4 June 2012

On another kind of blended learning

This is a short note on two forms of blended learning. The first one is generally accepted, but seems to be mostly more cost effective. The other one seems to be interesting from a pedagogical point of view mainly.

There's little point in reviewing extensively what blended learning customarily refers to, but it seems that it predominantly means the mixing of different learning environments, in particular an environment for formal, face-to-face teaching with an environment for formal e-learning. The former is an environment in which the teacher is personally present, which implies that students need to be present as well, at a certain place and time, in order to be taught in the classroom, lecture theatre or hotel room hired for training purposes.The later environment is an online environment that students access through their computer, (smart) phone, tablet, from wherever they want and whenever they want. Note that I've said nothing yet about pedagogy and that is deliberate.

The characterisation is primarily one of logistics; blended learning in the sense of mixing learning environments is attractive because of its promise to save costs or be more convenient, not because it offers a superior pedagogy. The fact that people can access the learning environment also from home, allows one to let students study at home, and thus saves the reservation of a classroom  or the rent for a hotel suite. The decreased costs predominately come about through the diminished involvement of the teacher, thus benefitting the school or company. Note, though, that this concerns the course's runtime. For students to be able to learn independently, sitting in front of their computer, teachers need to make significant investments upfront. Clearly, this only makes sense at an institutional level if the numbers of students to be expected is large enough to recoup these costs through the deminishing costs of teaching face to face. Blended learning in this sense not only benefits the institution but also the student. The benefit is in increased agency, as now they are able to decide where en when to study. This would suggest that one resort to e-learning fully, however, that would significantly diminish the amount of control a school or company can exert or the directness of access a student has with his or her teachers, which would presumably affect learning effectiveness. In sum, blending of learning environments affords one to optimize learning efficiency (costs) and effectiveness in formal learning contexts.

The second form of blended learning would be mixing bouts of formal learning with bouts of informal learning. Thus learners engage in a training session of some kind but also learn informally (or as some prefer to call it non-formally), in their contacts with their peers, be they school mates or work mates. Whereas blended learning in the first sense seems to be generally accepted as a sensible form of learning, this does not seem to be the case for the second form of blending. And yet it makes a lot of sense also to consider this a form of blending. The emphasis is not now on logistics. The formal part could be situated in a face-to-face environment or in an online environment, whichever suits best. Even blending in the above sense may be considered. The informal part may refer to presence situations, in the classroom or on the shop floor, or to online experiences, for instance in online social networks.

This kind of blending, I surmise, offers a superior pedagogy, one that should ensure that the formal and informal learning bouts that someone experiences become wedded to each other and constitute a single learning experience; a pedagogy also that should warrant that learning is gauged in terms of progress made towards the achievement of personal learning goals and not measured only in terms of progress on a scale defined by others. The notion of a personal learning network by taking a decidedly personal perspective is an attempt to do so. The TRAILER project's attempts to incorporate informal learning experiences in e-portfolios, is another one. Through extending their personal learning network or by expanding their e-portfolios, students profit from this kind of blending. But so do the companies that embrace this kind of blended learning. The increasing awareness of the relevance of informal learning at the workplace, makes this kind of blending of the formal with the informal imperative. There is room for training at the workplace, but for knowledge workers in their pursuit of solving wicked, ill-structured, authentic problems this doesn't suffice. As these problems are unique or at least uniquely dependent on their specific setting, training simple is non-existent. Such knowledge workers are in need of fellow experts, with complementary expertise, from whom they can learn and together with whom they can develop the new knowledge that is needed to solve their problems. For them, blending in the first sense offers no solace, but blending in the second sense should. They could make use of bouts of (individual) formal training to efficiently come up to speed with a particular topic they are unfamiliar with; they should use informal bouts of collective learning to then solve the problem at hand. It is the maturity of the field or discipline a question refers to that is decisive: only for mature fields it makes sense to develop a formal training (for more on this, see Maier & Schmidt, 2007). Viewed this way, blended learning in this second sense is the bread and butter of workplace learning (cf. Littlejohn, 2012). Obviously, at least from my point of view, a learning network is the type of learning environment in which this kind of blended learning finds a natural home.

Littlejohn, A. (2012). change11 position paper; connected knowledge, collective learningejohn.com. Little by Littlejohn, blog. Retrieved May 29, 2012, from http://littlebylittlejohn.com/change11-position-paper

Maier, R. & Schmidt, A. (2007) Characterizing Knowledge Maturing: A Conceptual Process Model for Integrating E-Learning and Knowledge Management. In N. Gronau (Ed.), 4th Conference Professional Knowledge Management Experiences and Visions WM 07 Potsdam (Vol. 1, pp. 325-334). GITO. Retrieved from http://www.andreas-p-schmidt.de/publications/Maier_Schmidt_KnowledgeMaturing_WM07.pdf