HEA Starter Tools

Blended learning

What is blended learning?
Blended approaches use multiple methods to deliver learning by combining face-to-face interactions with online activities.

Where did blended learning come from?
Blended learning (sometimes referred to as hybrid learning) has a complex heritage that has evolved from the distance and open education movements and the development of online or e-learning. The earliest references to the term ‘blended learning’ are from the late 1990s and, since that time, definitions of its meaning have varied according to particular combinations of pedagogy and technologies (Friesen 2012). The detail of the ‘blend’ is context specific influenced by institutional culture, learner need and is often bounded by the digital capabilities of teachers. Blended approaches which include ‘flipped learning’ and ‘self-blended learning’ are gaining in popularity as educators grapple with the rising tide of digital technologies, the increasing sophistication of online courses (e.g. MOOCs) and increased student expectation of flexible and differentiated learning provision. Blending synchronous face-to- face learning with synchronous and/or asynchronous online components provides a powerful response to this challenge; and used innovatively, can build a valuable bridge from formalised education to informal learning spaces.

How does blended learning work?
Blended learning combines face-to-face and online activities in a seamless and complementary flow of learning. For example, in the flipped classroom, online activity is introduced before a face-to-face class, in the form of reading materials and other artefacts. These resources provide a springboard for students to conduct further online research through personal learning networks (PLN) and digital curation activities. Subsequent classroom time is spent in small groups with the aim of deepening this learning through problem-based activities. This weaving together of different modes of delivery with a purposeful pedagogical underpinning is one example of a blended approach that combines synchronous and asynchronous elements. Other blends might be purely synchronous and take the form of a face-to-face class in which some learners join remotely via web conferencing tools. In short, there is a huge range of different blended approaches; the balance between online and face-to-face components, and the integration of other methods, depends on the needs of learners and the context within which the learning is implemented. The more innovative of these approaches increase student engagement by enabling learning, thinking and conversation across multiple spaces and over time. 

Where is blended learning currently being used and how?
The potential of blended learning as a flexible, accessible and digitally enabled model has created a surge of interest among higher education institutions (HEIs) and caused a flurry of experimental practice.

Case studies are emerging which document the benefits of blended synchronous learning. These include the use of web conferencing tools to include remotely located students in face-to-face learning environments or to bring students together for problem-solving activities who are co-located across campuses. The recent ‘BlendSync’ project – a collaboration between the Australian government and a consortium of universities – has documented the innovative use of virtual worlds as a learning space to develop language skills and in which to develop a ‘blended reality’ classroom for teacher education (Bower et al. 2014).

At Rollins College in the US, (a liberal arts institution keen to develop its blended learning capacity) analysis of faculty competencies identified a gap in design capabilities for online and blended courses. As a result the college developed a six-week blended learning course for faculty to support staff in the redesign of courses for a blended environment. Rollins now intends to include blended elements in all of its academic programmes (Academic Commons 2014).

The University of Florida has used ‘learning analytics’ to inform its approach to blended learning. Data from 1.2 million end-of-course evaluations was mined and results suggest that, when compared to face-to-face and online learning, there is an advantage to the blended approach. According to lead analyst Chuck Dziuban, blended environments present new opportunity for innovative design and the creation of a high quality learning experience. Dziuban highlights 14 quality indicators for blended learning including clarity, authenticity, unity, suspense, economy, depth, proportion, vividness, brilliance, sensitivity, emphasis, authority, flow, and precision. He comments: “I am astounded by the fact that face-to-face courses have become the gold standard for excellence … it’s like there were no acoustic guitars until there were electric guitars.” In short, pedagogical design should be informed by technology in a symbiosis that moves beyond the face-to-face model (Emory 2014).

What are the potential benefits of blended learning?
The ‘unbundling’ of education into informal and digital spaces has numerous educational and economic benefits.

Blended asynchronous learning introduces more flexibility than students have traditionally been accustomed to. In doing so it empowers self-direction where students have more control over the pace and the spaces in which they learn. This flexibility is likely to increase with the advance of mobile technologies and an increased understanding of ‘m-learning’ techniques. The creative use of this technology provides new opportunities for students to interact with their peers, teachers and academic subjects.

Blended learning as part of a cohesive digital strategy, involving the development of ‘digital literacies’, confers real benefit to HEIs including a highly skilled faculty, the development of crucial 21st-century skills for students, and improved employment prospects for graduates.

Furthermore, the increased capacity enabled by extending the learning environment beyond conventional spaces enables universities to increase enrolment numbers and provide a more inclusive experience for those who are unable to participate in face-to-face classes (e.g. individuals with disabilities and part-time learners).

How do I get started with blended learning?
The new HEA knowledge hub is a good place to start and offers various resources linked to blended learning and related content.

This Blended Learning Toolkit from the University of Central Florida is an excellent place to start exploring blended learning. It includes support on course design principles, pedagogical practice, evaluation frameworks and ‘train the trainer’ materials for faculty.

What should I expect if I try this approach?
This report details Professor Edginton’s experience of designing blended learning courses in Pharmacokenetics at the University of Waterloo in Canada. It provides an insight into the challenges inherent in the process and situates the experience within the wider context of blended learning across Canada. See: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/blended-learning/.

Pursuing a blended model requires strong leadership and significant time commitment. Professor Edginton invested three months on iterative improvements to online delivery based on student feedback. It is also clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and each institution has to find their own way towards a contextual blend that works for their student body. As Provost and Vice-President at McMaster, David Wilkinson, has commented “Everybody is on a path – not always the same one, but moving in this direction” (University Affairs 2014).

Where can I learn more about blended learning?
Listen to, and join, the flipped learning conversation by following these hashtags on Twitter:


What other topics might I find interesting?

How else can the HEA support my professional development?
The UKPSF provides the framework for recording aspects of professional practice where Maker Culture could be included. Find out more about UKPSF.

Come to a HEA event to share your experiences with your peers – See https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/events-conferences

In your social media share your experiences of Maker Culture – you can tweet about it and include the #HEA to share it with those following the tag, or perhaps you can submit a guest blog posting through us. See https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/blog  


#blendedlearning #blendedlearninginfographics #edchat #blendchat

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