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The What, Why and How of Blended Learning

As we emerge from 16 months of remote teaching, Ed Developer Anita Parker dives into blending online and face-to-face courses.

  • July 22, 2021
  • By Anita Parker

This summer, Alberta School of Business instructors Sarah Moore and Noah Castelo are preparing a blended delivery mode for their third-year marketing course for the Fall 2021 term. They have been carefully considering how to provide students with content covering consumer behaviour theories, yet leave ample time for practical application and discussion. With the fall teaching circumstances unfolding in real time, like many instructors across the university, Sarah and Noah are emerging from the past year of pandemic teaching and are now immersed in the what, why, and how of blended learning.

What is blended learning?

The traditional and broad definition of blended learning involves a combination of online (or asynchronous) and face-to-face (or synchronous) activities. For example, Sarah and Noah are planning a flipped classroom approach wherein the time and location of the theory and practical components are switched. Content will be provided in the form of pre-recorded videos, readings, and other learning artifacts, thus freeing up in-person time for activities such as case discussions and a major project that has students working with industry representatives. Together with students during active learning, an instructor is able to provide modeling, scaffolding, feedback, clarification, debriefing, and extension that is responsive to student needs.

Why bother blending a course?

While the pandemic challenged us to reimagine remote teaching, blended learning has been a prevalent topic in higher educational research literature for more than two decades. The evidence indicates that it’s no longer a question of if blended learning is a good pedagogical strategy; instead, it’s a question of how we make it work best. How do I determine the right blend for my course? How do I make this happen? How do I overcome challenges along the way? 

For students, blended learning offers some flexibility for the time and place in which to engage with course materials, and opportunities for active, authentic tasks to think and problem solve as they will in their future careers. For instructors, focusing on content application during synchronous class time supports teaching strategies that are tailored and responsive to student needs. 

According to Sarah, “One of the unanticipated benefits of making the videos is that we really updated (even more than usual) and streamlined the course content. We found the newest stuff, and had to think hard about what was the most important content to put into each video, and in what order. Putting things into storyboard form really crystallizes your thinking on a topic!”

How do I blend my course?

Blending a course is more complex than merely creating or curating some video content and rearranging a weekly schedule. Because every course is different, a cookie cutter approach is not possible. A first step is to determine the optimal blend; in other words, what students can be tasked with completing on their own and what can be done together in class. To decide this, an instructor can ask, “When and how do my students need me the most? And how can I give this to them?” 

Briefly, a to-do list for instructors planning and implementing a blended course is as follows. 

  • Develop asynchronous and synchronous teaching materials and an organized eClass framework
  • Map the alignment between theory (online) and practical (face-to-face) components
  • Verify the reasonableness of the student workload, since a common inadvertence when blending a course is to simply add on extra work
  • Consider a means of accountability for students completing the required tasks prior to class (for example, having a low-stakes, pre-class quiz as an “entry ticket”)
  • Contemplate how to transition into your role as a facilitator rather than lecturer and how you can support students throughout the course
  • Continue to develop professionally as a blended learning instructor and seek support from peers, your department, and CTL as required

As Sarah and Noah will tell you: preparing a blended course requires front-loaded work and the careful design of a course syllabus. However, they are confident that their efforts will translate into a smooth delivery and heightened student engagement.

If you’re looking to blend a course, the CTL website has a continuously growing library of resources to help you out. Here are three things you can do to get started: 

  1. Attend some of the CTL’s Fall 2021 webinars, which will have a strong blended learning focus. 
  2. Register for the 2021 Online Teaching Institute (August 10, 11, 12)—day three will be dedicated wholly to blended learning.
  3. Request a one-on-one consultation with one of the CTL’s Educational Developers to get tailored support.

Anita Parker

Educational Developer, Centre for Teaching and Learning

Since 2015, Anita has worked closely with instructor teams from many disciplines across the university with their blended learning resources and projects. This includes helping build course frameworks on eClass, planning student-centred learning experiences, and video storyboard creation. She also is experienced in leading professional development workshops and individual coaching for instructors with a focus on maximizing student engagement with authentic activities and assessments.