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Just as the curriculum can become a collection of courses instead of a cohesive and meaningful curriculum, the same may be true for blended learning when the approach does not provide the mechanisms and support to fundamentally redesign the student learning experience across the curriculum. .... The process of creating blended learning opportunities presents the institution with the chance to shift the frame of reference from individual faculty creating individual courses to the institution embarking on the execution of a learning strategy that expands well beyond individual courses. 

1357. Blended Learning as Transformational Institutional Learning (Part 1 of 2)

Folks:

Rick ReisThe posting below addresses an important topic of, "how an institution creates a unified approach to blended learning that is then instilled in individual courses to create a cohesive and meaningful approach to transforming student learning"?  It is a bit long so I am sending it as two postings, one today and one on Monday. The posting is from Chapter 7, Blended Learning as Transformational Institutional Learning, by Kim VanDerLinden, in the book, Connecting Learning Across the Institution, Pamela L. Eddy (editor).  It is part of the Jossey-Bass, New Directions for Higher Education Learning series, Betsy O. Barefoot and Jillian L. Kinzie, co-editors. Number 165, Spring 2014. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco. Copyright © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis
reis@stanford.edu

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UP NEXT: Blended Learning as Transformational Institutional Learning (Part 2 of 2)


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Blended Learning as Transformational Institutional Learning (Part 1 of 2)



Blended learning is broadly defined as replacing seat time in courses with online activities to achieve learning objectives. Garrison and Vaughan (2008) argue that blended learning is "the thoughtful fusion of face-to-face and online learning experiences" (p.5) such that the strengths of each mode are blended into an optimal learning experience.  At most institutions, a blended course is synonymous with a hybrid course.  Whether termed hybrid or blended, a key feature of this mode of instruction is that it requires a fundamental course redesign that transforms the structure and approach to student learning (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). 

Blended learning exists on a continuum with minimal online activities on one end and minimal face-to-face activities on the other end.  Most institutions do not prescribe a definition of blended learning and acknowledge that it has different meanings for different disciplines and can fall anywhere in the continuum.  When colleges and universities fail to define blended learning at an institutional level, however, it is then reduced to the broadest understanding and open to interpretation regarding the ratio of face-to-face time and online interaction and activities.  The absence of a precise definition undermines the important distinctions made by Garrison and Vaughan (2008) that blended learning is a transformational redesign of teaching and learning.  And the broad definition then lends itself to blended learning becoming a mere description of a singular course rather than an institutional strategy.  For example, a course may require significant online interaction between students and faculty through discussion boards and other online mechanisms; however, this course may not have the label of blended due to the fact that it still meets the typical three hours a week.  Alternatively, a course may be labeled as a blended learning course simply because an instructor is effectively transferring course content into the Learning Management System (LMS) and meeting two times a week instead of three. Viewing courses on a case-by-case basis and applying the label of blended based on a nebulous definition limits the opportunity to position blended learning as an institutional strategy. 

Examples abound of single courses being transformed through the incorporation of online activities.  Glazer (2011), for example, edited a volume of articles on blended learning in several different disciplines.  And Shank (2007) published 95 examples of ways to enhance technology-based and blended learning courses.  But consider the following quote from an instructor in culinary arts: 

"I wish I could say that as I moved into the realm of blended learning I carefully considered the associated educational issues and took a grounded research approach; however, the reality was it was more a matter of looking at my resources and abilities and selecting tasks that were achievable.  (Behnke, 2011, p.15)"

Imagine how this quote may have been different if this instructor was first provided with a clear definition of blended learning for his institution, as well as provided with an understanding of the institutional approach and support mechanisms to create a transformational redesign of this course.  Just as the curriculum can become a collection of courses instead of a cohesive and meaningful curriculum, the same may be true for blended learning when the approach does not provide the mechanisms and support to fundamentally redesign the student learning experience across the curriculum. 

According to Glazer (2011), a challenge of blended learning is effectively linking the two mediums (face-to-face and online) so that the two reinforce each other and create a single, unified course.  Yet, prior to addressing this microlevel challenge, another macrolevel challenge exists; namely, how does an institution create a unified approach to blended learning that is then instilled in individual courses to create a cohesive and meaningful approach to transforming student learning? 

Strategic Approaches to Blended Learning 

Taking a strategic approach to blended learning requires an understanding of what a strategy is versus an initiative or goal. The term strategy is commonplace in higher education, but sometimes the definition of strategy is forgotten as constituents go about their daily tasks.  Strategy clarifies purposes and priorities, mobilizes motivation and resources, and directions for the future (Morrill, 2007).  Institutions use strategy to deal with changing environments and strategic decisions affect the overall welfare of the organization (Chaffee, 1985).  A strategic approach to blended learning is not prescriptive, nor is it a fixed plan.  Rather, a strategic approach provides an overarching plan framed by the leadership with clear support structures (Rowley & Sherman, 2001).  Faculty and instructional designers are still the experts in executing the strategy for blended learning, but this approach allows for a transformational view of learning as courses are intentionally redesigned with appropriate support structures. 

A hoped-for outcome of blended learning is that students may experience transformational learning experiences (Cranton, 2006).  Taking a strategic approach to blended learning also has the potential to create transformational organizational learning opportunities as faculty, instructional designers, and administrative leaders engage in critical reflection about the redesign of courses to achieve optimal learning (Kezar, 2013).  Transformational learning for an individual is a process of critical reflection whereby an individual has a change in their frame of reference (Mezirow, 1997).   Transformational learning at the organizational level can be conceptualized as a process whereby the institution makes a significant shift in the frame of reference around institutional strategies and initiatives.  Organizational learning is not the simple sum of the learning of its members.  Rather, some learning is embedded in the systems, structures, routines, practices, and strategies (Crossan, Lane & White, 1999).  The process of creating blended learning opportunities presents the institution with the chance to shift the frame of reference from individual faculty creating individual courses to the institution embarking on the execution of a learning strategy that expands well beyond individual courses. 

