Recasting blended learning in a Web 2.0 world

By Lyn Hay

Lecturer, School of Information Studies & FLI Teaching Fellow 2009-2010
Charles Sturt University

Written as an aide-mémoire to support my Blended Learning Thoughtpiece podcast in November 2009 as part of CSU’s Flexible Learning Institute’s Dialogue about Blended Learning project.

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The Flexible Learning Institute (2009) has developed a definition of blended learning that attempts to capture where Charles Sturt University is ‘currently at’ in terms of blending face-to-face teaching and learning and traditional distance education packaging of learning materials, combined with online learning environments through CSU Interact. Different types of blended learning identified by Graham (2006) include: activity-level blending, subject-level blending, course-level blending and institutional-level blending.

A number of CSU courses are dealing with the challenges of blending on campus and distance education (DE) cohorts, or blending onshore and offshore DE cohorts. Some courses are grappling with the design of common subject material across undergraduate and postgraduate cohorts (which CSU refers to as ‘paired’ subjects), with some academics working through ways of combining these cohorts, while others are determined to keep students of paired subjects as discrete cohorts. As new technologies emerge, CSU will continue to build and integrate new tools into its online learning infrastructure.

As each of these changes occurs, our own approaches to blended learning will be revised and reshaped to accommodate these, as will our institution’s definition of blended learning.

I work in a school which now operates in a purely DE mode – we don’t have on campus students – and our academic team has recently become somewhat ‘distributed’ in that we now have some permanent academic staff working ‘off’ the Wagga campus (working from Sydney, Canberra, Toowoomba, Melbourne, Canada and Scotland). For years we have managed a ‘distributed’ national/international student cohort in DE mode, today we find ourselves managing a distributed workforce as well.

Working in this kind of DE mode across students and staff, leads one to think differently about how we work, how we learn, how we teach – how we connect with each other as well as our students.

In fact, I believe ‘DE mode’ is fast becoming an obsolete term for our school – ‘online mode’ is shaping up to be a more appropriate term to describe how we function.

When one works in a purely DE or ‘online mode’, one can think of a face-to-face encounter with a staff member or student quite differently to that of an academic who works purely in ‘on campus’ mode. Our ‘classrooms’ are not bricks and mortar buildings, our classrooms are the online learning spaces we ‘inhabit’ with our students. These spaces are both asynchronous and synchronous learning spaces. Increasingly we are finding that synchronous interactions using technologies such as web conferencing and in 3D virtual worlds like Second Life, are providing our staff and students with ‘online face-to-face’ opportunities.

These technologies allow us build ‘connected offices’ and ‘connected classrooms’ – academics and students are now connecting in new and exciting ways.

While my teaching has been informed by traditional frameworks of blended learning, I find that I am now experiencing a significant shift in my thinking regarding blended learning, particularly as more of my teaching and personal learning experiences occur within learning communities built on Web 2.0 technologies. My thinking is now being recasted in terms of blended learning in a Web 2.0 world, and in this thought piece I would like to share two issues that I am currently grappling with as an educator and researcher.

Acknowledging the existence of students’ PLEs

In a Web 2.0 world, DE students entering tertiary study come to us with an established personal learning environment (PLE) which consists of a suite of technology tools, and online learning spaces and communities. Some students will come to us with a relatively sophisticated PLE and skill set using a complex suite of technology tools (such as email, mailing lists, SMS, search engines, Microsoft/Adobe/Lotus software suites) and social networking sites (including Yahoo or Windows messenger, Skype, Blogger, Wikispaces, Facebook, del.icio.us, Twitter, LinkedIn and Second Life, just to name a few), while others will come to us with a fairly limited skill set and technology toolkit, and an ‘emerging’ PLE.

In a 21C university that educates for a range of professions, the development of students’ technology skills and sophisticated PLE can be central to course-based learning outcomes and professional standards of the discipline – the information and education professions (whom I teach) are examples of this.

So given the above, how do we as educators acknowledge the existence of students’ PLEs in our classes? How can we provide students with opportunities to utilize and build on their existing PLE? Or is there an expectation that once a student enters a tertiary institution that they “do it our way”, using and adopting a collection of technology tools and online learning spaces that is the institution’s preferred learning environment? I believe a blended learning approach in a 21C university needs to be recast to address the former. Let me explore these questions by way of example.

In ETL401 Teacher Librarianship (a foundation subject for our Graduate Certificate in Teacher Librarianship and Master of Education Teacher Librarianship courses), all students are required to set up a blog at the beginning of the session to create a personal learning journal which they are encouraged to use throughout their course to inform a range of reflective tasks across a number of subjects. This online learning record is then drawn upon to inform and consolidate students’ learning in their final professional experience subject. Students are provided with a list of publicly available, free blogging sites and are encouraged to select a blogging host to best meet their needs. A large number of our students are school teachers, so edublogs is an attractive option because this is at times the only blogging site that is not ‘filtered’ by school education system networks – allowing students’ to access their blog from school as well as home.

