Strategic Blended Learning in Higher Education

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In spring 2021, inspired by feedback from students, I redesigned my two undergraduate education courses as blended learning courses.

While I was familiar with the benefits of blended learning (e.g., flexibility, increased student engagement, improved academic achievement), what I didn’t realize was how essential this model was for teaching in the wake of a global pandemic. Throughout spring 2021, I heard from several of my colleagues about students who fell behind because they missed multiple weeks of classes due to the pandemic, family emergencies, and other mental and physical health issues. Yet, in my courses, the blended learning model made it possible for students to make up any classes they missed within the same week and stay on track. My Monday interactive virtual Zoom classes were recorded so students who missed a class could watch it later, and my Wednesday classes featured design-based learning activities that could be completed in groups, or, for students who were not able to make it to class, individually at home.

As we look to the future of higher education, blended learning might be the model students need as they navigate an ever-changing and ever-challenging world. Several meta-analysis research studies have already shown that blended learning leads to consistently better effects on students’ academic outcomes compared to traditional in-person learning (e.g., Li et al., 2019; Vallée et al., 2020).

So, what is blended learning? Broadly speaking, it is “the strategic combination of online and in-person instruction” (Graham et al., 2019, p. 11). But, what does the strategic combination of online and in-person instruction really look like in higher education?

Let’s unpack this a bit by looking at the two main components: in-person instruction and online instruction.

In-person instruction

In-person instruction is the teaching and learning that happens when the students and instructor are together in a physical space. The key thing here is having people together in the same physical space.

One question you might ask yourself before designing in-person instruction is: “Why does everyone need to be together in the same physical space?”

If you are simply going to lecture at students, they do not need to be in the same physical space as you.  In fact, a recent study showed that in a HyFlex class, online students were more engaged and felt it was easier to ask questions during lectures compared to in-person students (University of Copenhagen, 2021).

In-person instruction should be designed to take advantage of the affordances of having everyone together in the same space. This might look like:

  • A makerspace, Shark Tank, or hackathon event: Have students build a physical or digital object that connects to the class content (e.g., design a cardboard mini golf game that demonstrates three different engineering practices; transform a children’s book into an augmented reality learning experience; build a board game that teaches younger students about civic engagement; design an invention to address one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).
  • A press conference : Ask students to collaboratively devise a set of interview questions, and interview you (or a guest speaker) to gain knowledge about an event or phenomena related to class. Then write a press release or design a news report video to inform others about what they learned.
  • Role play or debate: Engage students in acting out or debating an important concept, event, action, or experience.
  • Team scavenger hunt: Invite students to go on a walk around the room or building to find hidden objects or look for specific things related to class (e.g., take photos of the inaccessible design features in the building; look for hidden QR codes around the building and complete the challenges provided).
  • Escape Room: Challenge students to collaboratively “unlock” the classroom door by solving a series of puzzles and challenges. Or, they could break into a box.
  • Challenge-based learning: Give students an authentic local, national, or global issue to solve as a team using the Design Thinking process.
  • Multimedia Production: Have students engage in the design of a TikTok-style video, public service announcement, podcast, series of posters to be displayed in the hallways, or other media. Tip: Ask students to construct new knowledge (e.g., design a TikTok that teaches this concept to your family) rather than to summarize/repeat information from class (e.g., design an infographic that showcases the historical events we discussed in class today). See this digital media design student choice board for multimedia design tools.

In each of these activities, students are invited to socially construct their knowledge through hands-on, minds-on learning, designing, and building experiences that bring everyone together in the same physical space.

Online instruction

Online instruction refers to the teaching and learning that happens in a web-based setting. There are two main types of online instruction: synchronous online instruction and asynchronous online instruction.

Synchronous online instruction is when teaching and learning happen in real time with the assistance of a video conferencing tool (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams) or another real-time collaboration tool (e.g., Google Jamboard, Hypothes.is, YoTeach). Synchronous online instruction offers students a convenient way to engage in class from wherever they choose and can reduce external barriers to attendance such as transportation, campus parking, and in many cases, physical and mental health issues. Additionally, videoconferencing tools afford new ways for students to interact with their peers and the instructor, including through the text chat box which allows students to share their thoughts, respond to prompts, and see their peers’ thinking in real time, and breakout rooms which can allow for quick conversations or group project work (something that is much harder to do in a large in-person lecture class).