Researchers at Brigham Young University (Graham, Woodfield, & Harrison, 2013) studied the stages that institutions go through when adopting blended learning.  The stages include awareness/exploration, adoption/early implementation, and mature implementation/growth.  In the awareness stage, no institutional strategies exist, but there is an institutional awareness and there might be individual faculty members who are being supported in their efforts.  In the adoption phase, new policies and practices are implemented to support blended learning.  And in the mature stage, well-established strategies, structures, and support mechanisms exist for blended learning.  If these stages sound familiar, it is because similar stages are typically found in other studies or organizational change (see Kezar, 2001, for a review of organizational change theories in higher education).  Some may be familiar with the stages of change that begin with mobilization (providing vision and harnessing enthusiasm), move to implementation (ensuring appropriate structures and processes are in place), and then become institutionalized (measuring progress and ensuring continuous growth; Kezar, 2009), which mirror the stages laid out by Graham and colleagues (2013). 

If the adoption of blended learning follows the typical trajectory of organizational change, what is unique about the adoption of blended learning as an organizational strategy?  The pressures on higher education in 2014 are perhaps greater than in any other time period.  The strategic adoption of blended learning is interconnected to all the issues that are front of mind for decision makers such as accessibility, affordability, limited resources, and competition, not to mention perhaps the greatest interconnected concern - student learning.  Competition for students is fierce as more and more alternatives to traditional higher education come into the fold.  And outside entities offering variations on blended learning are seen as threats to higher education as the dubbed "year of the MOOC" in 2012 caused many in higher education to ponder whether lecture halls will soon be extinct (Kvan, 2013; Palmer, 2012).  In August of 2013, even President Barack Obama made it clear that higher education needs to change.  During a speech focused on college affordability, he articulated the need to "jumpstart new competition between colleges . . . in terms of motivation that encourages affordability, and encourages student success, and doesn't sacrifice educational quality" (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2013, para. 46).  While the President could have left this vague statement hanging, he went on to cite specific examples: 

Universities like Carnegie Mellon and Arizona State, they're starting to show that online learning can help students master the same material in less time and often at lower cost.  Georgia Tech, which is a national leader in computer science, just announced it will begin offering an online master's degree in computer science at a fraction of the cost of a traditional class, but it's just as rigorous and it's producing engineers who are just as good. (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2013, para. 64) 

Given the current challenges and demands on institutions, it is hard to imagine a college or university that can afford to not take a strategic approach to blended learning. 

The Role of Technology.  As we step back and consider the broader impact of technology in the current context of higher education, Amara's Law seems particularly applicable.  Roy Amara was a past president of the Institute for the Future, a think tank established in the 1960s, and his law states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.  And because we have potentially overestimated the short-term effect of technology integration, stakeholders are looking for immediate and significant outcomes.  Amara's Law may also explain some of the skepticism from faculty colleagues (Inside Higher Education, 2013).  The hype is huge, but constituents are not viewing blended learning as a long-term strategy. 

The overestimation of the effect of technology also results in an environment where faculty members may not be comfortable taking risks in the redesign of their courses.  Instead, faculty may be questioning how far to take a course redesign knowing that the outcomes will be carefully scrutinized and compared to the traditional face-to-face course outcomes.  Fear of scrutinized outcomes may only be a minor concern for faculty and the larger concerns may relate to the lack of time, support, or incentives.  Over the past 20 years, faculty developers have noted that a major institutional need is training faculty to integrate technology into their classroom teaching (Sorcinelli, Austin, Eddy, & Beach, 2006).  A well-thought-out institutional strategy for blended learning not only alleviates some of the concerns and challenges for faculty but it also provides a long-term plan that does not overestimate the effects and outcomes in the short term. 

The Role of Faculty.  Dee Fink (2013) writes of significant, deep learning experiences and provides a framework for situating blended learning as an opportunity for transformational organizational learning.  A first critical condition is to become aware that a better way exists.  Faculty members need to become aware of their own need to learn and change (Fink, 2013).  Transferring this idea to blended learning, a first step is to allow stakeholders to see that a better way exists to produce optimal learning in courses.  As more and more research in the effectiveness of blended learning becomes available, it becomes easier to show campus constituents the evidence that there is a better way to produce optimal learning. 

Sharing the following statement can result in the first step toward transformational learning experiences for campus members: blended learning can result in significantly better learning than in a traditional classroom (Glazer, 2011; U.S. Department of Education, 2009; Zhao, Lei, Yan, Lai, & Tan, 2005).  In the current learning context in which showing the evidence of student learning is perhaps one of the highest priorities facing institutions, this statement bears repeating - blended learning can result in significantly better learning than in a traditional classroom.  Two studies reviewed and summarized by Glazer (2011) include a meta-analysis of the U.S. Department of Education in 2009, and a study by Zhao and colleagues in 2005. The studies conclude that students in blended learning courses performed significantly better than students in completely online courses or students in face-to-face courses.  As Glazer (2011) explains, however, it is entirely inappropriate to assume then that all online learning is superior regardless of how it is implemented.  In fact, the research points clearly to the idea that it is the implementation, the pedagogy (particularly the active learning strategies), and the design of courses that result in better learning. 
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