Dr B K Mukhopadhyay
(The author is a Professor of Management and Economics, formerly at IIBM (RBI) Guwahati. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr. Boidurjo Rick Mukhopadhyay
(The author, international award-winning development and management economist, formerly a Gold Medalist in Economics at Gauhati University)
"If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow" — John Dewey once opined.
Though this concept isn't entirely new, it certainly reached new heights and application since the lockdown started in early 2020. From industry to universities, individuals to groups, leaders to virtual managers, and surely gig workers and their platform employers, amongst all other working groups in the global civil society, settled with the technology-enhanced workplace to manage #WFH. However, for higher education institutions, online teaching became a necessity; some did it better, more effectively and faster than others. Those who could not adapt lost out in the competition. Several terms are being used interchangeably in this context – 'blended learning', 'hybrid learning', 'technology-mediated instruction', and 'mixed-mode instruction'.
As much there is to learn from the successes and challenges experienced by faculty who has developed, implemented, and assessed their courses in search of an effective model of blended learning instruction, equally the students who have experienced blended learning directly have much to share with us so that the current models can further develop.
An awareness of the benefits and challenges of blended learning certainly helps in the course design process, as it enables the instructor to make informed decisions about how to blend the online and face-to-face components. There is a lack of robust studies in the field of blended learning in teacher preparation programs. Clearly, further research and examples of various blended course models, including the unique elements of blended learning that differs from other models of instruction would come to much practical use at this hour.
Some of the most common benefits of blended learning are A) Flexibility; B) Learners can work at their own pace and with personalized curriculum, C) Reinforcement of learning, and D) added engagement with peers. In a study of blended teacher's beliefs on the affordances and constraints of blended learning, many reported that a key benefit to the blended experience was the opportunity to meet face-to-face, as they believe their social presence and content expertise had a greater impact during in-person classes. Furthermore, many claimed the benefit of the online component of a blended course was the continuous access and availability of the course learning management system (LMS), with a repository of content resources and grades and enabled fast and frequent communication.
To ensure a smooth and meaningful blended course, online and face-to-face components need to be integrated into a comprehensive whole. In a blended course, the face-to-face and online components must connect with each other and flow meaningfully from one medium to the next. For example, if one of the online modules for a course contains a presentation on a key topic, the face-to-face meeting can follow up with a facilitated group discussion on the topic. This is often the intent of flipped classrooms. Students need multiple passes through the content, often through different media, to better construct knowledge.
Blended learning models
At advanced institutions, even blended learning models can be blended together and many implementations use some, many, or even all of these as dimensions of larger blended learning strategy. Some of the conventional models are (A) Face-to-face driver - where the teacher drives the instruction and augments with digital tools. (B) Rotation - Students cycle through a schedule of independent online study and face-to-face classroom time. (C) Flex - Most of the curriculum is delivered via a digital platform and teachers are available for face-to-face consultation and support. (D) Labs - All of the curricula is delivered via a digital platform but in a consistent physical location. Students usually take traditional classes in this model as well. (E) Self-blend - Students choose to augment their traditional learning with online course work. (F) Online driver - Students complete an entire course through an online platform with possible teacher check-ins. All curriculum and teaching are delivered via a digital platform and face-to-face meetings are scheduled or made available, if necessary.
Surely, one of the first advantages is that blended learning helps to connect a larger audience in a shorter time as opposed to traditional 'classroom' or even a large theatre. In addition, blended learning doesn't require the trainer to be present all the times. However, for some training topics requiring practical and hands-on activities, the transition to online training isn't always possible, nor feasible.
Another benefit would be while people can complete assignments independently, they can come to class with the same level of informed-ness or in some cases, knowledge. There is more time for useful discussions and to practice experiential learning. The feedback loop can also improve when the assessment type and period are synced and monitored well. In particular, providing formative feedback is crucial. Plagiarism and credibility problem may, however, appear as an unavoidable downside. Timers, randomised questions (so all participants get a different selection of questions for their test), and also secure browsers that block web navigation could help prevent participants from looking up answers during online tests or courses.
Unless successfully planned and executed, blended learning could have disadvantages since it has a strong dependence on the technical resources or tools with which the blended learning experience is delivered. These tools need to be reliable, easy to use, and up to date, for them to make a meaningful impact on the learning experience. IT literacy can serve as a significant barrier for students attempting to get access to the course materials, making the availability of high-quality technical support paramount. Also, when it comes to providing feedback, detailed ones, using e-learning platforms can be more time consuming than traditional methods. New costs as e-learning platforms and service providers may charge user fees to educators.
So, is it better? We are headed to the future of learning anyway
A study in Melbourne shows that 57% of the respondents viewed that blended instruction is reportedly more effective than purely face-to-face or purely online classes. Blended learning methods can also result in high levels of student achievement, more effective than face-to-face learning. "Rather than playing to the lowest common denominator - as they would in a traditional classroom - teachers can now streamline their instruction to help all students reach their full potential." Advocates of blended learning argue that incorporating the "asynchronous Internet communication technology" into higher education courses serves to "facilitate a simultaneous independent and collaborative learning experience". This incorporation is a major contributor to student satisfaction and success.
Proponents of blended learning cite the opportunity for data collection and customization of instruction and assessment as two major benefits of this approach. Blended learning often includes software that automatically collects student data and measures academic progress, providing teachers, students and parents detailed student data. e.g., tests are automatically scored, providing instantaneous feedback. Student logins and work times are also measured to ensure accountability. Schools with blended learning programs may also choose to reallocate resources to boost student achievement outcomes.
A classroom environment that incorporates blended learning naturally requires learners to demonstrate more autonomy, self-regulation, and independence in order to succeed. "Blended learning allows students to work at their own pace, making sure they fully understand new concepts before moving on." If teachers offer a form of initial programme orientation before introducing blended learning strategies, it can better prepare students to feel confident navigating the different components and developing a stronger sense of independence.
The advantages of blended learning are dependent on the quality of the programmes being implemented. Some indicators of excellent blended learning programmes are "facilitating student learning, communicating ideas effectively, demonstrating an interest in learning, organizing effectively, showing respect for students, and assessing progress fairly". Above all, the process needs well-thought-through monitoring processes. It is not about only the learning experience, quality of instructors and content, adherence to privacy laws and related consideration, IT access issues, inclusivity, but also to ensure that a well-designed participatory engagement in a holistic form can be supported and sustained.