Asynchronous online instruction is when teaching and learning do not take place at the same time or place, such as going through an online tutorial or participating in an online discussion forum. Asynchronous online instruction provides flexibility and convenience in learning by allowing students to learn at their own pace and time. It also offers students more time to engage deeply with the class content because they are not required to respond in real time to the instructors’ prompts.

While both of these modes of online instruction offer exciting new affordances, far too often online learning is designed in a way that replicates in-person instruction and domesticates technology to fit within traditional teaching practices (Prestridge, 2022). But, it does not have to be this way! Online instruction might look like:

  • An interactive online lecture with multiple means of engagement (synchronous): As you present students with new information, give them multiple opportunities to showcase their attention and engagement (e.g., respond to a prompt in the chat box; create a sketchnote or meme and post in a shared class slide deck; design a mindmap or visual representation and add to a collaborative class Jamboard).
  • An interactive online learning experience with multiple means of engagement (asynchronous): Engage students in a self-paced learning activity where they can explore the content at their own pace and time and showcase their engagement in multiple ways. Check out this Nearpod interactive online lesson as an example.
  • A choose your own adventure learning experience (asynchronous): Provide students with a “What would you do?” scenario via a branching Google Form that engages them in thinking critically about the course content. Every time they input an answer, the form can take them to a different page based on their response (see the UChange Uimpact UMass example).
  • A local scavenger hunt (synchronous or asynchronous): Ask students to find three objects from around their living space (or whatever space they join class from) related to the class topic. The more unrelated to class content the object is, the deeper the student must think to draw a creative connection (e.g., a student might share how a crocheted blanket relates to the laws of thermodynamics). Students can showcase their objects in real-time or take a photo and share it on a collaborative Padlet or Google slide deck. You might even have students vote on the object with the most creative description!
  • A digital choice board activity (asynchronous): Provide students with a digital choice board that deepens their thinking and learning about the class content to complete at their own pace and time (see Women’s History Month Choice Boards).
  • A social annotation party (synchronous; but could also be done asynchronously): Invite students to annotate an article, blog, document, or other text-based source in real-time during class. They could annotate the class syllabus in a Google Doc or use Hypothes.is to annotate a recent news article related to the class content (e.g., critically examine how this New York Times interactive features visual data).

These are just a few examples of how to engineer online learning experiences in ways that take advantage of the affordances of online instruction. In each of these examples, the learner is not simply doing something they would in a physical space. Instead, they are interacting with their peers, the content, and the instructor in new ways with the affordances of digital tools and apps.

If you are not familiar with digital tools and apps that might enrich your online instruction, browse my student-designed free open access eBook Online Tools for Teaching and Learning to get started.

Putting it all together: Blending in-person and online instruction

Now that we have unpacked the two components of blended learning (in-person instruction and online instruction), how do you combine them?

You might do what I did and start the week with an interactive online lecture and then have students attend class in person and apply what they learned through a design-based learning activity. You might transform an in-person class into a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities (e.g., students could complete a choice board on their own or in pairs to learn more about the class topic, devise a set of interview questions, and then interview the guest speaker in a real-time press conference). You could even have students individually engage in an interactive online learning experience via Nearpod to develop their own understanding of the class topic first before coming to an in-person class where they participate in a challenge-based learning activity in teams.

No matter what arrangement you choose, the key is to strive for a “strategic combination of online and in-person instruction” (Graham et al., 2019, p. 11). That means considering what affordances each type of instruction offers and taking advantage of these affordances so you can have the best of both worlds.


References

Graham, C. R., Borup, J., Short, C. R., & Archambault, L. (2019). K-12 blended teaching: A guide to personalized learning and online integration. Provo, UT: EdTechBooks.org. http://edtechbooks.org/k12blended

Li, C., He, J., Yuan, C., Chen, B., & Sun, Z. (2019). The effects of blended learning on knowledge, skills, and satisfaction in nursing students: A meta-analysis. Nurse education today, 82, 51-57.

Moore, M. (1989). Editorial: Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-7.

Prestridge, S. (2022). Moving on from the pandemic in school-a roadmap to flexible modalities. Routledge Open Research, 1(24), 24.

University of Copenhagen. (2021). Online students engage more in lectures than physical attendees. Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2021-09-online-students-engage-physical-attendees.html

Vallée, A., Blacher, J., Cariou, A., & Sorbets, E. (2020). Blended learning compared to traditional learning in medical education: systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(8), e16504.


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