Concept: A different form of “Blended Learning”

Introduction

For today’s post, I’d like to present an idea for an interesting approach to instruction blending aspects of e-Learning and Instructor-led classroom learning.

Instructor-led and e-Learning are two common methods of delivering instruction, each with their respective strengths and weaknesses. Because of these respective drawbacks, it’s common to use a “blended” approach that combines the best of both worlds while trying to avoid the respective drawbacks. The approach I’m describing today is a different take on the idea of blended learning.

As a refresher and introduction, though, I’d like to review a bit about the pros and cons of Instructor-led classroom and e-Learning. (Feel free to skip to the “Blended Learning” section if you’re already sufficiently familiar with these pros and cons.)

Instructor-led classroom

PROS:  

  • Learning costs less on the front end to design and develop and lesson plans and classroom aids.
  • Tends to make it easier to engage students and to read the student mood or level of attention and adapt accordingly, on the fly.
  • More flexibility in terms of assessment methods. Instructor can grade free-form texts and other presentations, and observe student demonstrations of skills, giving more fine-grained feedback.
  • Students have the benefit of face to face interactions with the teacher and other students.

CONS:

  • More expensive per student to deliver the learning on a marginal cost per student basis. There is also the cost of the classroom space and whatever support staff are needed to keep the classroom in order.
  • The learner has no control over the pace of the lesson or the content taught.
  • The pace will often be determined by the slower students, who might take up time with questions about material others already understand, and hold back how much can be covered.

e-Learning

PROS:

  • Lower marginal cost of delivery per student.
  • Easy to scale – it doesn’t make much difference whether the course files are served up to 50 students versus 5000, aside from added costs for server capacity and technical support demands. (And these additional costs are generally included in the per-student fee)
  • Can be entertaining and hold the students’ attention if the students if multimedia presentations with the right mix of flashy and informative are used.
  • Can engage the students if making use of strategies like storytelling of examples or using creative interactions like running through interactive case study scenarios or simulations.
  • Can potentially adapt to students or give flexibility so that they can skim faster or skip material they’re already familiar with.
  • The learner can go through the materials anywhere with a good internet connection and at any time they want.

CONS:

  • Substantial potential upfront and yearly maintenance costs if using a commercial Learning Management System (LMS) to register students, serve up class content, and track student progress. (Part of the student fees would need to contribute to covering these costs).
  • Substantial development costs for new e-Learning materials. Good e-Learning can take on the order of a few hundred hours of labor per hour for full analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation.
  • Often the entertainment and engagement potential of the medium is not realized due to budget limitations.
  • Isn’t as adaptable to the learner’s mood and attention levels while the student is taking the material, because currently no way to effectively measure this over the web. (Though, potentially, in the future, tech such as learning software using input from devices like the MS Kinect sensor could track facial characteristics and body language of boredom or confusion and pause on the fly to pause, offer some remediation, offer to go back, go into a more detailed explanation, or suggest good web-based materials to review.
  • Student can feel alienated and alone if there are not good social elements allowing interaction electronically with someone for help or with other students.
  • Difficulty with holding motivation to complete the course.

Blended learning

The relative strengths and shortcomings of these two methods of course delivery led to the idea of combining the two approaches. This gave the idea of “Blended Learning.”

Blended learning is another approach which aims to try to get the best of both worlds by having some elements taught by a live instructor and other parts using e-Learning. When this works, you get a “whole better than the sum of parts” effect. Blended learning can take different forms.

For example, a learner might watch a video presentation at home online introducing the subject matter in an interesting way and then come to class and spend the class time participating in group discussions or other activities or to ask questions to the instructor. (The format known as the flipped classroom is a good example of this)

Or, theoretical portions of a training course could be covered in e-Learning, modules while hands on practical exercises could be carried out with a live instructor in the lab or classroom.

Another approach is to use the web as a communications and collaboration platform within which the instructor can do synchronous presentation of content to a live web audience. Learners are able to ask questions during the presentation and communicate and work together with other students. These web platforms are called “virtual classrooms. ” One examples of such a platform is BigBlueButton . The virtual classroom takes a lot of the functionality of the live classroom experience, but delivers it through an online platform.

Another variant of this uses some of the same tools as the last, such as Blackboard / WebCT and also Moodle. Here, the class is taught in the classroom by an instructor (sometimes, but not always with video recordings of the lectures archived online for later reference). The online platform is a space that houses a lot of the administrative aspects of the course. This is the place to review the class syllabus and class schedule, download pdfs of course readings, see documentation about assignments, complete computer graded assignment sets or quizzes, read course announcements, and even submit soft copies of assignments. Typically, there are also communication tools like discussion forums, mail systems, and internet messaging / chat, where students can discuss and interact with each other about course content. Usually these are called Course Management Systems or Learning Management Systems.

e-Learning within the classroom: An alternate approach

I want to talk here about another option that blends e-Learning and the classroom. Whether this option would strictly be called blended learning could probably be disputed, but I’m making the argument based on the loosest possible literal definition: a solution that blends elements of e-Learning material and classroom learning in a synergistic fashion. In any case, the name is less important than the idea.

The idea is to use the e-Learning content as a teaching aid or frame for the lesson plan within the classroom. The e-Learning lesson is presented using an internet connected computer hooked up to a digital projector and speakers. The e-Learning module can present information in an entertaining way and help to set up and support classroom activities led by the instructor.

