Challenges of blended learning

Dr Bruce Allder of the Nazarene Theological College in Brisbane reflects on Jill W Fresen’s article on the challenges and prospects of distance education in a blended learning model

Jill W Fresen, “Embracing distance education in a blended learning model: challenges and prospects”. Distance Education 2018, Vol.39, No.2 224-240

In a time when technology assisted learning (TEL) is becoming a reality in theological education, Fresen’s article raises interesting issues albeit from a different field of study. There appears to be almost an evolutionary process taking place. Most of us who have worked in a traditional face to face educational institutions have begun using web-supported pedagogies as a way of complementing our teaching or enhancing student learning support. Those who are on-line providers look for ways to bring relational encounters into the learning experience. A clearer definition of, and the extent of TEL endeavours, is needed. Without this, designing and implementing educational systems is fraught with a lack of direction and multivalent quality control mechanisms that can lead to disappointing educational outcomes.

Three levels of TEL

Fresen points out that there are at least three levels of TEL: web-supported, web-enhanced, and web-dependent. A fully on-line program would be regarded as web-dependent. The traditional ‘face-to-face’ learning has drifted toward web-supported methodologies. However, Fresen says that there appears to be ‘rapid movement to the centre’ (p228) by many programs that seek to take the best of face-to-face and distance education. The TEL is recognised as a mechanism for this movement. Rather than view these as in opposition to each other, it is possible to employ elements from both ‘sides’ to enrich the specific learning experience.

Two Issues

In Fresen’s case studies, two issues caught my attention. Firstly, the changing roles for both lecturers and students to accommodate TEL in the Pretoria experience. Secondly, the need for specificity in the electronic resources for individual student needs in the University of Oxford MOOC experiment. TEL can be much more than a recording of face to face lectures to be viewed at the student’s convenience. The University of Oxford experience suggests ‘bite-sized’ recordings (3-6 minutes) that are integrated with other learning activities become a learning enriched environment. Both these issues raise questions at the design, developmental, delivery, financial and quality control phases of a program. Clearly intentional conversations are needed between curriculum designers, IT program developers and financial stakeholders before effective integration of seemly diverse approaches can be implemented. While there may have been an adoption of some of these pedagogies simply through an awareness of the positive possibilities that technology provides, thinking through the implications of this shift is needed.

Best Practice

Fresen suggests that a cohesive approach can be found in the ‘seven principles of good practice’ articulated by Chickering and Gamson (p226).  The challenge will be to honestly submit the pedagogies of ‘face-to-face’ and TEL to this framework. This brings a common language to a diverse conversation. Key findings … highlighted the need for consistency in the student learning experience, and the importance of change management, learner-centred environments, and reliability and suitability of selected learning technologies (p235). The shift to the ‘middle ground’ has already taken place. An uncritical adoption of either ‘side’ or even the ‘middle ground’ will be detrimental to educational outcomes. We cannot shy away from the hard work of bringing the best of both worlds into the learning experiences of students in an academically robust way. Thank you to Fresen for bringing this challenge to our attention.

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