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The evolution of blended learning

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Blended learning incorporates in-class and remote learning, making use of digital technology to deliver engaging, flexible and collaborative education.

Advances in technology have been challenging the classroom-centric mode of teaching since before the pandemic. They’ve pulled the definition of what it means to be a teacher into sharper focus, leading some to suggest that lecturers and teachers could become redundant. It’s part of the polarising, often fear-driven conversations surrounding if, when and how robots will take over society.

Yet at the same time, it’s also widely recognised that technology has a significant role to play in education, not least because it is increasingly fundamental to everyday life. The role of education is to prepare young people for independence and success, and digital skills are undoubtedly essential for both.

Accelerating change – the global pandemic

The pandemic forced us all to embrace digital technology in ways – and at a scale – that would otherwise never have happened. And certainly not so quickly. As Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in an article for the Financial Times: “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these aren’t normal times.”

In the US, Professor Charles Hodges has called the rapid shift to delivering education digitally, “emergency remote teaching”. He and colleagues have warned that we should not judge the potential of digital learning from these experiences, which have often been shaky, frustrating and isolating. The pitfalls of remote learning experienced during the pandemic are not a good reflection of what digital education can be. Professor Hodges remarked: “Good learning design takes time as teachers create the curriculum, resources and assessment to suit their learners and the discipline.”

The key, as Professor Eric Mazur points out, is in understanding the unique benefits that technology offers teachers to do things that don’t work as well in the classroom. “Digital learning is great for exploration. The world is at your fingertips, and computers never get tired of practising foundation skills with you.” However, there are other activities that need to be conducted in the real world, for example, learning to use specific pieces of equipment.

The dramatic ways in which the pandemic shifted our habits and tested new processes has provided opportunities to make positive change. Initially, teachers and academic institutions had no alternative but to rapidly adopt and deploy new (to them) remote, digital-learning tools and platforms. Now we can take the insights gained during these “large-scale social experiments”, as Harari called them, and use the data to design blended experiences that make the best of both in-person and digital learning environments.

Teachers versus technology?

The opposition between teachers and technology (as the opposition between workers and technology) is a false one. As Professor Michael Rowe writes: “Teachers who focus on the real role of universities – teaching students how to think deeply and critically – and who have an open mind, needn’t fear technology.” And this applies to schools and colleges as well. Professor Rowe goes on: “Digital tools are quickly getting to the point where algorithms will outperform experts, not only in filtering content but also in synthesising it. Teachers should embrace technology by encouraging their students to build knowledge through digital networks both within and outside the academy. That way they will never become redundant. And they’ll ensure that their graduates are critical thinkers, not just technological gurus.” This is precisely why a blended approach – one that puts teachers and students at the heart of the learning experience – is critical. Technology can be an incredible tool to support teachers to deliver the best possible education.

Professor Mazur, who is renowned for his peer-instruction approach to teaching and focus on creating a social atmosphere in the classroom, found the online model he developed during 2020, “improved learning and support so convincingly that he intends to continue with the format”. In a recent presentation he gave in Berlin, Professor Mazur encouraged educators to re-think how they approach digital learning. Instead of asking, “how can I transfer online what I do in the classroom?”, they should be asking, “what can I do online that I cannot do in the classroom?”, framing digital technology as providing an opportunity, rather than a challenge.

Sharing learning and best practice

Early in the pandemic there was no best practice to guide teachers and institutions in how best to (rapidly) implement remote education. In response, UNESCO and partners developed a Covid-19 learning toolkit, building on research conducted by McKinsey, to support teachers and educational institutions around the world to facilitate effective remote learning.

However, digital technology had made it into classrooms before the pandemic. And where digital education was already in place, the sudden transition to remote learning caused by the spread of the virus was much smoother than elsewhere. There are some useful examples that we can learn from.

Glasgow City Council is understandably proud of its approach to digital education. In 2017, the council distributed 50,000 iPads to classrooms, and started to establish partnerships with several education technology platforms. Their motivation was to, “reduce the impact of poverty on young people by equipping them with the skills and confidence to thrive”. The decision to do this recognises the essential nature of digital skills, as well as the need for schools to enable access to technology to supersede the social divide that prevents many young people from learning digital skills at home. Yet, they shared, “Whilst we always recognised the potential of these platforms to transform our digital-learning strategy, it was the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic that fully showed us, our teachers, children and young people, and their families, the full benefits of using flexible and intuitive digital platforms in our schools.” Having technology in place smoothed the initial, abrupt transition to remote learning, and a hybrid approach to the return to school helped to minimise learning disruption for students who were forced to undertake periods of isolation.