The e-Learning content here would in effect become another form of classroom multimedia. Much like an instructor would present video or animation or audio content to liven the class and show something in a more effective way than speaking and using the blackboard, the instructor uses the e-Learning as a classroom presentation aid, framing and scaffolding the flow of the lesson.

The e-Learning module would have the advantage that once the module is open, it ties together all the media you want to use within the lesson flow in one presentation, one package, everything already sequenced and cued up, ready for use. It simplifies and reduces the number of things to fiddle with during the class. An instructor could alternatively do something superficially similar with a laptop and a bunch of open windows on the desktop to play the different media files one by one. But it would be an added load to deal with all this, with the hassles and time wasted in searching for and finding the right item to bring up, of switching windows and then starting it up. This is attention and energy an instructor could better spend watching and interacting with the students. In the setup I’m describing, the sequence of materials would already be set up, and the instructor could flow from one piece of media or instructor-led interactive activity simply by clicking “Next.”

The menus and the navigation and control elements of the lesson presentation would also allow some customization by the instructor. The instructor could pause a video or multimedia presentation to add some clarification or further details. If the facts on the ground on that particular day of class required a deviation from the lesson plan, the teacher could use the lesson table of contents or slide menu to skip over sections or go back to a particular slide.

In effect, it is a computer supported pedagogy (andragogy).

Some might say that a PowerPoint presentation could also be a possible container for this sort of presentation. However, some sort of e-Learning package would allow better control of embedded slide media through player controls and allow better options for navigation through the material.

An example of how it might work

So how would this work? There are multiple possible instructional strategies and lesson structures that could be used. Let’s take a look a couple of examples of how it could work for different subjects.

 Example One: A history classroom

The teacher welcomes students to class and starts the presentation. The courseware shows the students a video describing the background scenario of some key event during the time period the students are currently studying. The video would ideally include period film footage (if recent enough) or music or photographs of people or buildings, or paintings, with narration over top to tell the story and the basic facts. This would then set up some critical moment where a group or a leader had to make a decision that shaped the course of events. The video would end with a segue to an in-class activity where the learners role play different key figures.

One or two static slides would be presented establishing the instructions and ground rules for the assignment.

The teacher would take over and lead the students in the activity. The students would discuss what they, as different characters in the historical events, would have been thinking, what would have been their goals and motivations, and their thought processes of what they perceived of the others’ motivations, and on what to do next. The teacher facilitates this discussion.

Once the discussion wraps up, the instructor clicks next to resume the presentation, which would continue on with video discussing what actually happened, what the key actors actually did, and what they thought and said about it, as recorded in primary documents. The video would then segue toward another in class activity, where the students discuss how what they predicted or suggested differed from the actual reality. The teacher could facilitate the discussion.

The courseware could support the activity again by presenting static visuals of some key questions to ask and consider.

Example Two: A science classroom

A science classroom could also use this approach to handle the combination of presenting concepts and looking at applications. As well, for the combination of demonstrating problem solving concepts and applying these concepts.

Again, the teacher could welcome the students to class and then start up the presentation. The presentation would go to a video with multimedia explaining a particular science concept. The abstract concept could be explained in an engaging, visual, concrete fashion. The video could then segue into a live classroom demonstration set up previously by the teacher. One of the benefits of having the courseware present the concept is that the teacher can use that time to make sure all the final details are ready for the demonstration.

The teacher gives the demonstration presenting the concept. There could be interactivity here, with the teacher asking students for their ideas of what will happen, and then, after carrying out the demonstration, the class could discuss the differences between what they thought would happen and what actually happened.

Then, the teacher could click to restart the lesson. The presentation could transition back to the courseware leading the way, showing a video or animation introducing an important formula related to the concept. The video could also set up and then solve a word problem related to the concept. The video would then close with a segue to a classroom activity where the students can try out a few similar problems on their own.  The courseware could display the wording for the problems on the screen.

The learners would work on the problems, while the teacher circulates, and giving help and feedback.

Benefits of the Approach

If executed properly, this approach allows a seamless blending of these two modes of delivery, web and instructor led. The two would complement each other, and flow from one to the other and back again during the classroom presentation.

Challenges

There are a few challenges to this approach.

First, and most obviously, the classroom needs a solid, dependable internet connection, particularly if video content is to be used within the presentation.

The e-Learning presentation also has to be set up with this instructional strategy and use case in mind. It should include introductory audio and images and/or video to segue into in-class activities and provide visual reinforcement of instructions for the activity. The presentation also has to include built-in “pause points” where it switches from watching a presentation to doing an activity.

Another criticism could be that using e-Learning as a classroom media or media and lesson container is that it would seem to miss the whole point of e-Learning. That is, you justify the usually exorbinant costs of the front end development of e-Learning by delivering to a large number of students. However, I’d respond to that on two fronts.

First, there are a number of rapid development tools out there that can make the process of e-Learning development quite straightforward, similar to that of making a nice PowerPoint, or even allowing the option to import and existing PowerPoint presentation and then use tools to augment the presentation. Some of the Articulate products, such as Studio and Storyline make things very simple and visual. A teacher or, for example, a subject based department in a high school could get a license for the software, and together build shared presentations. This would allow departments where multiple teachers with differing styles of teaching and differing levels of experience are teaching the same course to standardize a bit the presentation of the course material.

Second, another application would be for a company to build these sorts of presentations for different subjects in different courses and sell them to teachers or school boards as an off the shelf “lesson/unit/curriculum in a box.” This would give pre-packaged lesson plan structures, with media and in class activities ready to go.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *