Tuesday, 29 March 2016

If you want to be productive, try blended learning

A new report from the Productivity Commission raises concerns that New Zealand's tertiary system needs to develop new models of working. The assumption is that universities have not changed and are still locked into a lecture-room mentality.

While I would debate that this is the case, given my own experience with online learning and innovative pedagogies, it has come to my attention that some 'academics/lecturers' are unable to see past the notion that teaching has to be face-to-face to be effective. Putting aside the question of how much these experts actually know about teaching (or learning), I want to make this point:

Academics could be more productive if they would open their minds to the possibilities of blended learning.

What is blended learning? 
Combining the best parts of on campus, workplace, community and online interaction, where the online communication can be synchronous and asynchronous and where learning management systems like Moodle form a foundation for critical discussion, individualised feedback, and plug-ins like Panopto enable video-casting, while wider social media expands the audience and interactive possibilities.

In any given week, I will present panopto mini-lectures and explanations to students; facilitate online discussion; give individualised feedback via dialogues or eportfolios; talk on the phone or via skype/appear.in and receive notifications of personal problems from students themselves or from our pastoral care administrator. Along with the rest of our teaching team, I met with students last month, for a block of oncampus time, and it was wonderful to see them in person and to teach, talk, listen and assess some work in a regular class setting. It was also exhausting and I can see how teaching full time on campus sucks the life blood out of my colleagues! When the students returned home, our work continued online and in their base schools and communities, and I felt things gradually settle into a productive pattern for all of us. I feel connected to the students I work with and I am proud of the quality of our interactions and pedagogical approach. I am especially proud of what the students accomplish when they qualify as teachers while juggling family, paid work and adult life.

Will it work for every subject?
Yes, blended learning can potentially work for every subject, where there is a will there is a way. If students need time in laboratory settings, arrange this for them on campus or elsewhere. That is part of the blend. Teacher educators like my colleagues in MMP successfully teach physical education, dance, drama, music, visual arts, science, mathematics, literacy, technology, te reo and all manner of other subjects via a blended approach. I have a colleague in chemistry who swears by YouTube clips and simulations, and another in electronics who sent students down to their local hardware store to obtain components and then the students' whole families got involved in constructing circuits in the kitchen.
Let's try to think outside the square and find some imagination.
And no, it doesn't all have to be online. That is the point of a blended approach.

Will it work for every student?
Why wouldn't it work if the approach is individualised to the student's needs? Some students may need to meet more often in person, to have additional structure, targeted feedback,  or to have disability taken into account. This doesn't mean they will do better in an on campus programme with lectures, tutorials or labs, and dinosaur teachers.

I have learned from recent interviews with alumni from the first MMP cohort (1997-1999) that study groups in their local communities were a significant support for them. Students in the same region would get together over coffee every week and sometimes more often, to support each other and talk about their assignments, throughout the entire three years of their degree. And some of these study groups became lifelong bonds, with members still in touch after 19 years.

What I'm saying is that if students need to meet in person, this needn't be with the lecturer in every case. Peer support is important. To meet with a lecturer, students can phone, make an appointment to visit, or talk via skype or appear.in
There have been times when I've travelled, particularly to Tauranga, to meet with students too. I see less of a need for it these days, as students use the alternative avenues suggested in between on campus blocks.

In terms of structure, I like to have an organised approach myself, so I start each week with a list of priorities for students to work on in each class. As well as listing these at the top of our online paper, I email them to every student, and then sit with my teaching partner/s to talk students through what is coming up (via Panopto).

In terms of individualised feedback, it is a nonsense to suggest that students on campus get more of this. Large classes are just a blur of bodies and backpacks! I certainly did not receive individualised feedback in Education 101 when I studied with 150 others, and as a first-year (Fresher, in Otago), I was far too intimidated to ever make an appointment to talk with my lecturers.

Online, we have an Individual Tutorial Dialogue space with each and every student. Students readily pick up the phone to ask a quick question, and receive a quick answer. And when students have a query at 2am, chances are there will be another student online in our 'Can anyone help?' space to come to the rescue. It is a great feeling when students gain independence and interdependence with peers, which bodes well for the teachers and professional colleagues they will become.

I've provided written bullet points to accompany panoptos for a student with a hearing impairment. Now graduated, he was able to fully participate in every aspect of the online class, and thrived in asynchronous online discussion with his peers. But on campus, he had to rely on interpreters to sign and note-takers to help him keep up. Blended learning enhances equity of access by enabling students to study without leaving their families and communities for prolonged periods, reducing the cost and helping mature people to take up new learning opportunities.

But one size doesn't fit all!!
What is there about blended learning that suggests it only comes in one size? Not all campus-based teaching/learning is created equal, and the sky is the limit when it comes to personalising learning in a blended format. By definition, there are more options when we blend diverse contributions to a student's education.

So what has all of this got to do with productivity?
I honestly believe that teaching online and in a blended mode has helped me to become more productive as an academic. I listen to colleagues wrestling with timetable clashes and room bookings, wondering how they can be in three places at once, if there even is a suitable venue to gather their class. I hear people say that they don't have time for their research, administration and service, let alone to have a life because they are too busy teaching, with too many classes and too many students, and too much pressure on their precious time!

Get a life! Try blended learning. Done well, your students will thank you for it! And you just might be able to shift a little time to do a few other things well too.

When I finish writing this post, I'll check online and answer student queries, and I'll monitor the current discussion and respond to two of the groups. I can call it a day and go home to my family and in the morning, (I might even work from home!), after checking back online and finishing the last of the eportfolio feedback, I will shut down Moodle and take some research time. If the phone rings, it will be because a student needs my immediate support, and I'll be there, but I won't be lugging my notes over to any dusty lecture theatres and I don't have any crusty powerpoint slides to revive. As for the laboratory, I hope the students have a good day in their base school!


  1. I'm all for blended learning but if it sells itself why the need to add scare adjectives to everything traditional. Just sell the theory, the sales pitch lingo which saturates this polemic does more to lose your audience then convince.

  2. Thanks for comment Daniel, seems it has attracted an audience after all, as provocative pieces tend to do! Not sure blended learning sells itself as the recent meeting I attended suggests there are many who are far from convinced. Also unsure what "scare" adjectives are? My aim is not to sell anything, I'm a teacher, not a salesperson :) If you are all for blended learning, then you don't need convincing in any case. You might tell us why you are all for it, share something of your own experience, link to your own blog or add to the debate in some way... Please do so.