Some observations on blended learning

Some of you may have seen on Twitter that I am back to classroom teaching this semester. I have two other courses that are entirely classroom-based, but as I liked teaching my writing skills course online for the past four years, and thought this mode of delivery was useful for the students, I was reluctant to let it go completely. So I decided I’d teach it as a blended course this semester. Maybe this sounds like I’d planned it all out before the course even started, but I actually wasn’t sure if it was going to be online, offline or blended until a couple of weeks into the course.

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Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Linda Pospisilova, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

One of the course components while it was online was the portfolio, or to be more specific, a learning journal in which the students reflected on various aspects of the course and commented on each other’s entries. An important purpose of the journal was to encourage interaction between students in a relatively informal setting. Students could – and did – write things like, “I thought this unit was pretty cool / useless because …” (Okay, maybe no one actually said ‘useless’.) In the early stages I read and commented on all the entries (yes, that was insane kind of time-consuming), then I had the students start commenting on one another’s entries, and finally I introduced assistant moderators (click through to read an earlier post on that).

Because we meet on campus at least once a week, there is no longer a need for regular learning journal entries, or at least no more so than in any other course. Besides, insisting that the students reflect on each unit in addition to both classroom sessions and online assignments would probably take their workload beyond the requirements for 4 ECTS (although, to be honest, I haven’t checked). However, I thought it would be interesting to ask them to reflect on their learning halfway through the course – this shouldn’t be overly taxing.

As the students are doing this, I figured I could do something similar and describe what differences I’ve noticed between the course when it was run online and in its current, blended format. Here we go, in no particular order.

  1. I have the impression that we are covering vocabulary more thoroughly. Although the course focuses on writing skills, it’s also ESP in that we’re supposed to cover a certain amount of vocabulary targeted at communication science students. This is why the units on various aspects of writing are interspersed with those on vocabulary for journalists. There are a couple of ways the online course requires students to practice this key vocab, but these mostly rely on the students making an effort and going a little further than the minimum required to get a check mark next to the activity. Which, of course, many students don’t do, at least not until the night before the final exam. Whenever I thought about this – while teaching online – I was torn between the little devil saying, “But they’re university students; it’s up to them if they revise regularly or not,” and the little angel piping up, “Oh no, but it’s up to you to create opportunities for them to study; you’ve just got to work a little hard to make it interesting and they will!” As we now meet on campus, I simply incorporate a bit of vocab revision into each session and feel that they are more comfortable with the new vocab as a result. The doubt as to whether this is primarily my responsibility or theirs (at university level) remains.
  2. Speaking of vocabulary, it also feels like we get to have more in-depth discussions of some topics because this happens both in the classroom and online. The online course has opportunities for discussion in almost every unit, but there are three, sort of meatier discussions during the semester, all linked to the vocabulary units. These are discussions all the students are expected to contribute to and they have instructions on how to interact rather than simply respond to the opening post (which tends to happen unless you specify a different set of expectations). This semester we’ve continued the online discussions in the classroom, and I felt that went quite well. I guess that makes sense as they’d already thought about the topic while contributing online.
  3. In the classroom I can introduce extra practice to target specific language areas because I can respond more quickly. Sure, you can do this online. The problem is, it’s often harder to spot specific problems because you don’t see the students’ immediate reactions, and you rely on the students being adult enough to say, “Look, I’m not really sure about this – can you explain?” I get it, I do. It’s hard to admit you don’t know something – maybe you missed the part when someone was explaining? Maybe they’ll think you’re stupid? Maybe everyone knows the answer but you? – and then you have to post your question online for the whole class to see. In the classroom, when you see that something seems to require extra explaining or practice, you can either address it immediately or in the following session. Online you can point the student who asked the question to a specific resource, but you have no idea if the student has followed up on this. Or if anyone else has. Or if you should maybe tweak/redesign that part of the course in case everyone is having the same problem … and if you do, that will be in effect as of next semester, and that group of students may not have that same problem.
  4. I feel comfortable walking the students through some sections. And we’re back to what I said before – I feel their learner autonomy should be more in evidence and it sometimes annoys me that it isn’t, but if I go with them through some of the stuff they can mostly cover on their own I won’t feel guilty for leaving them to their own devices. A good example here is the unit on punctuation, which involves a bit of background reading, some practice and checking their answers, and asking questions if something isn’t clear. In an ideal world.
  5. At first, I thought that I wouldn’t even make all the online materials available this semester, so as not to confuse the students. I’d only let them access those that we didn’t cover in class. However, that turned out not to be such a great idea, because a substantial amount of the content would have to be rewritten. If I hide one chapter, then the next one inevitably starts with, “As you have seen in the last chapter… ”. This is because the chapters are written in unit guide format. Ideally, I’d have to have two separate courses: one for the fully online version and one for the blended version. Then it occurred to me that I was probably overestimating the potential for confusion and it might be useful to have all the materials available online anyway. Some students will have missed some of the classroom sessions, and will probably want to go through the material in their own time, but even those who didn’t may want to revise. In an ideal world.
  6. Some practical things which are more skills than language-related are more easily demonstrated in class. Here I mean, for instance, showing the students how to work with proofreading/tracking tools in Word. I don’t know if all the students feel comfortable using these. If in more than half of their submissions the language hasn’t been set to English to pick up on spelling errors, I’m going to assume a quick demonstration might be helpful. Again, this is something you can do online, of course; there are plenty of videos you can just pop into the course as an additional resource or you can do your own screencast if those are too general or otherwise unsuited to your purposes. But you can’t be sure everyone’s going to watch the video, or if they watch it and something isn’t clear, that they’re going to ask for clarification. You could set up activity completion so that they have to click through to the video in order to get the check mark, but you still don’t know if they’ve seen it and there is a point at which you risk coming across as dictatorial and a tad obsessed.

