Advances in technology have changed the way that many professional educators regard course delivery. This pedagogical shift is experienced throughout higher education by both administrators and faculty from doctoral-granting institutions to community colleges and technical schools. The inclusion of blended or hybrid classes provides an avenue for post-secondary institutions to both maximize their resources and meet the educational needs of their students (Gould, 2003). A recent meta-analysis released by the Department of Education provides academic support for the expansion of blended delivery courses.
The study found that students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than did those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction. Further, those who took “blended” courses—those that combine elements of online learning and face-to-face instruction—appeared to do best of all. (Jaschik, 2009, n.p.)
During economic downturns institutions that offer programs tailored to serve working adults, such as community colleges and technical schools, typically experience enrollment growth which is related to rising unemployment (Allen and Seaman, 2008). While many of these schools already offer online coursework, adding blended or hybrid courses has the potential to meet the diverse learning needs of students and maximize available campus resources.
The term blended learning is often used interchangeably with the term hybrid learning. Even though most higher education institutions utilize some form of course or learning management system whereby class notes, presentations, online articles, etc. can be accessed, such web enhancements to a face-to-face course do not exemplify a blended course. Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “blend” as “harmonizing”, “mixing together two elements” and the “act of combining into one”. In order for true blending to occur, the structure of the course must be carefully evaluated to determine which instructional objectives can best be met in an online environment and which are better suited to a traditional classroom environment.
While the term blended learning has been defined in many ways, a blended course is most commonly described as one in which both face-to-face learning and distance learning methods are collaboratively used in an effort to provide students with the benefits of both delivery styles (Hijazi, Crowley, Smith and Shaffer, 2006). According to Garnham and Kaleta (2002) hybrid courses are simply those in which a significant portion of the learning activities have been moved online, and time traditionally spent in the classroom is reduced but not eliminated. Nearly a decade ago, Bleed (2001) proposed a model referred to as “bricks and clicks”, in which 50% of learning would take place virtually and the other half in a more traditional classroom environment. He maintained that this model would provide “new designs for the new economy for new kinds of students” (p. 18) as well as being very cost-effective. The Sloan Consortium provides more flexibility for the ratio which is delivered online and proposes that blended courses are those in which 30 to 79 percent of the content is delivered in an online format, while the remaining course content delivered in the more traditional classroom setting (Allen, Seaman and Garrett, 2007).
The blended learning experience combines learning which occurs in the traditional classroom setting with learning which entails using the Internet. It is pedagogically rooted in the idea that learning is not a one-time or MWF event but rather a continuous process (Singh, 2003). Blended learning seeks to reframe the learning process as discrete lessons move to a more connected, continuous learning process. “ Blended learning should be viewed as a pedagogical approach that combines the effectiveness and socialization opportunities of the classroom with the technologically enhanced active learning possibilities of the online environment, rather than a ratio of delivery modalities” (Dziuban, Hartman and Moskal, 2004, p. 3).
Administrators at many institutions of higher education, particularly those which offer coursework utilizing a variety of delivery methods, believe recent economic changes including higher unemployment and rising fuel costs, will have a positive effect on student enrollments. Such widespread beliefs are supported by the 2008 report entitled Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States. Institutions such as community colleges and technical schools that cater to non-traditional students will see the highest increases in enrollment. Associate degree-granting institutions presently serve about 37% of the higher education student body and over 50% of all online students are currently enrolled by such institutions. Arabasz and Baker (2003) found that smaller institutions (less than 5000 students) often lag in offering both online and hybrid/blended courses. Since many smaller institutions play critical roles in educational and workforce training opportunities in rural areas, using an integrative approach such as blended course delivery is worthy of consideration.
Advantages for Students and Schools
Anecdotal evidence indicates that blended course instruction both offers more choices for content delivery and may be more effective than courses that are either fully online or fully classroom-based (Singh, 2003). Because not all students learn in the same way, Young (2002) suggests that presenting materials in a variety of formats helps maximize student engagement. “The community college instructor should try to offer learning activities that will appeal to the widest variety of learning styles possible”, reflects Stewart (2008, p. 371).
Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Garnham & Kaleta, 2002) also suggested that students learn more in blended courses than they do in comparable traditional class sections. Teachers responsible for the blended sections reported that students wrote better papers, performed better on exams, produced higher quality projects, and were capable of more meaningful discussions on course material.
Chris Dede of the Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education noted that many people are able to find their voice in distance media in a way that they cannot in a typical classroom. A shy student who might not participate in a classroom environment may speak up in an online forum where students have more time to think before they are required to comment (Young, 2002). Faculty teaching in a blended delivery model report an increased level of interaction, both among fellow classmates and with their instructor, which suggests that the blended environment offers a less-intimidating forum for student participation, specifically accommodating students who tend to be less verbal (Gould, 2003). Moreover, the increased interaction results in a more inclusive environment, leading all students to experience a richer and more diverse learning experience. DeLacey and Leonard (2002) noted that students are not only more interactive but also more likely to avoid bias in an online discussion environment.
