By Ana Tatsumi
“Blended Learning” has become a very familiar term not only in the ELT community, but for all fields of studies and educational contexts. In fact, more than ever, many institutions all over the world have been implementing Blended Learning models – some quite successfully, others not so much. However, what stands out is the need for an instructional model that meets both their needs and the students’. And that is both the very cause for concern, but mostly, what demands a good deal of research and reflection.
But let’s start from the beginning. Take for instance the fact that, instead of finding one single definition of what Blended Learning is, course designers (that could vary from private teachers to whole institutions) encounter notions, or else, assumptions of what it involves: face-to-face instruction combined with online individual study time, use of videos for students to watch before they come to class and learn about a certain topic, use of asynchronous writing tools for assessment, asynchronous monitoring, and many more. They all apply to the idea of what Blended Learning is, but do they all necessarily apply to what all institutions need to offer their students?
This question may also have different answers, for each learning situation is unique and only the teachers will know what takes precedence. Ideally, having in mind “what a good course (face-to-face, online or blended) would offer”, in other words, what conditions would promote a more effective learning experience, should play an important role in the plan: the authenticity of the language taught and tasks, the proper exposure to the target content, encouragement from the teacher and classmates, the opportunity to use the content learned creatively and to negotiate meaning, the importance of providing well-informed feedback (and in it the guidance for improvement), and the possibility to promote learner autonomy and raise students’ awareness to their duties as effective learners – those are conditions that should be considered when designing an optimal learning experience.
In addition, what tools teachers and learners have at their disposal, whether it’s a coursebook, a whiteboard software, an internet search engine, apps with activities, or even whole online platforms to manage students’ learning process, should also be taken into account.
Once teachers (here in the role of course designers) have all the information they need, it’s time to put things into perspective. That is, think of the practical aspects of adopting a BL model. How? Here are some aspects to consider:
- Is the pedagogical value of the BL model applied clear? At first, a new learning model may cause some discomfort, for teachers and students may not know what it entails. It is important to lay out how it will work, and highlight the benefits of the model implemented: students will have the learning resources available for them to study at their own pace, from any location they choose, which does not only mean more time to study and more individual time to tackle the content they may have difficulty understanding and/or need reinforcement on, but also that they will have the opportunity to practice the target content for longer periods of time outside the class. Collaborative tasks are a good way to encourage that.
For teachers, a BL model may not necessarily mean fewer instruction hours (although that may be the case, if approved by the institution), but it does mean new ways to think about the way content is worked on in class – in the case of the Flipped Classroom, for instance, in which instructional content is delivered before class, teachers may want to sequence that with further practice, discussion, projects, review, reinforcement, or any other aspect they believe needs focus to make the learning experience really effective.
- Is the format suitable to the students’ needs? Teachers should consider running a needs analysis to verify, first of all, if a BL model will meet the students’ needs and make learning effective. Knowing about the students’ background (contact with the target content, strengths and weaknesses towards it, access to and the willingness to study somewhere other than the classroom at times they will choose) and what they expect from the course (e.g. development of individual skills, collaboration with other students, learning more about culture) will help teachers select the content to include and to give more focus on throughout the course, and how to give feedback.
It is important also to ask students what their goals for the course are. The answer to that may sound simple at first (e.g. “I want to learn/speak English”), but if teachers investigate that in detail, they might discover that their students may have unrealistic expectations (e.g., basic students who want reach a higher level in very little time). In conversations with the students, teachers should point out the discrepancies in their assessment and set out realistic and achievable goals, and have students be aware of them so that everyone’s expectations are in synch.
It may also help teachers decide on how much content should be given online and what should be worked on face-to-face, for once students already have some knowledge of the content, receiving online instruction should be easier and a therefore more frequent (or not?)
- What is expected of the students? Essentially, there is not much change of what students will be expected to do: make a plan to and manage individual study time – and stick to it. However, the new model might also require that students work more collaboratively, and more often that they used to, especially in projects, discussions, other activities to be done outside the classroom. In contrast, by demanding that students work on their own at home and have fewer face-to-face hours with the teacher, it will also have them develop their own strategies to tackle the task at hand, do reviews on their own, develop the ability of self-correction, making them independent, autonomous learners.
- What is the teacher’s role in this new learning context? Apart from his/her role in the classroom, the teacher will also participate actively in the learning process when students work online, first of all by selecting the content to be worked on, moving on to taking the initiative and invite students to work online and complete the tasks individually, as well as managing online interaction, creating and/or selecting collaborative tasks, thus encouraging collaborative learning (and through collaborative learning also fostering a sense of community). Moreover, monitoring students’ progress and providing feedback will be helpful not only for the students to actually make progress, but also for teachers to reflect on what has been worked on and think of ways to improve the learning experience in the next steps of the course.
- What are the resources available, and are they suitable for students to reach the course goals? When it comes to analyzing the materials that are to be adopted, teachers will encounter all sorts of materials, in all shapes and sizes, from many different sources, print and online. Courses could be designed by two ways, through teachers either analyzing the materials in the first place and then aligning them to the course goals, or starting with the goals and then selecting the materials. Whichever the case, the selection can get quite tricky, but knowing the materials in detail, especially the function they could have in the course, may make the choices easier. Some materials may be used to effectively teach content (through texts, videos, tasks, diagrams, etc.), while others may practice the content presented; some can be used for assessment of the students’ knowledge, others for mere reinforcement or review. It is also important to know which skill is being practiced (in the case of a language course, for instance, the teacher should think about creating a balance among the four skills, or focus on the one skill intended to be developed when the course was created), and how much of the content can be personalized (or if not at all) so that the teacher can select specific activities to each student to work on their own individual issues, practicing what needs practice, reinforcing what needs reinforcement, allowing students to thrive while keeping a full record of their progression, with performance reports that can be used for a very thorough and informed feedback. And since BL also involves collaboration, resources should also offer the possibility for that.
With all the research done, it is time for teachers to take all these variables into account and make all the decisions to come up with a model that is, first of all, realistic, with time for instruction, practice, extension and feedback. It is important to emphasize that there is no right or wrong, no “too technological” as opposed to “too traditional” since each learning situation is unique. Also, and especially because of this uniqueness, there should be some room for trial and error, so teachers can have the chance, in case a problematic issue is identified, to make the necessary changes and try new ways to resolve it. In any case, the use of the BL model should always prioritize the learning experience, making it truly effective and aligned with the course goals.