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Challenging or conforming: the art of blended learning

June 21st, 2008 · No Comments · Teaching & learning

Last Tuesday I went to the latest event in the excellent Talking about Teaching series put on by SDDU at the University of Leeds – Challenging or conforming: the art of blended learning presented by Allison Littlejohn, Chair of Learning Technology at Glasgow Caledonian University. I found this extremely useful and got a number of ideas to follow up in my own teaching and to develop further in discussion with colleagues. The presentation and supporting materials are all available on-line now and the session was videoed but I’m not sure if or when that will be available.

A particularly useful aspect of the 3 hour session was the way it alternated between presentation to introduce both the more conceptual and pedagogical aspects of blended e-learning and concrete examples of blended learning activities. This included an introduction to a number of tools for designing and planning activities, from a simple proforma to specify the problem the proposed activity will address, a brief and general description of the solution, i.e. the activity itself, and the aims and objectives, to much more detailed and concrete specification of the activity – its timings, specification of tutor and student activity, the activities themselves and assessment. We then had an opportunity to work in pairs to propose problems in our own teaching and activities that could provide solutions and begin to construct the more detailed designs. The sharing of these problems and the discussion of the activities suggested was very interesting – from dentistry, the Business School and others.  Allison also pointed us to a number of repositories of blended learning designs and activities that have been constructed in such a way that they can conveniently be repurposed for a variety of different subject areas.

A few points came out of the afternoon that I found particularly thought provoking. Allison is involved in researching and advising on e-learning for large corporations including Shell. Self-paced, self-initiated and self motivated continuous professional learning is becoming a common requirement of employees in the corporate world that many of our graduates will be joining. Employers now claim that it takes approximately 5 years in the job for new graduate employees to bridge the skills deficit for operating in this way and that this deficit is growing. It has also been observed that the massification of HE has led to less student learner independence and self direction than was previously the case. What is required was described as helping the students develop their ‘social capital’, in the sense of developing the networks of resources and people that will provide them with the social learning contexts that underpin much personal and professional development and becoming an expert life-long learner. The recommendation is that we look hard and critically at and learn from the parallel developments in e-learning in the corporate sector.

The opportunities to address these general problems by exploiting blended e-learning are compromised by a lack of understanding of the affordances and possibilities the new technology has by staff and by the difficulty of motivating students to work in this way. This suggests students need to be much better informed of why this is important and why it is to their advantage. This is not the first time I have heard a presenter point to the paradox that students are often very familiar with some of the e-tools and aspects of social networking and often operate in vicarious virtual learning processes without being able to consciously bring that knowledge and facility to the more formal learning arena. I think there are a number of interesting questions raised here about students’ prior experience of formal education and the expectations they come to us with. This ties in with the very revealing account about contemporary secondary education given to us by a ‘super head’ at last January’s L&T Conference. On the issue of motivating and engaging students in blended e-learning activities, Allison said the chief driver of student learning behaviour is still assessment and changing assessment tasks and strategies will be key to our success. Although this is probably true it is a little dispiriting, that we will need to manipulate students’ satisficing tendencies to make progress. This is not quite what I would like to see – students and staff working together in a community and culture of enquiry and knowledge construction in a spirit of collaboration and sharing. But then I am a child of the sixties!


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