While some instructors may still argue that a traditional classroom is the “richest” teaching medium, blended instruction allows ample opportunities for building social relationships between the teacher and students. “Blended courses offer the convenience and flexibility of wholly online courses without the loss of faculty or student interaction” (Sitter, Carter, C., Mahan, Massello, and Carter, T., 2009, p. 42). Combining the successful elements of a well-designed online course with the face-to-face discussions and personal interactions a blended course offers maximizes student participation because the preferred learning styles of more students are being met (Kibby, 2007), including those that favor the flexibility of asynchronous learning and those that prefer a “live”, interactive discussion. Courses offered in a blended or hybrid format “address a variety of learning styles” because they offer instructional materials in a wide range of formats (Gould, 2003). “…online ‘meetings’ sometimes force students to be more prepared and to participate more actively in the learning process than they might while sitting in the classroom. They may therefore be less likely to become detached and passive” (Chen and Jones, 2007, p.12)
A frequently noted advantage of blended instruction is flexibility (Stewart, 2008; Hijazi et al., 2006; Gould, 2003; Garnham and Kaleta, 2002).
A number of potential advantages to blended learning are emerging. Some of these revolve around accessibility, pedagogical effectiveness, and course interaction. Many of today’s college students are non-traditional, attempting to balance family, jobs and university life. Coming to campus is often difficult for many of them and reducing the number of required face-to-face hours can help students manage (Dziuban, Moskal and Hartman, 2005, p. 5).
Community college instructors should be cognizant of the issues, such as dependent families and work schedules, that non-traditional students often bring to the classroom (Stewart, 2008). He notes that upon returning to school students often faced “formidable challenges”. One advantage to a course utilizing blended instruction is the ability for the adult learner with multiple responsibilities to more easily accommodate not only their school responsibilities but also family and work life.
Miller and Lu (2003) maintain that the ‘anytime, anywhere’ mentality of online course delivery “makes sense to working adults who need flexibility” either completing degrees or upgrading skills for job advancement. They also note that the availability of e-courses provide the needed flexibility to maintain part-time jobs, especially students from lower socio-economic classes. Blended course delivery offers the flexibility of having part of the coursework available in an e-learning format resulting in greater flexibility for those students who are juggling multiple responsibilities outside of school. Students have also responded favorably to the ability to minimize both the commuting time and travel costs associated with fully face-to-face course delivery (Hijazi, et al., 2006; Garnham and Kaleta, 2002; Bleed, 2001). Blended learning methodologies accommodate the student’s active life schedule while still providing the social connections that are necessary for clear communication to exist, ultimately supporting retention and success (Hijazi et al., 2006).
Benefits for Schools
Blended instruction may enable schools to maximize classroom space and/or reduce the number of overcrowded classrooms. From a physical standpoint, blended instruction allows multiple classes to utilize one physical space, which is particularly important when computer labs are involved (Gould, 2003). Improvements in classroom utilization have the potential to reduce direct instructional costs by 25-50 percent (Dziuban, Hartman and Moskal, 2004). The availability of hybrid courses “allow institutions to offer more classes at peak demand times of the day, thus maximizing the scant resources by increasing flexibility in scheduling” (Gould, 2003, p. 55). Schools can also reap institutional savings. “On a pure cost basis, hybrids reduce paper and photocopying costs. In hybrid courses, all course documents, including syllabi, lecture notes, assignment sheets and other hard copy handouts, are easily accessible to the students on the course web site” (Gould, 2003, p. 55).
Bowen (2006, n.p.) suggests that technology can be a tool to “free” instructors from using class time to “cover” content in the classroom. Instead, he suggests that this valuable class time be used to “demonstrate the continued value of direct student to faculty interaction and discussion (n.p.)” This philosophy is consistent with teaching blended delivery courses; the physical classroom should be utilized fully, in engaging and meaningful activities that benefit from face-to-face interaction between classmates and the instructor. For example, a detailed ethical case study is made available online for students to read and research. Students are expected to come to the face-to-face class session prepared to present theoretical arguments for both sides of the issue. Classroom time is used for small group discussions or a larger, whole class debate over the most contested ethical aspects of the dilemma.
Post-secondary administrators have also noted the expansion of blended course delivery has alleviated significant parking problems on their campus. (Hijazi et al., 2006; Dziuban, Hartman and Moskal, 2004; Garnham and Kaleta, 2002). Because students are not on campus everyday as they are if on a traditional collegiate schedule, there is less demand for parking during peak hours. Some two-year schools, such as Western Dakota Technical Institute in South Dakota saw a 20% increase in enrollment from Fall 2008 to Fall 2009 (“WDT enrolls record number of students”). Such a significant enrollment growth places additional demands on existing parking, classroom space and available technology.
