“Blended learning” is very much a buzzword in the education community and buzzwords always carry with them the risk of a high bullsh*t to relevance factor. This makes it all the more satisfying when a workshop director concentrates on the fundamental dilemmas and choices faced by anyone designing an online course – or in fact anyone designing any kind of course – instead of repeating the buzzwords of the day. As it is, Clive Shepherd’s three-hour workshop left me wishing we had had an extra hour at our hands, which might have made it possible to get into more detail with some of the dimensions, concepts and dilemmas. One main point is that Shepherd explicitly didn’t frame the blend in terms of on- and off-line, but addressed several dimensions where elements of teaching and learning are blended. Another that there is no golden formula for a blend – this very much depends on what the aim of e learning i. So what I will try here is to apply what I think are the main insights from the workshop on some of the main issues facing those who work with the distance programme in social work here at UC Lillebælt.
First, a general issue in much higher education is the link between preparation (of and by the students) and input (generally known as “teaching”) on the one hand and application and follow-up on the other. As HE teachers, we are very good at providing (certain kinds of) input but we should ask ourselves about possible ways to improve the application by students of knowledge and skills and how the long-term follow-up could be organised. As it is, application on a larger scale is often left to the workplace where students have their internships and their eventual workplace. Similarly, we have a very limited knowledge about the follow-up both during and after the bachelor programme.
Second, while we have established a routine of 1,5 day meetings every third week (logistics play a role here) , it is often not clear what we should do during meetings and what should be placed during the 3-week periods of self-study (and should these three weeks really be self-study?). What the workshop suggested was that exposition – which is what students seem to expect from meetings and classes, and which Shepherd maintained does have a place in education alongside instruction, guided discovery and exploration – could be shifted to different kinds of on- and off-line delivery during inter-meeting periods. Instead, meetings could focus on group processes and the establishment of a playing field for the next weeks or entire programme module. As I suggest, we may face a conflict between students’ expectations and didactic insights here.
Third, we could improve the Social Work programme by applying a more systematic approach to the creation and inclusion of elements of instruction and guided discovery alongside exposition. We already include these elements to considerable, but varying degrees – and different programme modules for obvious reasons have different needs in terms of blends – but this is often left to the inspiration of individual teachers with a limited transfer of concepts and experiences. The issue here is at the organsational and logistical level (teachers often do not have the time to meet and exhange experiences).
Fourth, most teaching is group-based, either in the form of classes or study groups, with some elements of one-to-one teaching included. We expect students to do a lot of individual studies during the programme – the high level of flexibility in this type of learning is definitively one of the main attractions for prospective students – and this does have a place in learning but the issue is which types of knowledge and skills we expect students to be able to learn in this way. We could also note that student communities exist (Facebook!) but they are largely outside the reach of HE teachers.
Fifth, at colleges logistical constraints play a large role in determining the blend of different kinds of organised learning. Organisational culture also is an issue but colleges and departments for a number of reasons are very constrained in terms of resources, access to different types of platforms, the distribution of teachers, etc. Also, as organsations departments have a habit of choosing a basic template of blends and applying it all the way through an entire programme. This makes it all the more necessary to take a systematic look at the two other essential factors in course design – what is the learning which is required (the national study goals only provide part of the answer) and who are the learners. Here, spending some time and money on exploring students’ backgrounds may be resources well spent.
This post only includes some short observations based on the insights of the workshop. Each of the points here could merit further discussion both on- and off-line.
The School of Social Work at UC LIllebælt has had a distance learning programme for the last decade. While the programme was very much at the frontline of online higher education in Denmark when it began, we feel that both the didactic and the technological approach to the programme could need some updating. As more colleges have started online or distance programmes in social work, UC Lillebælt obviously faces increased competition so one aim in developing the programme is of course to keep UC Lillebælt competitive. It is not our aim to move students from the daytime to the online programme, but the tools available in ICT-based education may also give us a broader selection of didactic and technological tools in the daytime programme.
In terms of didactics, the distance programme mainly builds on a mix of in-house sessions every third week and individual and group-based work in between sessions. We should note that our students are expected to conduct their studies in groups of 5-6. Students then have the opportunity to receive feedback on papers and exercises delivered during or at the end of each period of home studies.
One issue is that teachers generally feel that they lose contact with their students between sessions as students are reluctant to use the means of communication available to then through the College’s LMC. Another issue is that classes during sessions take the form of traditional lecture-based instruction. This means that the selection of didactic strategies in the distance programme tends to be more limited compared to those used in the daytime programme. While both teachers and students see the possibilities of flexible studiespositively, teachers feel that a higher degree of structuring and a higher level of communication between teachers and students should and could be achieved.
In technological terms, the college’s LMS basically allows for the distribution of material – and sequential communication. This means that students tend to drift to other platforms where teachers aren’t or choose not to be presents.
So, what we (or rather: I) will be looking for is first and foremost discussions and introductions about didactic strategies which encourages students’ regular activity in online programmes which the concept of “flipped learning” or “flipped classroom” coming to mind. Last year, some of us were introduced to the concept of “storyboarding” online courses and while we for a number of reasons have failed to implement this so far (one issue here is that programme courses are given as cross-discipline modules involving 5-8 teachers during a 10-week module), a combination of storyboarding and flipping might be a strategy for turning focus away from classroom instruction and to more regular interaction between teachers and students. Just as last year, my focus will be less on technologies in their own right and more on possible ways of expanding the range of tools available in in-class and online teaching and learning.