Blended Learning: The New Paradigm?

What is blended learning and why is it relevant?

Blended learning implies a combination between traditional, classroom-based face to face teaching methods, and methods made possible by modern technology/computing, often supported via online platforms. Thus, some of the interactions between staff and students happen in person/real-time and some are divided by either time or space or both. An exact definition of blended learning, or more precisely, the percentages of traditional versus online teaching that qualify a course as “blended” are up for debate (p. 62): Some authors define it as 30-80% online content, while others require at least 50% of the material to be traditionally taught, and a third group might consider the addition of any technological element blended learning – including the simple existence of an LMS (i.e., Learning Management System). Some other terms often used interchangeably or with little variation to refer to the same phenomenon are “hybrid learning” or “mixed-mode learning”.

What does the research say about blended learning?

So, does blended learning actually bring any advantages, and is there a consensus in this sense? In a 2015 review of meta-analyses and systematic reviews on blended learning titled “The History and State of Blended Learning”, Skrypnyk and her colleagues give a fairly straight-forward answer to the question: In essence, all of the studies in their sample showed an improvement in student academic achievement when blended learning was employed, as opposed to single modes of teaching (i.e., either only online or face to face). This was true regardless of the precise percentages of face to face and online instruction.

Nonetheless, consensus has not truly been reached (p.73) on whether these effects would always occur with blended learning, to what extent, and about what the specific underlying mechanisms are, due to several problems with the relevant literature: First, some of the studies did not account for confounding variables (e.g., increased overall spending and tutor involvement in blended learning courses), making causality hard to determine. Another issue is that a lot of the “blended learning” literature uses differing definitions: If, as noted above, one was to consider the simple addition of an LMS blended learning, this situation would conceivably lead to quite different results from one in which specialized student-centered online tools would be used, say, 50% of the time, in a course in which teachers have also been specifically been trained to practice distance as well as face to face pedagogy, and to use the digital tools at their disposal creatively. A third problem is the lack of standardization in studies when assessing student outcomes: Some studies go as far as including course evaluations, standardized student assessment results, various tests, inventories and measures of attitudes, satisfaction etc. while others will focus on type of learning (e.g., problem solving vs facts; declarative vs. procedural knowledge) or on unidimensional, quantitative measures of academic achievement (which the authors deem possibly reductionist). These issues understandably hamper generalizability of findings, along with the degree of confidence one can have in them.

Nonetheless, the largely unanimous verdict is that blended learning does improve educational outcomes, regardless of measurement or definition. This result being extracted from multiple meta-analyses, it should still be regarded as a promising positive signal. Hopefully, research will continue to discover the particularities of how this instructional strategy should be employed for maximum gain.

What are some more specific concerns and findings regarding blended learning and its implementation?

Other findings that might reveal best practices in blended learning are pointed out by Skrypnyk and colleagues. A collection of them is offered below.

The use of technology

For example, several studies (p.75) were found to indicate that a low or medium level of technology usage, alongside face to face instruction, tends to produce better outcomes than technology use alone (i.e., standard online learning), although a possible confound here is the fact that the taught subject matter may also influence the results – thus, specific subjects are clearly better suited to specific instructional methods, although research is not yet developed enough to offer details. Additionally, the nature of the employed technology was important: tools providing students cognitive support seemed more efficient than those providing solely communication capabilities or simple support for content or presentations.

Instructional methods

Regarding instructional methods (p.76), the review points out that collaborative/team learning and teacher-led instruction elicited far better academic achievement than independent learning, and additionally, that at least two or even three types of interaction (i.e., out of peer learning, teacher-guided instruction, and self-instruction) fare about twice as good as just one being used – regardless if in a blended classroom or in a solely online learning situation. Finally, the importance of prompt feedback and varied active learning methods in blended learning settings (and otherwise) is pointed out – this is conducive to students thinking critically about their learning process and reviewing their knowledge.

