Advancing Learning: Making blended learning useful and effective

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Advancing Learning: Making blended learning useful and effective

Introduction

When we think of blended learning today, we are really thinking of the mix between two distinct ways of delivering learning – one in the classroom (face-to-face) and one online. Although, this is complicated by the fact that we can use the online delivery part in the classroom too. The challenge is to think of the optimal way of combining these two parts to make the learning as useful and effective as possible for the students.

This challenge of getting the mix or blend right is made complicated by a number of factors.

  1. Teachers may not know all the online content or endless number of tools available to them.
  2. Many teachers (like myself) were trained before digital technologies impacted. We were familiar with the use of video, audio, etc, but the number of options was restricted and it was a lot easier to integrate them into a lesson.
  3. Blended courses often grow out of courses that were originally face-to-face, and so getting the blend right can be difficult.
  4. There might be institutional requirements to use a certain amount of technology or to limit its use.
  5. The students themselves may have certain expectations. Students paying for face-to-face learning may be unhappy if too much of the learning takes place online and outside the classroom.
  6. Parents can also be a factor.
  7. You may feel under pressure to introduce technology and make your classes ‘up to date’.

Point seven can be the reason why blended learning is sometimes poorly conceived. Let me explain.


Our business is language learning

Our goal is to help our students learn a language as fast and as effectively as possible. The pressure to introduce the latest gadget or technology, however, often takes our attention away from the original language-learning objective. As a result, teachers may introduce a certain technology into their lesson but lose focus of whether it is really having a positive impact on language learning.

I recently watched a lesson where students had to find QR codes the teacher had displayed around the school. Each QR code triggered a video to watch. After viewing three videos, they returned to class and discussed in groups. On the surface this looked like a good lesson, but by introducing the QR codes certain things were also lost. Firstly, since the students were moving around, they found it hard to take notes as they watched the videos standing up. Secondly, the background noise in the corridor meant it was difficult to hear the videos and discuss them. Another issue was that quite a few students had trouble triggering the QR codes.

We always have to weigh up the benefits of a certain technology against the things we lose by not doing it the ‘old way’. So, in this case, if the students had worked in groups and watched the videos on a computer while sitting around a table, they could have easily taken notes, and easily played and replayed the video and discussed what they had watched. The use of QR actually hindered the objective of the lesson, which was to expose the students to as much language as possible and encourage good note-taking and discussion. So it is vital that we always think about what we are trying to achieve and think carefully about the optimum way of achieving it.


A slightly different approach

One way to think about how to blend your learning in a language classroom is to first think about all the things that a student needs to do to learn a language, and then think about which things technology can do well and what things a face-to-face context can do well. For example, I tend to use the face-to-face component of the class for developing students’ speaking skills, doing group work, planning writing and discussing study skills. I use the online component (usually done at home) to allow students to complete listening activities, grammar activities with feedback and writing activities they have prepared in class, as well as to study vocabulary.

One very important thing, though, is that the face-to-face and the online part done at home must link together tightly. So, for example, we might read an article in class and discuss it, and then for homework the students have to study the vocabulary from the article using Quizlet. Back in the class, a week later, I might set up an activity to see how much of the vocabulary they can recall. In this way I am tightly linking the homework and the class time. I must admit that when I first started teaching in 1987, the homework was often an afterthought. These days I see the class time and homework as part of the same whole.

The flipped classroom is a form of blended learning that separates the class time and the homework in a slightly different way, but again it highlights how important the link is between these two components. In the flipped classroom, we tend to focus on the lower-order thinking skills at home. So students might watch a video on how to give a good presentation and choose their favourite five tips. In class we focus on the higher-order thinking skills, so perhaps the students get into groups and share their tips and see if they agree with each other. Again you can see this tight link between what students do at home and what they do in class.

