Blended learning: the future of higher education?

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A growing number of colleges and universities are adopting hybrid learning models that combine brick-and-mortar teaching with online instruction, creating flexible and timely educational models.

By Esteban Fredin

In the last decades, colleges and universities have been threatened by the rise of the Internet and the new delivery methods that have emerged since then. From MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) to platforms like Khan Academy, Lynda.com, Teachable, Udemy, Skillshare and online universities such as the College for America at Southern New Hampshire University and the Minerva project, have forced universities to rethink their educational models.

Therefore, many universities today have recognized that more than a threat, the Internet and the rise of online education represent a great opportunity to create new delivery methods that adapt to the particular needs of the so-called "non-traditional students" and the changing world in which we live.

A growing number of universities are adopting hybrid models that combine the traditional lecture with online instruction, creating flexible educational models that are consistent with the needs of the new society.

Blended learning is a mode of instruction that interweaves elements of traditional face-to-face instruction with online learning. This approach goes beyond the use of new technologies in education, it means leveraging the possibilities opened the Internet to give each student a more personalized learning experience.

Specifically, the Blended Learning Universe website, an initiative of Clayton Christensen Institute for Innovation provides the following definition:

Blended learning refers to a formal educational program in which the student performs at least part of their learning online where she can exercise some degree of control over time, place, path or pace. While another part of learning takes place in a physical location other than home and with some degree of supervision. Both modalities should be fully integrated in each student's learning path.1

This educational trend has been developing since the early 90s mainly in the US for K-12 programs. Recently, thanks to the penetration of the Internet and the fast spread of learning apps, it has achieved global relevance and growing interest in the college education sector.

How does it work?

It is important to keep in mind that blended learning is not a teaching methodology or philosophy, but delivery method; thus many different models are possible:

  • Station rotation - where students cycle in groups through different 'stations' at fixed schedules. In one of them they may learn online, and other they might do collaborative work, or take a live class with a teacher.
  • Lab rotation - similar to previous model only online learning takes place in a computer lab designed for this specific purpose.
  • Individual rotation - in this case the schedule of each student is set by the teacher or a software algorithm. The student does not have to rotate through all stations, only the ones required by her personalized path.
  • Flipped classroom - students learn new concepts at home through reading, videos and exercises, and apply their knowledge at school through projects guided by an instructor.
  • Flexible - Faculty provides support and instruction in a flexible, as-needed schedule while students go through the curriculum’s content at their own pace through an online platform.
  • A la carte - It allows students to take an online course in addition to their regular face-to-face classes. This model is useful for institutions that struggle to provide specialized learning opportunities to some of their students.
  • Enriched virtual model - an alternative to full-time education where students complete most of their work online, but are required to comply with a number of hours of face-to.face instruction. Unlike the flipped classroom model, the frequency of these meetings does not need to be daily.

 

Who are using it?

The University of Maryland chose to include blended learning options for 10 of their courses in 2011, and it has increased their offer since. This decision was a result of the effort of teachers and school managers who wanted to try out this model in courses where traditional lectures had proved to be ineffective.2

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), fifth in the world rankings, has also adopted the hybrid model through MITx, its online learning platform. MITx adapts to the needs of the different courses offered by the institution. For some, the platform is the main source of learning. For others, it allows combining classroom instruction with online learning. This online resource allows teachers to focus on discussion and critical content in the classroom.

Another of the best universities in the world, the Imperial College London (number 8 in the world rankings), started a pilot program last year where engineering students took online business courses at the same time as the rest of their classes were face-to-face. The objective of this pilot is to test a small group of students to gradually move all their offer to this flexible hybrid model.

Blended learning can go beyond a simple mixture of classroom instruction and online activities. A few years ago,Tufts University began a hybrid initiative called connected classrooms which allows undergraduates to take courses with other students and faculty from other institutions around the world. 3 In Mexico, following September 19 tragic earthquake, Tec de Monterrey, Mexico City Campus has turned to a flexible hybrid learning model to meet its needs during these difficult times. Now, 90 teachers and 150 tutors, mostly volunteers, provide real-time support to an estimated daily average of 1,600 video conferences between teachers and students. This effort has allowed high-school and undergraduate students to resume lessons, and finish with their study plans on time, despite damage to the campus infrastructure. 4

Advantages and effectiveness of the blended learning model

Researchers at West Chester University of Pennsylvania conducted an experiment in which 150 college students were divided into three groups: the first group (60 students) would receive hybrid instruction, the second (60 students) would take face-to-face classes, while the third group (30 students) would also have the traditional face-to-face modelbut with fewer students.

The study reported that 64% of students felt more engaged with the course content in the blended format. 90% reported that they liked the convenience of the hybrid model. 88% liked working independently at their own pace. While 68% felt more comfortable expressing their ideas, and 65% felt that the blended activities promoted a sense of community that enabled better interaction between classmates.5

In addition, the hybrid group of 60 university students scored a slightly higher average score (47.46 from 60 points) than a conventional instruction group of 60 students (44.34) and another smaller face-to-face group of 30 students (47.40). This shows that blended learning is able to provide a more personalized learning experience to a greater number of students.6

In conclusion, blended learning is a mode of instruction that is gaining momentum and global presence, not only in the basic education sector, but also at college level. Its key advantage, beyond convenience and flexibility, is the ability to provide students with personalized learning experience that meets their educational needs.


1 “What is Blended Learning?” Blended Learning Universe, Clayton Christensen Institute, www.blendedlearning.org/basics/

2 Uloop. “Blended Learning: College Classrooms of the Future.”Huffington Post, 16 July 2013, www.huffingtonpost.com/uloop/blended-learning-college-_b_3598718.html.

3 Ibid.

4 Ed. staff. "#YdaleTecCiudad An army of volunteers provides support for CCM classes." CONECTA, 11 Oct. 2017, https://conecta.itesm.mx/Paginas/noticia.aspx?idNoticia=6673.

5 Kenney, Jane, Newcombe, Ellen. “Adopting a Blended Learning Approach: Challenges Encountered and Lessons Learned in an Action Research Study.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, vol. 15, no. 1, Feb. 2011, pp. 45–57.

6 Ibid.