But why is digital so important?

In recent decades technology has become increasingly embedded in daily life. During the pandemic, this trend was accelerated. It is now usual to work remotely, at least in jobs where that is possible. And we’ve become accustomed to accessing services remotely. For example, the first point of contact with a GP is now usually made via telehealth platforms. This makes it essential that all citizens are well versed in digital technology.

Furthermore, the move to a digital-first lifestyle has impacted how, where and when we want to access services and the control we expect to be able to exercise over how we spend our time. Digital access to education, work and employment services for example, has meant fitting these activities around other commitments. People are used to the flexibility that means they can design their days to suit their various needs and responsibilities. Companies that have not maintained at least flexible and part-remote working policies are losing staff in what has been dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’. If educational institutions were to ignore the role that digital education has to play in learning at all levels, they could experience similar backlash from students.

What’s more, statistics imply that there will be more global pandemics. Embracing blended-learning methods and using data to finesse platforms and approaches will stand students and educators in good stead to withstand any future disruptions.

Digital education was the theme of this year’s Education and Training Monitor, further signalling the significance of mastering the use of technology to facilitate learning. The monitor, a European Commission initiative, “analyses the main challenges for European education systems and presents policies that can make them more responsive to societal and labour market needs.” The Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, said: “I am delighted that digital education is the lead theme of this year’s Education and Training Monitor, the Commission’s flagship report on education in Europe. We believe it is necessary to bring about deep changes in digital education and we are committed to increasing digital literacy in Europe. Just recently the Commission proposed a package of initiatives, including the new Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027, which will strengthen the contribution of education and training to the EU’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis, and help build a green and digital Europe.” Digital education therefore is essential to the success of young people, to economic recovery and the creation of a sustainable future. Yet, the European Commission reports that more than 15% of the pupil population across all countries surveyed this year have insufficient digital skills. So there is still a long way to go.

The evolution of blended learning

Blended learning has been present in university education in a simpler form for many years. Study resources, activities and assessments have been accessible to students via virtual learning environments for decades. Now, the technology has evolved to make these environments increasingly sophisticated, enabling teachers to do far more than simply provide access to PDFs of learning resources.

Taking the ways in which we use technology in our daily lives as inspiration, educators can integrate digital tools and experiences that enhance learning. Glasgow City Council remarked that one aspect of its digital education provision that had been really successful with students, teachers and parents alike, was the ability to share feedback and ask questions using voice notes. Voice notes have become an essential means of communication in daily life, adding a personal touch to remote conversations and providing the queues of intonation and expression that are missing from text-based chats.

The council said: “delivering feedback via voice notes is accessible for all learning levels and means they won’t misinterpret comments. It allows them to revisit the feedback whenever they want to solidify learning and access feedback from anywhere, allowing families to also help their children understand and implement teacher comments. They can also respond via voice notes, giving them the opportunity to ask questions or explain their learning and engage with their teachers from afar.” It’s a perfect example of how educators can take cues from the ways technology is integrated in daily life to assemble an effective blended-learning experience.

There are other insights that should also be taken into consideration. Behavioural science has proven the benefits both of providing gentle nudges and the effectiveness of personalisation, both of which have been implemented to enormous success in employment services. Similar techniques can be employed via education technology to motivate and encourage students throughout their learning journeys. Similarly, education technology can provide pupils with clear and measurable steps to follow. Progress bars have proven incredibly helpful in learner motivation, and have been used successfully in MOOCs (massive online open courses), which are rapidly becoming a dominant way for adults to learn.

It is equally essential to recognise what online education does not provide, so that that need can be filled in the classroom. For example, relationships are an essential part of education. Schools provide a space to socialise, collaborate and develop bonds. This is more challenging to achieve successfully online, and is one of the reasons that, historically, attrition rates are higher for online courses compared to in-person classes.

Blended learning means you do not need to rely wholly on the digital environment to provide space and tools to facilitate relationship building, but it should be a consideration when designing the tools, resources and activities students engage with online. Just as working relationships are maintained in Zoom calls and Google Hangouts, and nurtured in less frequent staff away days and client meetings, students need a combination of in-person and online opportunities to build and maintain relationships with teachers and peers.

Blended learning has come a long way in the past few years. Digital education is now firmly a part of learning, and is limited only by the limits of the technology. As this becomes more and more sophisticated, the ways we learn can and should continue to evolve.

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