I teach on an MA module in technology at NILE, and one of the ideas suggested on that course is to map the use of technologies to the syllabus. I am a big fan of books, and whether I am teaching a language or learning a language, I like working with books. I like the way all the language is integrated and connected. So the contents of a chapter will introduce new vocabulary but also rework vocabulary from previous chapters. The workbook compliments the coursebook, and it is that continual revising and reworking of language that is vital, especially at low levels. So teachers can map the use of technology onto the syllabus and identify where they might introduce technology to support, expand and foster learning. It means that the students still have a clear pathway through their learning and can clearly see how and why the teacher introduced the use of certain technologies. Mapping can be a good way of blending your learning, but we must be careful.


Overwhelming

One massive danger with blended learning is that you can often end up overwhelming students. In 2001, when I first began to use a virtual learning environment I added loads of links to additional material, slides, PDF files, extra listening, etc. The amount of content on the course grew massively. The students were confused and often discouraged by the enormous amount of material. In fact, in the end I realised most of the students were not really using any of the material. So whatever way we blend, we need to think carefully about the overall size of our course. These days, when I set up a blended course (or an online course), I emphasize that I have carefully selected the material and that it is all relevant to the class. I clearly indicate what they have to study and what is additional. I never share anything that I haven’t carefully looked at before, and I will spend time in class making students aware of the online content I have shared.


Digital outputs

These days students are often producing a lot of digital outputs – blogs, podcasts, discussions online, videos, Word documents, PowerPoint slides, etc. One thing we can do is encourage our students to keep an E-Portfolio. An E-Portfolio is basically a digital repository which stores all their digital outputs. The great thing about E-Portfolios is that students can embed things they do in class and at home. It is literally a record of their learning over a period of time. It should also include a ‘reflective’ diary where students write about the things they have added into their E-Portfolio. I have been using them for many years, and now as a teacher trainer I continue to use them.

The digital assets students produce pose another problem. Students need feedback on what they have done. Students will lose interest in keeping their E-Portfolios if they don’t receive any feedback or think that no one is reading them. It is vital that, every so often, we leave comments on students’ E-Portfolios. We might also, for example, highlight some of the best examples in the lesson or set up activities in the class where students show each other their E-Portfolios.


Conclusions

Blended learning is here to stay. We have to accept that. However, we are the teachers in the classroom and we must remember that our ‘currency’ is language learning. That is our primary objective. I have highlighted a few golden rules about blending your lessons effectively:

  1. Think carefully about the mix. Make sure there is always a strong link between what you do in class and what you do online at home.
  2. Don’t overwhelm your students. If you use a VLE, don’t add overwhelming masses of links to extra material. Keep it lean and relevant and make sure you highlight and introduce the material in the class.
  3. Think about the way you introduce technology into your lessons. Are you going to map it to a syllabus? Are you going to take a flipped learning approach or look at what can be done best online and best in class?
  4. Think about using E-Portfolios. Students tend to produce a lot of digital outputs these days, and E-Portfolios can be a great way of collecting together evidence of their learning. Remember, though, that what is also really important is that students also reflect on the different digital assets they produce and reflect on what they learnt from creating them.
  5. Finally, think carefully about feedback. Some teachers worry that technology is going to mean there’s less need for teachers. I am not sure about that. The job of teacher is a changing one, and your role in giving feedback might be more important than ever. Look at ways to introduce peer reviews and self evaluation, and make sure you as the teacher play an active role too.

About the author

Russell Stannard is a multi award-winning Educational Technologist and founder of www.teachertrainingvideos.com. He received awards from the British Council, the Times Higher and the University of Westminster for his work in the use of ICT in education.  

He currently works as an Educational Consultant helping organisations to build online learning/blended learning courses as well as training staff in the use of technology all over the world. He specialises in the use of Camtasia, SnagIT, Google products and virtual learning environments like Moodle and Edmodo. 

Find out more about Russell’s online training course on flipped classrooms here: www.nile-elt.com/courses/course/550/

Find out more about Macmillan English Campus, an English language learning platform for teens, young adults and professionals, which provides students with on-demand language practice and teachers with flexible materials and courses, here: www.macmillanenglishcampus.com


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