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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

BlendKit 2016 Week 1

Reading Reaction

The first task of the week was to read a chapter called Understanding Blended Learning. I was interested to see whether the concept of blended learning had changed at all since the first time I started hearing about it several years ago. I have a copy of Blended Learning (Pete Sharma & Barney Barret, Macmillan, 2007) which I have to admit I haven't looked at much since I received it (as a prize for winning Macmillan's Onestopenglish lesson share competition). I was fairly sure that a book like this one would quickly become obsolete due to the fast-moving world of technology, and that it might not be relevant nine years after it was first published. I have yet to read the book properly, but just reading the first introductory paragraph supported my view - it talks about the Internet, CD-ROMs and interactive whiteboards as recent technologies. It mentions VLEs, blogs and wikis. Now I was a fairly prolific blogger a few years ago, when everybody had a blog, I also set up wikis for my students. But now they seem to be a little outdated, I stopped reading blogs two or three years ago and the last time I used a wiki with learners was when my now eleven year old learners were about six!

Of course, the book in question was written when a lot of teachers were unfamiliar with technology, at least in a classroom setting. I think that the way we use technology in our lives has changed, as well as the number of people that use it. Even my (retired) mum has Facebook and a smartphone now. Most classrooms in Europe are now equipped with projectors or IWBs (although in my teaching situation this is not the case). However, I'm not convinced that the use of these devices in the classroom is actually that beneficial in the way they are currently being used. In any case, this course is about blended learning, not tech in the classroom. It is about providing a part of the learning experience online, away from the classroom. And for me, this means making the most of the time in the classroom on personal connections and communication. A group of people in a room together, talking and doing things together.

100% online courses need to include this aspect of communication and community in online spaces. They will typically use forums and possibly chats or video conferences and webinars to provide this. I would go on to say (although I don't have any statistics to back up my claim!) that the likelihood of a student completing an online course is often dependent on the amount of communication that goes on with the tutor and other participants. So really, a good blended course can be perfect in that respect - there is the face-to-face component where learners get to work together and discuss anything they need to, and the online component where most of the content work goes on. And let's not forget the social aspect of a course - doing a course completely on your own in isolation is not very motivating!

Going back to the original text we were asked to read in Week 1, some things to think about are:

The percentage of face-to-face versus online instruction (I don't actually like the word instruction, at least not for an ELT setting). This really depends on your teaching context - what are you teaching? Who are your learners? What devices do your students have? How much time can they spend out of class? If you are designing a course with a specific group of learners in mind it can be better tailored to their needs and expectations.

The components of the course - what will be online and what will be done in the classroom? For ELT it seems fairly obvious that class time would be spent on speaking skills, and also discussing problematic language areas. Reading texts, watching videos and writing can all be easily done online, as can grammar and vocabulary activities. But of course this all depends on the percentages of time alloted for both aspects of the course. And we should remember:

Blended learning is not simply adding an online component to a face-to-face course. Technology in a course should be used wisely – to facilitate student learning. Technology should not be used just to show off technology. Excellent opportunities exist for teachers to make learning interactive, dynamic, and fun when used properly. The technology aspect of a lesson should be like a good baseball umpire – it (like the umpire) is good if it (he) goes unnoticed.

What does this mean when designing a blended learning course? Well, for my context I think it means not just copying a bunch of gap-fill exercises and putting them online. This is one of the problems I have noticed with digital materials in general - the digital aspect does not enhance the activities themselves, it just makes them slightly more fun than using a pencil on the page by being able to drag and drop with your finger or click with your mouse. This is something we definitely need to think about when designing digital activities.

Another quote from the text which is important for me is:

Blended learning courses are dynamic by their very nature. Revisions will need to be made to adapt to the learning needs of its students.

A blended or online course should be constantly revised and updated. I think this is something that publishers need to bear in mind when they decide to add digital components to their courses. When they just included a CD-ROM with their coursebook, this was much more limited. If it is online it can be added to constantly. This is the beauty of the internet! 

This blog post is becoming quite long, so I'm going to leave my reflections there for now. The next post will be about how I can design a blended option for one of the groups of students I teach.

Thanks for reading!
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