Reading back over these points, I think I may have a problem reconciling the belief that autonomy should be encouraged and probably should already have fully developed by the point students get to tertiary education, with the suspicion that this is unlikely, and that it is up to the instructor to make sure the work gets done. What do you think? Is this (at least partly) determined by my teaching context (Croatia, undergrads)? At which point are the learners at risk of getting spoon-fed?

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8 thoughts on “Some observations on blended learning

  1. Hi Vedrana. I’m not a big fan of blended learning because of the learner agency and autonomy required. It takes a lot of training. I love the *idea* of learning journals and mark my classes ‘ journals. Like you said, insane.

    If our LMS was good, I’d love to set up private blogs. For now, I’ll just have to dream.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I was able to go through all the journal entries because it was just for that one course. And there were 20 students at most. I ended up marking the journals too, because, well, if it isn’t optional, there has to be some kind of grade/feedback (just feedback wasn’t an option). Which LMS do you use?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hana Tichá

    You know the problem with our (secondary level) students is that when they finally graduate, they’ve already been spoon-fed for too long. So I’m not really surprised that uni undergrads are not fully independent and autonomous. It’s actually our fault. However, I do keep telling my senior students to be prepared for a big shock – nobody will sulk about them not doing their homework; they’ll simply drop out and that’s that. If they are motivated, they usually make it. My eldest son, for example, is in his first year at uni and I’m really curious to see how he does. So the bottom line is: be consistent and let them taste the consequences of being irresponsible.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I try very hard not to sulk if someone doesn’t do their homework. 🙂 Seriously, though, if they don’t submit their online assignments by the deadline, it _does_ create more work for me, because I have to keep track of who submitted and who didn’t, and if I should extend the deadline or not, and if not, should I accept late submissions but downgrade them, and should there be a point at which I no longer accept submissions, etc. So I sometimes feel mildly annoyed. What’s your son studying? Is he in Prague?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hana Tichá

        I gathered that one of the advantages of an online/blended course (from the teacher’s perspective) is that you don’t have to deal with all the excuses students come up with. When I was doing my MA a few years ago, I believed that if I don’t submit my assignment by the deadline, I won’t pass the course. So, I’m actually surprised by your enormous tolerance. 🙂 I understand your point though; I would probably feel the same. My son is studying science (physics) in Brno. On the one hand, I hope his teachers will be strict since he can be very irresponsible. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be happy if he dropped out just because he’s forgotten about a deadline.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You’d imagine the very clear deadlines would simplify things. Students can’t say, “Oh, I thought you said on the 10th!” or something because everything is in the course calendar. But at the end of the semester some of the students who’ve been ignoring the deadlines for weeks start asking you to take into account the fact that they have jobs, or come up with some other reasons they were unable to submit assignments on time. They never think to mention this at the beginning of the semester. Sometimes, if you say, “Sorry, you should’ve thought about this earlier,” they accept this, but sometimes they submit a formal request to the university to be allowed to take the exam nevertheless. Then the university is supposed to make the decision for you – they ask you to explain why you’re not letting the student take the exam – but in my experience, I’ve been asked to reconsider. I’ve also been accused of ruining a student’s future, all because of English! (By the student.) So you end up thinking – I don’t need this, and tolerance becomes a more realistic option.
          I’m sure your son will do fine and will miss just the occasional deadline – if any!

          Liked by 1 person

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