Medium: a variety of synchronous and asynchronous media
Social context: a variety of contexts
Typical strategies: a variety of strategies
There is no widespread agreement on a definition for blended learning. Are we talking about a blend of strategies, a blend of methods or a blend of media? Does e-learning have to be one of the elements in the blend? Are we actually talking about blended teaching rather than blended learning? Given that the latter is more often the case, I put forward my own rather wordy summary:
“A blended learning solution combines educational and training methods within different social contexts for learning (self-study, one-to-one, group), with the aim of increasing learning effectiveness. It may also mix the learning media used to deliver the solution (face-to-face, online, offline, telephonic, etc.) as a way to optimise the efficiency of the solution. These choices are made in response to particular learning requirements, audience characteristics, and practical constraints and opportunities.”
Given this definition, it is clear that there is nothing new in the concept of blended learning, although it would be fair to say that, until recently, only a small proportion of interventions were actually blended. It may well be that the need for blending has only really become evident now that viable alternatives to the classroom have become available. Many employers may have switched emphasis to self-study approaches, probably online, only to discover that they had probably thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The reality is that all major social contexts for learning and all principle media options have as many disadvantages as they have advantages. Often the only way that the advantages can be exploited and the disadvantages avoided is by employing a combination of approaches, making sure that the right tool is used for each task.
Because, by definition, blended solutions contain a number of elements, they are more difficult to implement than solutions which are based on a single approach. For that reason, blending is not going to make sense for simple applications of limited duration. Where a blend makes most sense is when the learning requirement is multi-faceted, the audience is heterogeneous and there are numerous practical constraints to be overcome.
Above all, blended solutions provide the opportunity to create interventions that deliver a complete learning experience, grounded in real-world problems and resulting in real-world application. Too many formal learning interventions do a good job of engaging the learner for a limited period and creating an interest in a topic or skill; where they fall down is in the process that follows, when skills have to honed and refined, and learning tested against the realities of the real world. A well-designed blend will draw on approaches more usually associated with other contexts – non-formal, on-demand and experiential – to bridge the gap from theory to practice.
Blended solutions are:
- at their best when they maintain a good balance between live and self-paced activities, create a bridge between formalised and informal learning;
- best avoided when used purely as a cost-cutting exercise, overly complex.