My experiences with blended learning

Note: This blog post is being used as part of the UNI Teacher Quality Partnership Course Redesign Summit that will take place from June 1-7, therefore, this post may seem a bit out of context for those not participating in the summit.  However, feel free to leave comments and interact as you see fit.

I’ve had a few experiences with blended learning as a student, some good and some bad.  My first experiences were during my undergraduate course about distance education.  This course was taught in an entirely blended format.  There were face-to-face meetings on campus and there were also a number of interactions using a learning management system.  Like many things, the first time you try something is rarely the best experience and mine was no different.  Having never taken a course that met at a distance, I was unprepared for the online experience of the course, in particular, the online discussions.  I’m typically a more reserved person when it comes to discussions in front of my peers and this transferred to the online environment.  When the time came for discussions it was difficult for me to engage with others in the course.  I’d have something I would want to share so I would post it in my forum, but I rarely received feedback from anyone else in the course.  Essentially I thought what I was posting was wrong and no one was telling me otherwise so I went on that assumption.  I felt isolated.  As time went on I continued to feel more and more isolated and in the end my performance in the course suffered.  The problem with this first experience was that I didn’t feel like I was noticed by others in the course.  This is what is called social presence, which has to be facilitated and cultivated by course instructors.  If instructors fail to do this, students tend to fall into the same situation that I found myself in during my first blended course.

However, my second experience was much different from my first.  I enrolled in a distance masters program where all the courses were taught primarily at a distance.  In each of the courses, we only met physically about once or twice a semester and, for the most part, the people I began my courses with were the same throughout the entire experience.  This helped each student develop relationships that will last a lifetime.  There were many typical class activities, such as readings, lectures, discussions, and collaborative group work, that were done at a distance with people from all over the US.  The key for the experience was being able to work asynchronously, but still on a schedule to ensure we progressed through the course together.  This way we could learn when it was most convenient for us.  Also making this a positive experience were the instructors who were flexible and responsive to the needs of the students.  If something needed to be changed, they worked with the entire class and modified the course accordingly.
Reflecting back on the experience, there were a number of changes from my first blended course to my last.  The biggest factor has probably been time.  About 7 years has elapsed since my first experience and during that time a number of advances, both intelectual and technological, have been made with blended and online learning that have made them easier to design and teach.  This isn’t because blended and online learning is an easier format to teach through, but instead, we are better able to identify and change problem areas both in the design process and once the course is underway, which in the end makes the entire process easier.  While we will share and discuss many of the resources and strategies you can use to design effective blended learning environments, I underlined a few words above to have you start thinking about how you and your students interact in your courses.  Even though there are a number of contextual differences between my experience and the ones you create for your students, these are still common themes that will appear in nearly all blended learning environments, so think about these themes in your context and what it means for your students.
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