Change of the perspectives – some thoughts on the design of online activities for blended learning

Topic 4 has offered a valuable opportunity to look at online learning from another perspective as we were put in a teacher’s position rather than directly participating in online learning as students. This was a refreshing and relevant experience given our responsibilities as academics and future practitioners of online teaching. At the same time, the scenario we were confronted with made me realise massive challenges and potential traps involved in the design of online learning activities. I must admit enjoying an illuminating discussion that we had about the topic on the forum – it really seemed like a collaborative learning experience. Consequently, I consider a sense of community in online or blended learning practice to be particularly valuable – it really has potential to provide fertile ground for critical discussions (Vaughan et al., 2013). I am under the impression however that instigating favourable conditions and engaging a community in the critical discussion in the spirit of the “community of inquiry” framework (Lipman, 1991) requires the practitioners to design suitable teaching activities. My personal preference in this regard is to offer well-structured teaching support rather than a loose approach (Bates, 2016), where it is expected that that the engagement in a learning process will emerge intrinsically by the sheer power of interactions in the community of learners. Although I can imagine that a loose structure, where learning is dynamically driven bottom up by students, creates a good scope for building a sense of shared responsibility in the spirit of collaborative constructivism, I prefer that “teaching presence” manifests itself in facilitation of  a discourse, sometimes even in direct instructing, rather than giving up so much responsibility to students. This is also how my concept of scaffolding would be, i.e. facilitate learning as an expert and an engaged collaborator, and adjust the level of support dynamically based on the learner’s continuous development. In the context of online learning this approach would follow a process of e-moderation gradually changing as the students mature in line with the assumptions of the five-stage model (Salmon, 2013), where the development is organised into five steps. As a digression, I am under the impression that our ONL course follows a similar convention.

As regards the actual learning format and activities involved in blended courses, a so-called instructionally-designed approach based on a learning management system particularly appeals to me. However strange it sounds, the model seems to fit well with a constructive alignment framework (Biggs, 2011), where learning activities and assessment are aligned with the intended learning outcomes. Importantly, this framework has proven effective when designing standard courses at KTH so it acts as a sort of a safety net for online beginners or even more so for blended learning where different component have to be glued together based on some principles. I would still consider recorded lectures in the spirit of MOOCs to be a valuable component, not necessarily the main delivery, in this regard, particularly when combined with flipped classrooms. In some way, this helps building upon the existing resources when developing blended versions of the existing classical courses (Bates, 2016). My experiences with webinars are less positive in this regard.  I do not quite understand what educational value tweetchats have either.

Finally, I would like to air some of my accumulated thoughts on the online formula or component of blended learning environments. In the first place, I have been wondering about the motivation behind online learning beyond the rather obvious fact that it provides an opportunity for people around the world to connect and it thus facilitates access to education (also given its asynchronous nature). I have learnt to appreciate some forms of online learning to complement face-to-face educational experience and more rationally balance the resources or introduce variation (blended approach). In this light, I can appreciate the arguments about synergistic combination of synchronous face-to-face learning with asynchronous text-based communication in online mode (Bates, 2016). However, some of the online video discussions or recommended webinars still require synchronous participation. Also, it remains unclear to me why online learning activities are usually motivated by the scope they provide for innovation that has greater potential for engaging students than other forms of learning (even classroom based). I can definitely recognize innovative potential but I can also see it in face-to-face learning context. Another argument for online activities is the intrinsic connection to IT tools that lend themselves for more enhanced interaction, collaboration, exchange of information. I have a subjective sceptical opinion in this regard, which is likely due to my ignorance. I can imagine that if students have been through many online learning experiences they build their capacity to master technology to the extent where it no longer is a burden but advantage over more traditional forms of face-to-face communication (provided that this is not limited by spatio-temporal constraints). In this respect, the argumentation that online learning enhances the process of familiarisation with e-technologies crucial in professional life (Bates, 2016) is convincing but not necessarily in terms of formal education, where learning outcomes are usually formulated along different directions. Finally, although I agree that online practice can facilitate the development of independent learning and knowledge management skills (Bates, 2016), I remain concerned about threats and risks here. I am convinced at the same time that appropriate course design with adequate teaching presence and control/verification mechanisms of formative nature can minimise these risks. This is however the entire new discussion worth a separate blog.

In conclusion, I recognize the unique value for online learning as a way to either combat challenges resulting from spatio-temporal constraints or introduce an engaging variation in the context of blended learning, where the resources of the face-to-face component have to be carefully balanced. If we consider the acquisition of extra IT skills (to strengthen digital literacy) as part of learning outcomes then online learning is an attractive and desirable component of such course design.

References

Bates, T (2016). The 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online for Faculty and Instructors.

Biggs, J.B. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in education.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Salmon, G (2013) The Five Stage Model. Retrieved 2016 November 8 from http://www.gillysalmon.com/five-stage-model.html

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press. Chapter 1 “Conceptual framework”.

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3 thoughts on “Change of the perspectives – some thoughts on the design of online activities for blended learning

  1. Excellent analysis and many valid points. I just wish we could move away from the comparison of online vs classroom and instead consider how we can use different spaces, methods and tools to facilitate learning. We need to make the best use of the spaces we have available; if we can meet physically we need to make these meetings unmissable and we also need to recognize the limitations of the physical classroom as well as the digital spaces. Sometimes the classroom is not the best place for a discussion, sometimes it can be. It’s about learning, using the full range of media and tools we have available.

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  2. I so agree with you about the importance of the facilitator, but if there is no attention given to the ’emotional’ cues and space given to the emotional needs then I don’t believe the facilitator will be a good one. I think that the facilitator will lose so much by ignoring the emotional aspect, effectively losing control of the group, and moreover the group will not perform to the levels that it needs. That is what I think at least. Hence I started reading up on the missing “emotional” circle in COI that you referenced in my blog. I think without this scaffolding becomes very difficult, as the ‘trust’ needed – especially online – becomes that much more difficult. However, it is something that I think that is very hard to establish and monitor in any online course, as we are ‘losing’ so much of the communication (often facial and body language cues). Makes for an interesting debate? 🙂

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  3. Thorough analysis and interesting to read post. Thank you! I can agree with most of that. I also have the similar feedback on the tools we used during the ONL course (webinars, tweetchat – which i, honestly speaking, completely ignored). Face-to-face learning&teaching is the base for the other tools. Level of learning, purpose and desired outcomes are the right things to consider in a well advance.

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