Blended learning courses in educational/tertiary settings
Blended, or hybrid learning involves the combination of traditional classroom instruction with online learning. As mentioned in Section 4, blended learning is rapidly gaining popularity and pervasiveness throughout higher education institutions as well as in professional settings; indeed, as Leduning and Wah (2013: 25) state, it may well have become “one of the leading 21st century learning approaches”. Owston, York, and Murtha (2013: 38) point out that it offers mainly benefits to the stakeholders in question: “Institutions see it as a model that makes efficient use of classroom space; faculty benefit from increased flexibility in their teaching schedules; and students appear to be more satisfied and achieve higher grades than in either fully face-to-face or fully online classes”. However, studies that have addressed the question of preferred class modality in blended learning contexts have found that, although respondents appreciate the flexibility of deciding when and how to engage with online course materials outside traditional classes, very few would opt for a course delivered completely online. In fact, this alternative proved to be significantly less attractive than courses delivered entirely face-to-face (Leduning and Wah 2013; Owston, York, and Murtha 2013; Trinder 2016). Furthermore, there appears to be a link between course achievement and satisfaction in blended learning environments, which has been attributed to weaker or less experienced students’ inability to cope with the increased level of autonomy required to regulate independent forms of learning (Trinder 2006; Castle and McGuire 2010; Owsten, York, and Murtha 2013).
The latter claim is supported, first, by Palalas’s (2011) study, which describes the blend of in-class, online and mobile components in the context of a specialist language course for international students of accounting in Toronto. The hybrid format was introduced in answer to two previously defined needs: students’ insufficient language proficiency in view of the requirements of their college programme and present/future workplace; and their exceptionally busy schedule, which necessitated greater temporal flexibility. In this well-integrated approach, the in-class component of the course focused on speaking competencies. Supplementary individualised practice was available online and via mobile phones, with the majority using the mobile environment for aural practice (iPod Touch devices were loaned to students, giving them access to in-house produced audio-video podcasts) and the online component for writing. Listening to audio, watching video and browsing the Internet were the most frequently cited mobile activities students engaged in. Barriers identified were mainly related to cost or technical aspects such as cost of connectivity, lack of hotspots, difficulty of typing on small screens and short battery life. The author concludes that it was the “blend of the appropriate content, method and technology that produced successful learning” (Palalas 2011: 21).
Yet, once again, it was in no small part due to learners’ characteristics that the blended learning format was so positively perceived. The respondents in Palalas’ study were “internationally trained immigrants”, adults who worked part-time while attending college, and who were highly motivated to become more proficient in the language of their new country and workplace. The “on-the-move” flexibility afforded by the mobile solutions was crucial to them, as it allowed productive utilisation of any chunks of down/dead time, such as time spent commuting. It stands to reason that these subjects differ from the “typical undergraduate” in several important respects, including age, perceived needs, learning aims, self-efficacy and study skills.
By contrast, Leduning and Wah (2013) report on a blended business English writing class in Malaysia in a much more typical college environment. In a context where temporal and spatial independence was far less of an issue, the introduction of an online component (Schoology.com, a social network-based tool that facilitated discussion threads, responses to relevant articles and videos, and sharing of information, thus allowing interactive communication and academic information exchange) was embraced less enthusiastically. Amongst the disadvantages of the digital classroom identified by students were feeling “overwhelmed by information”, experiencing a “lack of direction”, and the belief that they would “need to be self-motivated and highly disciplined” to fully exploit the online offer (Leduning and Wah 2013: 30). Results suggest that respondents lacked experience in finding their own learning path and the necessary self-direction to benefit from the dual delivery mode. This is also evident from their preferred class modality: 40% favoured instruction delivered entirely face-to-face over a blended format, and 27% would have liked only minimal use of the Web to supplement traditional classes. Results such as these underline that in any learning context that integrates an online component, renewed emphasis must be placed on the role of the learner as an independent and autonomous participant “for whom self-direction is both a requisite for participation in such courses and a learning goal, for which they need training and support” (Arno- Macia 2012: 93).