How to Make the Most of Blended Learning

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Blended learning is a fast (if not the fastest) growing delivery and instructional design method in colleges and universities. As faculty, you can use blended learning to encourage more engaged and interactive learning for your students. After defining and outlining some of the benefits and challenges of blended learning, we offer examples of ways blended learning has been used effectively in colleges and universities in Ontario.

Blended learning is a term that encompasses a number of different approaches to teaching and learning – all of them built around access to and learning through online resources blended with a face-to-face component. Blended learning enables students to access learning materials, lecture notes, assignments, grades, readings, and audio and video materials anytime and anywhere, while enhancing the opportunities for peer-to-peer and student-to-instructor interaction, as well as student engagement and learning.

Blended learning can take the form of an integrated course in which the theory is almost completely delivered online as students access learning materials created by the instructor or integrated from other sources, undertake individual and group activities, and complete assignments, both for practice and for grades. Working through these online resources prior to the class prepares the students for more active engagement in the face-to-face sessions.

Usually once a week, there is a face-to-face class and/or tutorial during which the instructor and/or teaching assistant leads discussions on case studies, works through problem sets, reviews difficult points in the theory, and answers questions. An online discussion board may be part of the course, offering a forum to ask questions, debate issues or share insights and learning. Other alternatives in blended learning include a variety of tools to facilitate communication and interactions, such as chat rooms and wikis.

Models of blended learning can integrate or modify any of these characteristics. Faculty members, often with the support of instructional designers and technology advisors, develop teaching designs that suit their content and the needs of their students.

Six Advantages of Blended Learning  

Blended learning has benefits for students, faculty, colleges and universities. Six advantages stand out: 

  1. Blended learning creates flexibility for students, who can have access to substantial components of their courses anywhere, anytime and often in any format. Blended learning courses are designed to use less classroom time since students have access to their course materials, lectures, and readings online.
  2. Blended learning can provide a higher level of student engagement. Students can learn theory and do practice questions in their own time, arriving at the face-to-face classes or tutorials ready to participate and contribute in active learning. Students can study more of their course content at their own pace; engage with instructors in different ways; and, depending on the course design, engage in knowledge building and other academically demanding activities.

    Blended learning is often used for large enrolment classes to provide the students with more effective learning experiences.

  3. Blended learning can be adapted to fit into current faculty roles and responsibilities. While it can take a major re-thinking of what is best presented online and what is best taught through face-to-face interactions, faculty have been using web-based resources and materials for a considerable time. Blended learning provides a framework for them to continue to do so.
  4. Blended learning enables faculty to experiment and engage with online learning at their own pace and in their own way. They discover how to balance between using resources online and offering face-to-face discussions for maximum student success. Because they are working directly with students in class, faculty receive instant feedback on what works and doesn’t work online, enabling continuous improvement and refinement.
  5. Faculty members get to choose the approach to blended learning that reinforces their locus of control. They can adapt learning resources freely available online, create their own materials, design powerful in-class learning experiences and think through the learning outcomes they are looking to secure all from a student’s perspective. They can share ideas within a discipline or across disciplines and they “own” this work.
  6. For institutions, blended learning can be relatively inexpensive. Technologically, blended learning leverages investments already made in learning management systems through which instructors can integrate already available online resources (simulation, games, online laboratories, statistical solution centres, etc.) at little or no cost. As new technological developments occur, they can be added to the mix to make learning more focused and engaging.

Six Challenges of Blended Learning  

Here are six of the most common challenges in ensuring positive learning outcomes from blended learning:

  1. Some students are unprepared for a shift in the focus of classroom-based work and for assuming responsibility for their learning.
  2. Not all students are adept with technology and some struggle with its use – hence the need for quality help-desk support.
  3. Instructors can sometimes overload students with content rather than use principles of instructional design to re-think what and how students learn.
  4. Online learning components can be passive and content rich rather than engaging and challenging.
  5. Some faculty are sometimes reluctant to change their classroom behaviour significantly, even though blended learning requires this. Some online materials in blended learning are simply copies of lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, and some readings.
  6. Faculty are sometimes left to their own devices to create blended learning experiences for students. They need the support of instructional designers, librarians and “expert” students to help them design memorable, effective and student-focused blended learning.

Blended Learning in Ontario Colleges and Universities  

In the process of identifying and reporting on over 80 Pockets of Innovation in Ontario public colleges and universities, Contact North | Contact Nord has recorded first-hand just how faculty in colleges and universities are using blended learning in well-considered, well-executed, pedagogically sound and successful ways for their students. 

For example, Durham College has created apprenticeship programs with the theory courses offered online, while the lab/shop components are offered at Durham and at partner colleges. 

Lambton College has introduced a hybrid learning strategic plan, with courses in Anthropology, Massage Therapy, and Sports Management offering examples of best practice in adapting courses from face-to-face to blended models.

At Mohawk College, courses in Language Studies, Health Sciences, and Human Services depict varying approaches to integrating blended learning into course offerings in ways that best suit both the students and the content.

Niagara College offers an example of using a blended learning format to train instructors in developing and offering hybrid courses – providing them the same learning experience as their potential students.

Universities have used blended learning as a more interactive alternative to large first-year lecture classes. Both Queen’s and McMaster offer first-year Psychology in new, engaging, and effective blended formats.

At Wilfrid Laurier University, Organic Chemistry courses are taught using online videos, texts, pre-class assignments, and prior learning assessment questionnaires, matched with advanced information and problem solving in the face-to-face classes.

Nipissing University offers graduates with a Registered Practical Nurse Diploma the opportunity to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing through a combination of online theory and face-to-face clinical experience.

These examples detail the models used, the pedagogical, institutional, and academic benefits and challenges, and links to the faculty involved who are willing to share their experiences with their colleagues.