Course design

Concerning course design matters (p.78), it is important to take into account that some types of instruction will have a greater effect based on the medium they’re administered in: the same amount of time spent on the same task might have a strong effect in the online environment, while having no significant effect in a face to face setting. Additionally, when deciding how students and staff should communicate, research indicates that having continued discussions over both the online and offline environments leads to better outcomes, such as deeper social connection, higher efficiency in sharing information, and creating a sense of community. Finally, it is recommended that blended learning designs be designed “from scratch”, and not based on literature treating solely online learning or face to face learning, as there is a tendency to do.

Student characteristics and teacher involvement

The review also offers several indications regarding the preferences of students regarding these modes of learning (p.79): Older students are more attracted to online learning than younger ones, although undergraduate students in blended learning courses seem to relatively outperform graduate-level students. Additionally, students’ orientation towards information makes them more likely to enjoy the online elements of blended courses, while those who are more feeling/people centered seem more satisfied with real-life interaction: Care should be expended to catering for both cognitive styles. Furthermore, an important requirement for distance or blended education to work is pointed out: Teacher presence must be maintained high at all times – if the instructor is absent in the online environment, the course will not work as well: this understandably could mean a greater challenge for some teachers.

A final word of caution...

All of the insights mentioned above are relatively well supported in the existing literature on blended learning, however, they must, at this stage, be considered tentative. There are several issues plaguing the blended learning literature (some mentioned before), such as highly variable definitions and foci across studies and the tendency to use frameworks either from the face to face or online learning literature when investigating blended learning, all of which hamper the attempt of building clear knowledge on this emerging trend. Nonetheless, from the 20 meta-analyses and systematic reviews plus some more primary studies on blended learning synthesized by Skrypnyk and colleagues, it is clear that blended learning shows much promise, probably more so than either traditional or online methods independently.

The essence of disruptive technological innovation in education

To put all of this in perspective, it is useful to understand the core element of what makes approaches such as blended learning worthwhile. Doctor Katrina A. Meyer, in her article “The Role of Disruptive Technology in the Future of Higher Education” from 2010, helps to elucidate this issue. In essence, she argues that it is not the computers or technologies themselves that cause the change, but how these are used. Using a streaming technology to share lectures or other one-way, passive channels is unlikely to amount to much progress – ultimately, using technologies to copy already existing practices might offer some extra flexibility, but will not massively impact the speed, depth or scope of learning.

Disruptive innovation is actually achieved when technologies are used to fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between staff, students and content. The guiding principle in doing this is using technology to put the students at the center of the learning process – to empower them not only by offering them opportunities to learn when not in a physical classroom, but also to better customize their learning experiences in accordance with their personalities, interests and wishes, to enable them to be independent in their work, while always having the ability to reach out to peers or teachers when they feel stuck (better collaboration between teachers also being a logical possibility), to create a sustained sense of community spanning over the online and offline environments, to enable peer-guided learning, and essentially, to make education more engaging and efficient, while not decreasing its effectiveness. This will never be achieved via one single tool, but only when there is an elaborate commitment on the side of staff and students to build and reap the benefits from a better system – one which is varied and affords new ways of working and thinking. Blended learning or similar technological advances will only work seamlessly when they are designed to complement and enrich the mindset of both teachers and students, evolving naturally with their needs while helping them grow.

How the International EdTech Consortium is fostering this transition

At the International EdTech Consortium, we are intimately aware of the technological revolution sweeping higher education. As a result, our strategy is not based on building tools alone, but also on stimulating those best equipped to do so among consortium partners (e.g., instructional designers, teachers) to think of how to frame these innovations so that they have most impact, and to share these insights for use during product development. Thus, the modules and the ever-increasing palette of activating learning activities they support, apart from solving didactic challenges that traditional methods simply cannot, are never merely recycling old habits and practices into the digital realm. In line with the latest research, they include elaborate social elements, striving to help all those in the community to share information fluidly (i.e., students-students, students-teachers, and even teachers-teachers), they embed multiple evidence-based active learning approaches to offer highly engaging and layered educational experiences supporting cognitive development, they provide deep personalised insights on students' progress as well as help with the time-consuming task of finding appropriate material by using AI, as well as offering ways to elegantly visualize, annotate and comment on all types of documents and media, such that collective insights and feedback are effortlessly shared in real time. The future of higher education is looking bright, and we’re excited to be part of it.