What is blended learning?
Blended learning is both flexible and dynamic. By ‘flexible’, I mean it is not just one thing (a fixed combination of X and Y) but rather, it can be many things depending on your teaching context. By ‘dynamic’, I mean that the components which make up blended learning are constantly changing. A recent incarnation of blended learning, for example, involves students donning headsets and practising a talk in VR (Virtual Reality) in preparation for giving a presentation in real life.
The classic definition of blended learning combines teaching in a ‘bricks and mortar’ classroom with web-based learning. The latter is usually ‘online’ but could be ‘offline’ and might not even involve the Internet at all, such as doing exercises on a CD-ROM or using a ‘native’ app – an app which ‘lives’ in your mobile phone and does not require a Wi-Fi connection to function.
Another approach to blended learning involves blending the use of print and digital resources, effectively combining the traditional and the new, analogue and digital.
When should teachers use blended learning?
In a very narrow definition of blended learning (such as face-to-face plus online) the answer to this question is: when studying online is a realistic, feasible option. In a broader definition of blended learning, such as that described by Sharma and Barrett ‘face-to-face plus an appropriate use of technology’ (Pete Sharma & Barney Barrett, Blended Learning, Macmillan, 2007), the answer is: ‘All the time!’ In other words, teaching in this new digital age should use the technologies which students meet in their everyday lives, such as the Internet, laptop, smartphone and tablet.
There are many reasons why teachers decide to run a blended learning course, as opposed to (say) a 100% classroom course like those I ran when I first started teaching, or a 100% online course.
One is time. There’s simply not enough time in a course to cover everything. Moreover, some language areas are really suited to be studied outside the classroom. Extensive reading and practising difficult phonemes, for instance.
Combining the best of the classroom (live interaction with the teacher and classmates) and the best of technology (anytime, anywhere guided practice) in a principled way can produce a ‘better’ course for students. In other words, the best of both worlds.
What is the value of blended learning?
Flexibility is one advantage. Students taking a blended learning course are frequently offered choices. We all know a class of 12 comprises 12 individuals, displaying different learning preferences. Students can match their path through the material to suit their own learning style and approach.
Similarly, from the teacher’s point of view, blended learning enables the implementation of ‘differentiation’.
We are all familiar with the restrictions imposed by the teaching timetable. The English language lesson is at 16.00 on Thursday. Yet this is the age of u-learning, ubiquitous learning. The distant part of a blended learning course can be done anywhere, anytime – in a coffee shop with Wi-Fi, at the airport, in a hotel … , this ‘best of both worlds’ (the classroom and online) is a key feature and benefit of blended learning.
Different approaches to blended learning
The approaches taken to blended learning are as many and varied as the different types of teaching: YL (young learners), business English, CLIL (content and language integrated learning). One common approach would be to issue the students with a printed coursebook and have them use the code on the inside to access their online digital materials. I focus particularly on this approach in my series of articles on running a blended learning course.
Different types of digital activities
Here’s a snapshot of the vast range of tools available for blended learning:
- a vocabulary memory game on an app to review new language
- a podcast; students can listen as many times as they wish, using the pause and the slider to listen intensively to selected parts
- a video, with on-demand sub-titles or a transcript
- a discussion forum; students answer a question before their in-class lesson. The additional time helps develop critical thinking skills and contrasts the real-time pressure to reply in the classroom
How to run a blended learning course
Looking for some practical advice and tips on running a blended learning course? Read my series of articles to help you prepare, set-up and run blended learning:
- Preparing for the first lesson
- The first lesson and student orientation
- Using digital in class
- Setting digital homework
- Encouraging students to learn independently
Blended Learning, Pete Sharma & Barney Barrett (Macmillan, 2007)
Pete Sharma is a teacher trainer, consultant and ELT author. He works as a pre-sessional lecturer in EAP (English for Academic purposes) at Warwick University, UK. Pete worked for many years in business English as a teacher trainer and materials writer. He is a regular conference presenter at IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) and BESIG (Business English Special Interest Group) conferences and has given plenary talks and keynote speeches at conferences around the world. Pete is the co-author of several books on technology including Blended Learning (2007), 400 Ideas for Interactive Whiteboards (2011) in the Macmillan ‘Books for Teachers’ series, and How to Write for Digital Media (2014), and most recently Best Practices for Blended Learning. Pete was the Newsletter Editor of the IATEFL CALL Review (2008-2009) and has a Masters in Educational Technology and ELT from Manchester University.