Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Blended learning: Some constraints and enablers

Recently I was asked for my thoughts on what enables university lecturers to teach online and in a blended fashion, and what I consider to be the key issues that dissuade staff from teaching online. As always, I welcomed the opportunity to share my perspective. What follows are a few salient points from my perspective and as such is just my perspective, and not intended to be definitive or generalisable, or even particularly evidence-based in any rigorous way.

To begin with, a little clarification: by blended learning, I am referring to any combination of online classes and face-to-face tuition, including lectures, tutorials, labs, workshops, block courses, supervision meetings, practicum, papers in institutional learning management systems, asynchronous online discussion, pod/vodcasting, synchronous meetings and so on.

I base my perspective, as we all do, on my own experiences as an online teacher and on reading, reflecting, listening to students and colleagues, and gradually building up a picture of the way things are in my working context. In a nutshell, this context is bounded by:
  • 13 years of teaching online in a single faculty within a single university within teacher education programmes at undergraduate and masters level
  • Waikato’s Bachelor of Teaching Mixed Media Programme, (MMP) teaching geographically dispersed students who attend block courses on campus, base school placements, and work a/synchronously via Moodle
  • Coordinating online option papers focused on communication technologies
  • Taking part in mentoring schemes for online teachers with York and within Waikato
  • Building a body of research associated with online pedagogies, including a doctorate looking deeply at online discussion

Informed by this background, I see the following as among the key enablers and constraints:

Myths that constrain
1. That online study is not as good as face-to-face. It has seemingly been taken for granted that what happens online can never quite measure up to the ‘real’ experience of being face-to-face. Why would you choose to learn online if you could attend in person? 

2. Not for my subject! How do you study ‘hands-on’ subjects like fine arts, dance, drama, physical education and practical science online?

3. From a student’s point of view, if a course is online does this mean I will be ‘teaching myself’ and therefore missing out? Students based on a satellite campus may well believe that the lecturer cares more if they travel and show up in person rather than ‘putting a course online’.

My brief response (because this is a blog post not a book) to those myths follows:

1.     Teaching and learning online offers a myriad of advantages, including the ability to time-shift and work at the teacher/learner’s convenience, which is also a good exercise in building time management capacities. Avoiding a commute, working around other responsibilities, and maintaining an electronic record of course materials (lectures, podcasts, tutorial discussions, etc) are just a few other practical advantages. Other learning advantages include the depth of thinking that is afforded by asynchronous online discussion in particular, where there is time to think, compose and revisit a discussion topic over a period of days.

2.     Teaching and learning online needn’t involve being ‘hands-on’ the computer the whole time, and can promote learning that is as actively engaged as any other format. For example, I favour a ‘do and report’ style, whereby students are challenged to go and try out a particular practical challenge before sharing it in an online forum via written reports and video footage. Many a science experiment has been carried out in a kitchen after all.  I recall one student in particular telling me that she wanted to try out some basic circuitry so sent her husband out to Dick Smith for equipment, and then the whole family got invoved in home-based electronics. You see, the MMP students study at home so they use what they have to experiment. Lecturers in the Mixed Media Programme have taught every learning area in the New Zealand Curriculum, via on campus blocks, school placements and online tuition.

3.     As an online teacher, I work hard to be there for students, to provide instruction, guidance and feedback in a timely fashion, and I care deeply. I don’t need to drive across the region several times a week to prove it. While our on campus blocks are a special time to get together, build rapport and set the tone for our work online, we sustain effective learning and teaching online and students build a strong network of peer support.

Of course it follows that one way to encourage staff to teach online is to remove the constraints and dispel the myths – by raising awareness of how blended teaching and learning can be used in any subject of study and can be better than the status quo, particularly if the status quo is a 50 minute lecture followed by a weekly tutorial.

A key enabler for online teachers is: Advocacy and mentoring
There are several aspects to this:

1.     Leadership - including the expectation from line managers that staff will teach online and that this is normalized and part of the job, along with provision of support needed to make it happen

2.     eLearning advocates – people you can go to when you want to talk over a concern or find out how to do something online. People who lend a supportive ear, and who say ‘let me help, let me show you’

3.     Mentoring – very much like the elearning advocates, but mentors can be more formally involved, and may be from outside of the institution. For example, Waikato has a mentoring partnership with the University of York where online teachers give peer support and guidance.

4.     Team teaching – I teach alongside talented colleagues who teach me something new every semester. We share responsibility for the students’ learning, and split teaching tasks, while collaborating to teach and assess in innovative ways. I am forever grateful that I learned to teach online by working alongside the late Nola Campbell, who balanced support and challenge as she showed me the ropes. These days, I work with a couple of esteemed colleagues who are more than happy to experiment with different approaches to teaching and assessment. Two examples are eportfolios with Jenny and provocative prompts with Bill

5.     Case studies of effective practice. There is nothing better than a ‘show ‘n’ tell’ session where a colleague opens up their practice to share what they did and why, what worked, what did not, and how they know. Within our faculty, sharing practice is helpful (e.g., at elearning brown bag lunches), and outside our faculty there are often excellent takeaway teaching ideas from the likes of WCELFest 

6.     Student success stories bring the possibilities to life. This is how we know we are on the right track. I’ve spoken to graduates of MMP who are grateful for the opportunities that the distance programme afforded them, and who are assets to the teaching profession. You see, some of the MMP students are former teacher aides living in rural areas with family responsibilities. It is very difficult indeed to leave home to go to university as a mature adult with multiple responsibilities, and for some a city-based campus experience is not practical in reality. Being able to study online from home, with support from a base school in the local community, with regular visits from a university liaison lecturer, is a way forward. MMP has a successful track record spanning 18 years at this point. Long may it continue! If any graduates of MMP are reading this, please do get in touch to share your success stories :-)

In conclusion, what I’m saying is that there are myths about online/blended learning that prevent university staff from trying it out. On the other hand, there are ways of advocating for effective online pedagogy and mentoring staff as they take the plunge.

What enables or constrains you as an online teacher and learner?

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