Some adult learners returning to school may have questionable technical skills and as many as 50% of adults experience some computer-related phobia (Saade and Kira, 2009). Unpleasant side effects associated with technology may include strong, negative emotional states that arise not only during the interaction but even before, when the idea of having to interact with the computer begins. Frustration, confusion, anger, anxiety and similar emotional states which may be associated with the interaction can adversely affect productivity, learning, social relationships and overall well-being (Saade and Kira, 2009, pg. 179). It is imperative that adult learners have access to the support necessary to successfully engage in the online portion of blended course delivery.
Faculty need to be aware that not all students have the same degree of technological expertise and ensure that supports are in place to assist those who are novice e-learners. Support may be required for many facets of e-learning tasks such as posting discussion threads, uploading course materials, taking quizzes, accessing wikis, blogging and working together in virtual groups. Instructors should begin a blended course by specifically outlining and modeling the technology that will be utilized thereby decreasing the anxiety that may occur for novice online learners. This delivery mode provides a unique opportunity to introduce students to online instruction methods while still maintaining a traditional classroom presence.
Participating in a blended or hybrid course requires students to be self-motivated learners with effective time management skills, much like participation in a fully online course. Students are held responsible for not only the online aspect of the class but also for fully interacting in the classroom meetings. This combination of pedagogical methods seeks to encourage an active, engaged learning environment where students potentially learn more than in a traditional on-campus classroom (Dziuban, Moskal and Hartman, 2005). However, a change from a lecture-oriented class to student-centered active learning can constitute a radical change for some students, especially older students unaccustomed to taking responsibility for their own learning. If students enrolled in a hybrid or blended class are expecting a traditional class setting, they may be disappointed and/or discouraged by the format.
Hybrid courses train students, even those technologically wary, in computer and communication skills that will prove to be valuable in the workplace. Students may enhance their computer skills while engaging in an introduction to online learning and find that they desire to take additional fully online courses or that blended course delivery more adequately satisfies their need for flexibility and interpersonal relationships.
Faculty resistant to online course delivery can often see the benefits of blended course delivery; however moving a traditional course to a blended format requires careful consideration of educational objectives and methodologies. Garnham and Kaleta (2002) noted that in order to teach a successful hybrid course, the instructor must invest a significant amount of time and effort into the redesign of the class. Course redesign will require a review of instructional strategies and assessment techniques as well as the limitations presented by the existing course management system. Care should be taken to select activities whose objectives can be met via online delivery and those which will be enhanced in a traditional format.
The focus is on faculty facilitating instruction and students becoming active and interactive learners. Blended learning provides a unique opportunity to bridge generations, providing the face-to-face contact requested by Baby Boomers, the independence preferred by Gen-Xers, and the interaction and sense of community desired by Net Geners (Hartman, Moskal and Dziuban, 2005, p. 6.10).
Instructors who implement such strategies have potential to create engaging and supportive learning settings, drawing upon the maximum benefit from technology while retaining the best features of face-to-face teaching (Corcoran, 2009).
How do the strategies of good blended instruction align with good teaching practice? A survey at the University of Central Florida (N=1,489) measuring learning engagement and interaction values in online learning found that independent of generation or gender, students identify the same characteristics of good teachers. Students believe that excellent teaching happens when the instructor can 1) facilitate student learning, 2) communicate ideas and information effectively, 3) demonstrate a genuine interest in student learning, 4) organize their courses effectively, 5) show respect and concern for students and 6) assess student progress fairly and effectively (Hartman, Moskal and Dziuban, 2005, p. 6.11). Not only can all of these tasks be successfully accomplished in a blended learning environment, some may be achieved more efficiently than in a traditional face-to-face classroom.
Nearly a decade ago, Bleed envisioned an economic advantage to institutions offering hybrid learning courses. “If we reduce our cost for building and facilities 50 percent by needing only 50 percent as much space, just think of the savings! This may also be the only way colleges and universities can keep up with the continuing population growth and the demands for lifelong learning (2001, p. 18).
While economic savings are important, one of the most challenging goals of higher education is how to best meet the needs of students. Blended learning offers advantages commonly associated with traditional instruction with the flexibility of online instruction. Garnham and Kaleta (2002) note that both students and instructors liked the convenience of the hybrid course model. Time flexibility for both groups was the most popular feature. Moreover, faculty participants believe students learn more in a blended environment.
