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Blended Learning: From Theory to Practice

blended learning

I have long been interested in ‘Blended Learning’ (BL). It remains a ‘buzz’ term in language teaching, although it means different things to different people. This blog post explores some key aspects of BL.

A good place to start unpacking the various definitions of BL is the ELTJ article ‘Key concepts in ELT: Blended Learning’ (2010). Common definitions include:

  • combining traditional teaching with e-learning
  • combining different methodologies
  • combining different technologies

Despite the range of definitions, it is generally understood that the term refers to a course which combines face-to-face (f2f) classroom teaching with web-based learning. This is the definition I will use in my webinar: Blended Learning: from theory to practice.

Flexibility

BL is fascinating because the concept is based on being responsive to individual contexts. There is no single ‘solution’, but rather many ways to blend classroom teaching and online learning.

Flux

The term is constantly changing. The term ‘virtual blend’ has recently been applied to 100% online courses which use ‘face-to-face online’ teaching in ‘live’ webinars. New, somewhat exotic incarnations of BL have evolved, such as f2f + Virtual Reality (VR). Students away from the class use a headset to do further language practice which complements their lessons.

Why blend?

There are many reasons for transitioning to BL. One common reason is to combine the well-known positives of classroom teaching with the advantages of online learning, considered to be studying at your own pace, at a place of your choice; and ‘differentiation’ – using the online platform as a way of delivering personalized, individual learning.

‘Time’ is another frequently cited reason. There is simply not enough time for language learners to cover everything within the constraints of the class timetable. Indeed, some language areas are best suited to self-study, such as extensive reading and practising difficult phonemes.

Can BL save money? There is huge disagreement on this point. Many commercial organizations cite ‘cost-saving’ as a major argument for blending; however, schools who have moved part of the curriculum online often report additional and unexpected costs including remuneration for online moderation.

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges in setting up a BL course is that the course fails to satisfy anyone’s learning preference. The students who enjoy the class may not contribute to the knowledge building occurring in the online environment, while those who enjoy working online may dislike the time restrictions imposed by the timetable. Learners may not see the link between their lessons and online work. They sometimes perceive the online components to be of lesser value and fail to do the online work. Technical problems can prove de-motivating.

Which LMS?

In recent workshops, I have asked the question: “Which platform do you use?” The range of answers shows the immense diversity of what happens in classrooms around the world. Common is an ‘open-source’ platform like Moodle which is essentially empty unless you create and upload your own materials. Some private language schools have created their own LMS. If you use a coursebook, a sound entry point is the publisher platform, such as Oxford Online.

Comparing LMSs rarely compares ‘like for like’. The platform you know and love may well be disliked or unknown to a colleague. Much depends on your own preferences, familiarity and of course, your school.

The power of data

This summer, I taught with a publisher-produced platform linked to a coursebook. It included tracking tools which allowed me to see data on student performance, such as their scores for each exercise. It was quite a revelation for me, a classroom teacher, to see just what students do on the platform. I’m keen to share my insights in the webinar.

Success with BL

There are four critical factors in working towards a successful BL course appropriacy, complementarity, attitude and training:

  • Appropriacy

Successful BL teachers plan activities which are appropriate to each mode: classroom and online.

Imagine working on a controversial topic. It is appropriate to develop oral fluency in the classroom, through real-time discussion. It is appropriate to work on ‘critical thinking’ through an online forum, giving students more time to reflect, draft and re-compose their written arguments.

  • Complementarity

This refers to the genuine integration of the ‘in-class’ and ‘online’ elements. Sending students individual messages via the platform is a great way to personalise a printed activity in the student coursebook.

  • Attitude

“Apparently, we now have to use this learning platform, so here is your password!”

 This overheard comment evinces a disconnect between a teachers’ beliefs and their practice. The success of a BL course may well ultimately depend on both teachers and students holding positive beliefs about BL itself.

  • Teacher training

Both teachers and students need time to become familiar with online materials and procedures. Teacher training represents an investment in time and money, yet it is an essential factor in making BL work.

Do you run BL courses? If so, which platform do you use? What is your experience? 

The concept of BL is rich and multi-layered. As technology changes, so does BL. Nevertheless, no matter how fast the technology changes, it is principled pedagogy which lies at the heart of a good language course and underlies BL. I’m very much looking forward to exploring this fascinating, key concept in ELT and sharing ideas with teachers around the world.

Register to join me for my webinar!

Please note – this article was written prior to the more widespread impact of the Coronavirus on schools and is therefore focused on blending online and classroom teaching.

Please visit our Learn at Home page to find online resources and activities to help teachers, parents and students get the most out of learning at home.


Pete Sharma is a Director of Pete Sharma Associates Ltd, a consultancy and training organisation: www.psa.eu.com  He works as a pre-sessional lecturer in EAP (English for Academic purposes) at Warwick University, UK. Pete has co-written many books on educational technology in ELT. Click here to visit Pete’s blog.


References

Sharma, P. (2010). Key Concepts in ELT: Blended learning. ELTJ, 64(4), 456-458

Sharma, P. and Barrett, B. (2018) Best Practices for Blended Learning (2018) Hove: Pavilion Publishing and Media Ltd

Whittaker, C., and Tomlinson, B. (Eds.). (2013). Blended learning in English language teaching: Course Design and Implementation London, UK: British Council.


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The Complete Guide to Running a Blended Learning Course

Blended learning - students working together on laptopsWhat 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.

 

Why blend?

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? Read my complete guide to help you prepare, set-up and run a blended learning course:

 

Download the guide

 

References

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.


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Webinar: Apps, e-books and digital resources for Business English

Pete Sharma shares some thoughts on mobile learning in Business English from his webinar on 28th February entitled “Apps, e-books and digital resources for Business English”. You can watch a recording here.

I’m teaching two groups of students this month. They are mostly young adults, from China. As I gaze round the classroom looking at my students, I’m struck by how many of them have a smartphone. Some have tablets. They seem to have these devices in their hands all the time – sometimes checking new words, sometimes using the Internet to look something up. Sometimes, they are ‘on-task’, but more often than not, they are multi-tasking, updating their Facebook page or text-chatting with a friend – and certainly not in English!

Mobile phones have been described as a ‘disruptive technology’. If a phone rings in the classroom, the lesson is disrupted. One teacher in Brazil told me recently that mobile phones were banned by law from being used his school, in his state. Last year, I visited a college in India where the following sign is displayed in each classroom: “No mobiles!” Yet it is clear that such devices have benefits, and certainly for Business English students who often travel a lot, usually with a smartphone, tablet or laptop… or even all three!

What then are the benefits of mobile learning for Business English students? What are the drawbacks?

In my webinar, I’ll first focus on apps. There are apps for just about everything, and we’ll look at some that are especially helpful for Business English students. These include apps which are good for vocabulary development, as well as apps for developing language skills such as speaking, listening and reading.

Then, we’ll look at how using e-books can add new dimensions to language learning. I’ll be demonstrating this with a popular title from the Express Series, English for Presentations.

Finally, I’ll be focussing on some of the many technologies and digital resources which can be used by Business English teachers, including VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments).

I’ll argue that, providing we start from the ‘pedagogy’, there’s plenty that technology can offer to enhance our teaching. I hope you can join me.

Watch a recording of Pete’s webinar here.