Tuesday, August 02, 2005

What If You Had To Choose? Three Necessities for Blended and Distance Learning

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Let's imagine that there exist just three “pivotal conditions," and let's consider how those conditions might fit into the goal of determining how to make effective learning environments (face-to-face, online, blended, and my new favorite -- “pod-blended"). Face-to-face instruction refers to traditional classroom delivery and online refers to 100% Internet or web-based delivery. Blended learning indicates a hybrid mix – part face-to-face, and part web-based, while “pod-blended” indicates a multi-delivery mode mix, of portable data devices (iPods, pdas), multimedia, online, and face-to-face. There is no prescribed ratio or distribution of delivery modes.

1--- Flexible environment that allows the facilitator to respond to learner needs.
Face-to-face: The syllabus creates a structure, with an emphasis on learning outcomes, rather than a rigid obsession with marching through content. This allows the facilitator to conduct ongoing needs assessments in an informal manner, and adjust accordingly, to assure relevance of discussions and content. Group work expedites the process of discovering the needs of the learners, as well as the best configurations for collaborative work.

Online: Because learners develop what could be thought of as “ambiguity anxiety” when they are working online, it is very important to have a clearly defined structure. However, it is important that the structure is not too rigid. The online environment is flexible when the facilitator is able to clarify, add discussion questions, encourage collaborative activities, and post illuminating and relevant articles. It is also flexible when students are able to post and upload items in order to share in a meaningful way, tapping into the energy of weblogs, collaborative space (comments, etc.), and wikis.

Useful article: Carol Twigg’s “Innovations in Online Learning: Moving Beyond No Significant Difference,” published in the Pew Symposia in Learning and Technology, held December 8-9, 2000, in Phoenix, AZ, and published in 2001 by the Center for Academic Transformation at Rennselaer Polytechnic (Troy, NY), contains a number of interesting and relevant insights with respect to flexibility and a learner-centered approach. In the section entitled “Improving the Quality of Student Learning,” it is pointed out that “a fundamental premise of the symposium is that greater quality means greater individualization of the learning experiences for students” (9).

While this is still undoubtedly true in 2005, the burden is not so much in the facilitator-student interaction, but in the constellation of learning activities that can be modified to achieve desired (and clearly identified) learning outcomes.

2--- Content developed with a view to providing theoretical underpinnings.
Face-to-face: Although classroom activities result in discussions that focus on specific readings, issues, or problems, they are most productive when all are mindful of the theoretical groundings and the principles that support the “learning by doing” or the “situated learning.” Such an approach allows students to create generalizations and universal applications to specific experiences. It also creates the common thread that gives learners an ability to communicate with each other and learn from similar experiences. Improved self-efficacy and self-concept are natural outgrowths of this constructivist approach.

Online: Translating a dynamic, “learn-by-doing” experience-based-learning environment into an online learning space is not easy. Often one finds that there are “disconnects” between the collaborative activities or the experience-based discussions and tasks, and the instruments used to assess learner mastery of the content and skills. How does one bridge the gap? How does a multiple choice test fail to assess the broad spectrum of general and specific knowledge gained in a “situated learning” based environment?

One strategy is to tap into the rich semiotic environment of the e-learning space and to utilize icons, graphics, and visual representations. A theoretical framework is often most effective when it is laid out graphically, in a way that makes the connections between activities and underlying theory extremely transparent.

Although the facilitator will guide students to an ability to work with the organizing principles that underpin the readings, discussions, and learning activities, the student should have a conceptual framework clearly in mind. This is often most effective in the online / distributed environment when diagrams, lists, and tables provide a graphical representation of the information, and a well-organized bibliography anchors it.

Even though we may be conditioned to think of online learning as something that occurs when seated at a laptop, with the learning looking into the monitor, it is important to recognize that the paradigm is shifting away from that. More content is being accessed through pdas that have web access, but which can also store data through pdf files (Palm, Treo, Blackberry). Individuals are now downloading audio content and playing them on portable audio players, most frequently iPods.

With that in mind, it is important to make connections between content, concepts, and illustrative points or vignettes. For example, it may be important to present information to learners in the form of concepts / news bites, followed by a story / vignette, and then a question-and-answer session. Radio programming that comes to mind that would illustrate this would be National Public Radio’s All Things Considered (http://www.npr.org/ ), with vignettes reminiscent of This American Life (http://www.thislife.org/ ). Finally, engaging question and answer sessions can be presented in the manner of Calling All Pets (http://www.wpr.org/pets/ ).

It is very exciting to think of the ways that distance learning is evolving, and the directions that mean that the costs of access could fall dramatically, or at least result in more efficient use of resources, with extreme portability.

Useful article: Nada Dabbagh’s “Distance Learning: Emerging Pedagogical Issues and Learning Designs” Quarterly Review of Distance Education 51 (1), 2004, pp 37-49, contains an invaluable table which maps instructional strategies to pedagogical models and learning technologies (47).

3--- Communication and interaction-friendly environment
Face-to-face: Although traditional face-to-face learning environments have long been characterized by a pedantic “sage on the stage” who “holds forth” in a lecture mode, for the last 20 years, the reality has been quite different. Even where there are large lecture presentations, this constitutes only a small part of the classroom activity. Much is done in small labs or in discussion groups, containing 8 – 15 individuals and a facilitator. The perceived authority of the facilitator is mediated in this environment, and there is more of a focus on the discovery and presentation of outside information.

Online: Making sure that communications are purposeful and learning outcome-focused is the responsibility of the facilitator. In addition to guiding students so that they respond to certain questions pertaining to the content being discussed, facilitators help individuals find strategies to overcome the limitations of the sometimes rigid and/or overly deterministic semiotic realm of the discussion board.

Effective communication builds student self-efficacy, and helps students learn by doing, and master skills on their own (situated learning).

As students interact, the effective facilitator should be able to identify and intervene to repair holes in scaffolding and do it for learners in an individual manner.

Useful article: M. J. Hannifin, etal, discuss the way that students learn to develop strategies for organizing, interpreting, and internalizing knowledge when they engage in interactions via technology, and via interactive multimedia. What is perhaps most interesting about this article is the way it anticipates the emerging trend to expand “hybrid” to include not just face-to-face and site-based multimedia (a television or a computer), but also portable devices. Their article is entitled “Student-centered learning and interactive multimedia: Status, issues, and implication” in Contemporary Education 68(2), 94-99.

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