With all the hype about blended learning, higher education leaders are taking a closer look at how effective this learning method really is.
In the process, they're exposing a number of issues that need to be addressed, including how blended learning is defined and which core attributes matter. And they're trying to figure out where higher education needs to go from here, particularly when it comes to researching the impact of blended learning.
1. Definitions differ
So many definitions exist for blended learning that it makes research on its effectiveness difficult, said Chuck Dziuban, director of the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Central Florida. In a 2005 article Can 'Blended Learning' Be Redeemed?, Martin Oliver and Keith Trigwell concluded that "the term 'blended learning' is ill-defined and inconsistently used. Whilst its popularity is increasing, its clarity is not."
"With blended learning and research, we have a prototype, but the definition eludes us," Dziuban said in a session with three other panelists at the Blended Learning Conference and Workshop on July 8 in Denver.
The definition of blended learning should revolve around learning, not around the university, said Mark Brown, director of the National Institute for Digital Learning in Ireland and professor at Dublin City University, who gave a plenary talk at the conference on July 9. Institutional definitions focus on redesigning teaching and learning so that universities can be more effective, convenient and efficient.
This institutional focus is not good, and neither is a one-dimensional approach that only includes the integration of face-to-face and online learning. The definition issue is one reason Brown is critical of blended learning.
2. Model descriptions are incomplete
Car models come with complete descriptions, including physical features, engine specs and estimated miles per gallon. But blended learning models frequently come with just physical feature descriptions and don't include the pedagogical features, said Charles R. Graham, professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University.
In the report Classifying K-12 Blended Learning, Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker categorize four blended learning models by physical features such as how students spend their time and where they spend it. The flexible model includes a customized, fluid schedule with mostly online learning and a face-to-face teacher, while the rotation model includes a fixed schedule of different learning modalities, which include online learning.
Because the pedagogical features aren't included in the model description and vary across campuses, it's hard to identify why student learning outcomes may change in blended learning initiatives, Graham said.
"As we start to focus our models more, it makes our ability to learn from what's actually happening in the classroom much better," Graham said. "We have to blend the core attributes of the physical layer with the core aspects of the pedagogical layer."
Dziuban added that researchers can fit any model to any data set that they have, but the key consideration is whether the data will fit models that someone else has.
"We are enamored with big data, and let me caution you, big data equals big noise," Dziuban said. "You have to be very very careful of that, otherwise you will find out that you are simply interpreting noise."
3. Transformative change does not happen
Blended learning is not disrupting the education process, so it's attractive and comfortable for administrators, Brown said. Many of them are paying lip service to the popular idea of blended learning, but aren't making real changes or asking what purpose blended learning serves.
"There's a lot of line dancing going on with blended learning, and I'm not seeing truly transformative outcomes," Brown said.
4. This concept is not new
Back in 1935, a professor had a blackboard, TV and transmitter to teach students outside the classroom. While the technology may be different, blended learning is not a new concept, even though it's being treated like one, Brown said.
While these issues make research on the impact of blended learning more difficult, research should still be valued on campus, said Patsy Moskal, faculty research associate for the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Central Florida. Ongoing research for nearly two decades and an executive-level commitment to it has allowed Moskal and Dziuban to analyze trends on campus and provide insight to faculty development staff on a shoestring budget.
Data is especially important because it allows researchers to provide answers to people who ask things like, "Why do people withdraw from online classes?"
"What we must convince our colleagues and the people around the world is the fact that we have quality in these courses," Dziuban said.
While Dziuban suggested that groups of universities get together to publish studies on the quality of blended courses, all research doesn't have to involve large studies with high values, Graham said. Faculty members in each university can do design-based research in their own classes to identify the core attributes that impact student success. And if they do that every semester, course improvement will go up dramatically.
One of the areas that higher education can research and study is how technology such as online and blended learning can help more students earn their degrees quickly, said Anthony Picciano, professor and executive officer in the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. It will take creative technology use to alleviate some of these problems in higher education.
"Whatever you do, evaluate what it is that worked or didn't work, and you learn as much from what doesn't work as what did work."