Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Variety in the blend

Getting ready for a new semester, I am pondering the fact that until recently I have described my teaching as "mostly online" or "fully online". However, there has gradually been a shift in how I see this online teaching, since most of it occurs in a blended context, to a greater or lesser extent.

By ways of explanation, looking ahead to the coming semester, I am teaching four classes, and each is either online or blended to some degree. I'm using this post to think-aloud about the elements of blended learning in my classes and how they differ in the intent and timing of the face-to-face.

I like this Mindflash explanation of blended learning, because it includes mention of flipped learning as well as structured independent study. Other definitions stipulate that the online study should replace some of the face-to-face component, rather than being merely an add-on, which is an important point in terms of workload management for students and staff. Still other definitions do a great job of illustrating some of the variations possible, both in terms of models and quality.

In semester B, I am teaching:

One fully online class, an undergraduate elective, entitled 'Learning through ICT: Issues, perspectives, and strategies'. We'll call it the ICT option.

One mixed media class, a compulsory paper for students in our Bachelor of Teaching, Mixed Media Presentation, entitled 'Curriculum and Assessment'. We'll call it the MMP core paper.

A masters level 'research methods' class, compulsory for students as a precursor to the research component of their masters degree. Let's call it the masters class.

And a new class for me: Originally an on campus offering, entitled 'The teaching and learning process: Innovative approaches', which I have elected to blend with online components. This one will be referred to as the new blended course.

In each of these three classes, there is a continuum from fully online to blended study, and the blend occurs in different ways.

For example, the ICT option is fully online. It caters for students who are located at a distance from the university, often in their final semester of study, and is sometimes taken by students who have timetable clashes with other options. I see it as "full immersion in online study", and explain it this way to students. The online interaction takes place in Moodle, and is comprised of asynchronous discussion, opportunities for synchronous chat, and video-conferencing. Resources include video and electronic text materials, and websites. Students are encouraged to 'do and report back' when it comes to exploring new technologies (e.g., social media tools), and interviewing teachers and learners about their use of ICT. I'd be reluctant to add a compulsory on campus component to this optional course, or to mandate synchronous work, as the students who take the paper have opted into an ICT-rich experience, and are often already challenged by distance and scheduling. So far, paper appraisals indicate that students are happy with the fully online design, and appreciative of flexibility and choice.

In contrast, the MMP core paper begins with two compulsory lecture/workshop sessions f2f, as part of the week-long intensive block of on campus times for students in this initial teacher education programme. In every class, there is a firm expectation of attendance on campus, in part due to Education Council requirements for the ITE qualification. When we meet with the students on campus, we take time to build a rapport, establish expectations, workshop complex concepts, and prepare students for ongoing work and assessments online. For MMP students, meeting on campus is an essential ingredient in the MMP blend - along with work in schools, community study groups, and online. Time spent with peers and staff on campus is of interpersonal importance, cultivating relationships that are then developed and sustained online as a learning community. I often say to students on campus that my aim is to "put them at ease and rev them up simultaneously" in that I want them to be reassured that they are facing an achievable challenge, so they leave feeling ready to tackle their learning with energy and enthusiasm.

The masters class is in between the ICT option and the MMP core paper, in terms of the blend of online and face-to-face interaction. While it started as a fully online paper, and many of the students are in similar circumstances to those in the ICT option, the students working at masters level can be less comfortable with working entirely online. Although they are often working full time (e.g., in school leadership or as educational consultants), and are geographically dispersed, the masters students are often compelled to take the online version of the paper due to the timing of the offering. That is, it is offered in semester B, and they have to take it before they embark on their research project (directed study, dissertation or thesis). The same paper is offered on campus in semester A, and in summer school as a blended offering, but students may find the July-October timeslot suits their circumstances, so they find themselves working online. I am particularly sympathetic to international students who travel to NZ, only to find themselves taking an online class! The online format can be challenging when many of the concepts are new and complex, and even controversial - ethics and paradigms can be tough to engage with online! We keep things lively with online debates and screen video-interviews with active researchers, but there are times when the students want to meet and talk through their own projects, and to puzzle through some of the challenges of research in a face-to-face context. In response to this, we have started to offer informal meeting opportunities - for students who can make it to the campus - to discuss concepts, experiences, projects and assigned work. Last year, Noeline and I instigated this prior to an assignment and found the students were so relieved to meet with us, and with each other in person, there was an overall stress-release when we met with students to offer reassurance and talk through research challenges. So that students who could not make the on campus meeting did not miss out, we produced a video-summary (Panopto) immediately after the meeting to go over the key points raised, and to clarify points of interest to the group. In the semester ahead, we plan to do this optional meet then follow-up video-cast, about three times - near the beginning, middle, and toward the end of the semester. Of course we have always been available for appointments and phone calls, including skype and appear.in conferencing, but meeting on campus as a group will be an ongoing part of the design in this paper.

While the masters class barely nods toward blended learning with a small number of f2f meetings, I am taking a new blended course where we will experiment further with blended and flipped learning. Having inherited this paper very recently, it came with a weekly lecture, followed by a weekly tutorial (with two timeslots for students to join the tutorial so as to work in smaller groups, as their timetable allowed). Given my preferences for A) online learning and teaching; and B) working smarter; and also considering that C) the paper is about innovative approaches to learning and teaching, I have redesigned this option. This year, students will work on campus for one session a week, which will be a workshop in which we will learn about a range of pedagogies, work with guest experts (my learned colleagues), and engage in hands-on activities. We'll continue our learning online each week, with preparation for the on campus class, which will take the form of a video to view and analyse, an article written by the guest expert, an interview with the guest, a discussion to elicit prior knowledge, or a mini-investigative task. Obviously, this is an attempt to flip the learning and to create continuity between sessions. Following each face-to-face class, students will continue to discuss the topic online, in an asynchronous Moodle forum, moderated by me, and with a couple of follow-up posts from our guest expert. We know that groups of 10 are ideal for this purpose, to enable deeper interaction and reflective learning through the discussion. I'm excited to see how this plays out, and the extent to which it challenges students while enabling their learning. I'll follow that up, so watch this space!

In conclusion, I would say there are many ways of blending learning, and many reasons for doing so. (See Noeline's recent post also). Sometimes, this is about meeting the needs of diverse students, and it might even seem contradictory at times since it can be about reassuring students, ensuring their comfort, but can also be about challenging students to move out of their comfort zone. Neither is blending learning all about the students, as we are increasingly being reminded of the need to work strategically (smarter) and to reduce the time we spend on teaching, while maintaining the quality of our teaching. While this may seem an impossible challenge, I have explained elsewhere that I value the flexibility, and time-shifting efficiencies of online teaching. I'm more and more convinced that blended learning is an effective way to survive and manage tertiary teaching, while maintaining high quality pedagogy in terms of student engagement, deep learning, rich feedback and relevant experiences.

How about you, readers? Care to add your voice to our discussion of variety in blended learning?