How Blended Learning Works
Written by Jeffery Galle, Ph.D.
I took apart the first watch my parents bought me as a birthday present. As I remember it, I was more curious than perverse. I have always liked seeing how things work, how they are put together, in order to grasp the possibilities of design and function. Much later as a university professor, I wanted to see and experience just how technology could be used to make online assignments work. Attending various workshops in the university's teaching center gave me some sense of the potential for using technology as a pedagogical tool. However, it was not until this summer at Oxford College of Emory University, when I helped lead a track on blended learning (for liberal arts faculty), that I experienced a sort of epiphany of new possibilities of design and function through this pedagogy. I saw this pedagogy work across the curriculum as professors of chemistry, biology, foreign languages, music, composition, allied health, and anthropology developed projects for their own classes.
Through the books of people like D. Randy Garrison and from colleagues like David Gowler here at Oxford College, I have begun to explore, analyze, and apply the three distinct phases of the blended learning pedagogy. The phases are the pre-class assignment, the in-class dialogue, and the post-class follow-up. Although these sound pretty conventional, what is new and powerful is that the online assignments and the in-class work do not run on parallel tracks; rather, the online assignment and the face time in class can be integrated in some very profound ways.
- Online learning (OLL) and the pre-class assignment
In my experience, many students today approach out-of-class assignments either halfheartedly or with complete neglect. The online (out-of-class)assignments designed for blended learning speak to students through a wide variety of contexts. The asynchronous pre-class assignment is always online and always seeks to initiate feedback from the students and the instructor. The online assignment may ask students to respond to a given passage, an audio or video file, a chart, or a rubric. The response can employ a blog or a wiki or another of the fine features of Blackboard (or other software designed for these purposes). The instructor evaluates the knowledge and/or skill of the students before class and incorporates this knowledge into the class discussion. I'll have more to say shortly about the nature of the pre-class assignment.
- The face-to-face (FTF) class time
Building on what students conveyed in the online assignment, the instructor can structure the synchronous learning through Socratic discussion, a lab, or traditional lecture. But the content of the FTF can vary, given the knowledge level of students. This means that valuable class time can be used for learning. The gap between course content and the precise level of student knowledge has been at least partially bridged through the use of online assignments, feedback, and the responsive presentation of course content.
- The post-class follow-up
To confirm that learning has occurred both before and during class, the instructor can construct a brief online assignment that calls on the students to demonstrate some knowledge of the work just covered. That online feedback allows the instructor to plan more effectively for the next class meeting and future online assignments.
Refinements can be added to these basics at each step along the way. In the first phase, OLL may occur with greater depth if the assignment involves a central course concept that the instructor generally repeats over and over again. In this way, students can return to the "basic concepts" out of class as the need arises. Second, the nature of the instructor's feedback can be supplemented by having the students alternate reading and responding to the pre-class assignment, which gets the basic topics out in the intellectual atmosphere before class, thereby saving class time. Third, in the follow-up and construction of the next assignment, those who are "getting it" can lead the class discussion online as the instructor spends more fruitful time constructing the next out-of-class online assignment.
The blended part of blended learning is the key additional component of this pedagogy as the online work and class-time work of students and professors are better integrated. This integration has become the signature trait of the blended learning described in the rapidly growing literature and through such pedagogically focused entities as EDUCAUSE and the Sloan Consortium.
The rapid adoption of this pedagogy, as our experience attests, signals the widespread usefulness of the concepts. I certainly appreciated the successful efforts of a wide array of professors applying the blended learning process in distinct ways to their own courses. Among all the different disciplines, courses, and applications, the commonly shared idea was to use the online assignment, the feedback, and the follow-up to focus upon actual student knowledge and student learning by using the Internet, the students' second home.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter The Teaching Professor 22.8 (2008): 5. The Teaching Professor is a lively, informative newsletter with a singular purpose: to provide ideas and insight to educators who are passionate about teaching.