While many of the benefits of blended instruction are not confined to community colleges or technical schools, the benefits cannot be understated for the adult student. The purpose of this paper was to examine both the advantages and challenges of blended instruction for students typically attending a community college or technical school. These students tend to have multiple responsibilities outside of school, making flexible education an important determinant. Blended courses offer the convenience and flexibility of wholly online courses without the loss of faculty and student interaction (Sitter et al., 2009). While fully online coursework works well for some students, it is not the best option for all students desiring to further their education. This same statement may be true of the traditional classroom setting, suggesting that blended instruction options may appeal to those not interested in pure classroom or Internet courses. As Alvarez (2005, n.p.) states, “the online environment is not the ideal setting for all types of learning. Classrooms are not perfect either. That’s why so many teachers and corporate trainers are concentrating their efforts on integrating internet-based technologies and classrooms to create blended solutions.”
Today’s college students face a complex set of dilemmas about whether to attend college, where to attend, how to pay, how much to work, how many jobs to take, how to pay credit card bills and car payments, how to juggle family and children, and how to balance these competing priorities while in school (Tuttle, McKinney and Rago, 2005, p.1).
My personal teaching experiences at a mid-western technical school echo that of many researchers. Such students were frequently enrolled in programs designed to increase their knowledge base or skill levels in a short period of time in an effort to become marketable in the workplace. They have families and often must work at least part-time to support children or spouses, while at the same time being full-time students. For example, community colleges in California serve one-quarter of all enrolled community college students in the nation and report that over 80% of the attendees work (Foundation for California Community Colleges). “Working is a necessity for most students today and this is unlikely to change in the future” (Tuttle, McKinney and Rago, 2005, p.8). Not only are students more likely to work today, they are more likely to combine going to school with full-time work. The number of students going to school full-time and working full-time doubled between the years1985 and 2000. In 2000, over 800,000 students worked full-time and attended school on a full-time basis (Orszag, J., Orszag, P., and Whitmore, 2001).
Returning adult students are sometimes surprised at the time commitment involved when one returns to school. Moreover, I have observed that students who return to school for job-related skills frequently have not had positive previous experiences in school. For this type of student, interacting and developing relationships with both fellow students and instructors is crucial to their retention and subsequent success in school. Their academic foundation and basic skills may be tenuous, putting them at particularly high risk of failure if embarking on a fully online course which requires extensive reading and writing, as well as both strong time management and technological skills. “…blended courses have the potential to increase student learning outcomes while lowering attrition rates in comparison with equivalent fully online courses” (Dziuban, Hartman and Moskal, 2004, p. 5).
Certainly there are challenges and even sacrifices that must be anticipated when an adult returns to the classroom; however care should be taken by the instructor not to overemphasize the value of “seat time.” Quality instructors recognize that our role is to facilitate relevant and engaging learning activities and, as difficult as it may be for some to accept, classroom lectures on motivational theories or lifespan development may not be as engaging as a well-planned and executed assignment that occurs outside the walls of our classroom. As Flavin noted in his paper “E-Learning Advantages in a Tough Economy”, good classroom teachers have always blended methods, incorporating reading, writing, discussion, audio/film, projects and practice. Using the right teaching method, in the right situation and for the right purpose, should be a guiding design principle of all exemplary instructors (2001).
Finally, blended instruction offers faculty and students, the ability to teach and learn in a variety of different modalities, potentially increasing the instructional effectiveness. Making blended instruction available in certain subjects in a community college or technical school setting may offer the adult student the “best of both worlds”—flexibility of online education and the social and instructor support commonly associated with a face-to-face class. “Through blended learning, accreditation and high standards can be maintained while providing the additional flexibility that students require” (Dziuban, Moskal and Hartman, 2005, p.4) If the goal of higher education is to meet the ever-changing needs of students, post-secondary institutions need to give further consideration to this teaching methodology.
In today’s competitive educational environment, students are looking for alternative educational opportunities. Due to the diverse backgrounds, occupations and time constraints of students in today’s environment, it is necessary for course delivery methods to accommodate these diverse needs without sacrificing rigor… (Sitter et al., 2009, p. 40).
Learning in this century need not be limited to the confines of a building or even a classroom, nor does it simply begin and end at an appointed hour. By recognizing that life-long learning may necessitate a change in instructional delivery, educational leaders at two-year post-secondary institutions can expand their curriculum, do more with fewer resources and engage potential digital learners.
Gerard Corcoran (2009, p. 6) recently posed the following question: Does the future of education, learning and training belong to a new machine-based digital environment, or will the best learning remain a deeply human endeavor conducted person-to-person in a traditional classroom setting? I believe, as does Corcoran, that the answer is definitively “yes” to both parts of the question. Digital media, the Internet, the World Wide Web and virtual classrooms will continue to be an ever-present part of educational programs, but innovative and caring teachers will remain an essential part of the process. Utilizing an integrative approach such as blended course delivery creates an opportunity to both minimize the weaknesses and capitalize on the strengths of both online and face-to-face modes.