioned will be required to build, deliver, and assess the merits of adopting a “blended learning” approach.

References
Dziuban, C., Hartman, J., Cavanagh, T. B., & Moskal, P. D. (2011). Blended Courses as Drivers of Institutional Transformation. In Kitchenham, A. (Ed.), Blended Learning across Disciplines: Models for Implementation. (pp. 17-37).
Moskal, P., Dziuban, C., & Hartman, J. (n.d.). Blended learning: A dangerous idea? The Internet and Higher Education., 18, 15-23. Available http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S109675161200084X
Wallace, L., & Young, J. (2010). Implementing blended learning: Policy implications for universities. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(4). Available http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter134/wallace_young134.html