In addition, we do not want our students’ personal and professional learning to be ‘system-bounded’, in that we want our students to be able to continue using ‘their blog’ (if they wished to do so) upon graduating from CSU, thus the decision to encourage students to access a publicly available blogging tool instead of the CSU Interact blogging tool.

While the majority of our students have never created a blog before, there are some students who are avid ‘bloggers’ (ie. blogging is part of their personal learning environment), so for these students we need to explore the options that are available to them. Do they use their existing blog to record entries directly related to their learning in our course, or do they create a separate blog to support their university studies? Some students elect to use the former, while others elect the latter (for a variety of reasons), but ultimately as educators we need to have at least provided our students with the opportunity to make their own decision based on their existing PLE and how they wish to integrate (or not) their learning experiences at CSU with their workplace learning.

In ETL523 Information Policy Issues this year (2009), I used Skype as the main communication tool with students. Some students already used Skype to speak to family and friends around the world (ie. Skype is part of their personal learning environment), while others had never heard of Skype before. By the second week of session all students had installed Skype. Students were given the choice to contact me as their lecturer using Skype instead of phone or email. Students also booked individual consultation times to Skype face-to-face with me using their webcams to negotiate their topic proposal content for Assignment 1 and discuss their information policy topic for Assignment 2.

Our four week asynchronous Online Tutorial program, which occurs in the month of May each Autumn session and involves the class discussing a range of information policy issues based on student discussion paper submissions, was shifted from the CSU forum/ sub-forum tool to Skype’s Conversations tool as illustrated here.

Whenever I was in a meeting or commuting or attending a conference, I would use the status and mood functions in Skype each day to notify my students of my availability. Students would often send me an instant message in Skype to arrange a time to call me or have a Skype chat conversation (the beauty of using this feature is that we can save a text-based record of our conversation for both of us to refer to at a later date).

The use of webcams was optional. Those who had a webcam were able to use it for the first time to support their university studies. Some students had a built in webcam in their laptop which they had never used, so this was an opportunity for them to explore the affordances of web conferencing. Those students who didn’t have a webcam were still able to view me via my webcam (although I missed out on seeing them). For existing Skypers, the use of this tool in ETL523 meant that their contact with me as their lecturer became integrated into the way they ‘connected’ with others in their Skype Contacts list. As an existing Skyper my students became integrated into my PLE on a daily basis. While we may not have IM-ed or called each other, with Skype automatically logged in when we turned on our computers, we could see who was ‘online’, ‘away’ or ‘offline’, and we could see what activities each other were involved in from the ‘mood’ message.

My Skype consultation with a student with their Word doc proposal on right of my screen. Screenshot published with permission from ETL523 student

By the end of the session Skype had become part of all students’ PLE – they liked the immediacy and convenience, they liked the feeling of ‘connectedness’ throughout the session, and as DE students they appreciated the face-to-face contact with their lecturer.

While this blended learning approach acknowledged the existence of Skype in some of my students’ PLE, it also encouraging another type of ‘blending’, ie. the seamless integration and adoption of a new technology by those who hadn’t used Skype, which in turn has further developed and expanded their ‘emerging’ PLE (contributing to the achievement of course outcomes and professional librarian/TL standards).

These are just two of many examples of blended learning approaches being implemented within the School of Information Studies using Web 2.0 technologies, and it is within this context that I am sensing the need for a shift in how tertiary institutions view blended learning.

Blended learning needs to be reviewed, reshaped and recast into an approach that not only acknowledges students’ PLEs but provides opportunities for students to build on their PLE to enhance their learning experiences as tertiary students, and further develop their PLE to better equip them as savvy 21C information and education professionals.

I see the acknowledgement of the existence of students’ PLEs as contributing to the expansion of the concept of blended learning.

The second challenge I am currently facing as part of my FLI Fellowship project is developing learning designs that accommodates the blending of Web and 3D virtual worlds (which I will explore in a future thoughtpiece). This also challenges the traditional definitions of blended learning, as this involves the blending of two different online paradigms.

In a Web 2.0 world, Graham’s (2006) framework for blended learning and teaching could be recast to include additional levels of granularity, and the work I am doing with academics in the School of Information Studies as part of this FLI Fellowship project will provide further examples of what these additional levels of granularity might look like with each new and emerging technology that we trial and integrate into our teaching.

References

Flexible Learning Institute, Charles Sturt University. (2009). Flexible and blended learning. Retrieved http://www.csu.edu.au/division/landt/flexible-learning/standards/flexibleandblendedlearning.htm

Garrison, D. R. & Vaughan, N. D. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. Jossey‐Bass: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Graham, C.R. (2006). Blended learning systems: Definition, current trends, and future directions. In C.J. Bonk & C.R. Graham (Eds.), The handbook of blended learning: Global perspectives, local designs (pp. 3-21). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Written 16 November 2009 by Lyn Hay as an output of her FLI Teaching Fellowship

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