A Lens on… Blended Learning

In this series of articles, the Educational Technology team will be providing an insight into existing practice using technology for learning and teaching at Falmouth University and also at projects being undertaken within the wider HE sector. Our previous articles have looked at the process of Feedback, Open Education, Assessment and Digital Literacy.

The term ‘Blended Learning’ is interpreted in various ways depending on the practitioner that you are talking to. A good definition is that it is learning that takes advantage of the best of both physical and digital learning environments. As a result, open-ended activities take place which engage the learner and enables them to control their own learning in a directed setting, alongside face-to-face interaction with their tutors and peers, and structured activities which are focused and purposeful (Schmidt, 2007).

There are a lot of pedagogic and instructional models and theories of learning that are adapted to describe teaching and learning processes and facilitate ‘blended learning’. Applying these into the process of designing learning in both digital and physical environments results in excellent learning experiences for your students.

It isn’t always as simple as that though. There are many modes of learning when you consider mobile, social and personal, synchronous and asynchronous, online, face-to-face etc. Sometimes the student’s learning preference doesn’t co-exist harmoniously with the style of teaching; so formalising, or structuring the delivery of teaching and combining it with a flexible approach to learning gives the student the flexibility to learn in a way that is effective for them; but be guided by purposeful and meaningful learning activities.

If your course/module is due for a re-design, or yet to be designed, then we would recommend that you talk to us about good practice that is already proved to be highly effective in the field.

The Hybrid Learning Model developed by the University of Ulster combines events that take place during the learning cycle and suggests a clear approach to applying each event into practice. The model brings together 8 learning events model developed by LabSET, University of Liège (Verpoorten et al, 2006), and Sue Bennett from the University of Wollongong’s 30 verbs, to focus the mind on the human element of learning and teaching and the interactions between participants in the learning process.

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The CAIeRO process, used as an essential part of validation and periodic subject review at the University of Northampton, takes teaching teams through a set of six stages (listed below). The workshops are participant-centred, and are facilitated by Learning and Teaching experts.

  1. Blueprint: for the course or module – a revised and agreed spec.
  2. Storyboard: The storyboard incorporates any face-to-face and online components (synchronous and asynchronous), aligned to the learning outcomes and assessment.
  3. Prototyping: We design specific elements of the storyboard. Not content, but what learners are expected to do with it (activities and assessments).
  4. Reality checking: Students are invited to review the team’s work and feed back any changes.
  5. Review and adjust: We take those suggestions on board and modify things accordingly.
  6. Action Plan: Participants commit to specific actions by certain dates, which will be reviewed at the follow-up session.

Institute of Learning and Teaching, University of Northampton, 2015

Take a look through participants’ reflections on the CAIeRO process at Northampton on their LearnTech team blog.

Embedding the Hybrid Learning Model into CAIeRO (mashed up with other teaching and learning models throughout the six stages) is a great way to make sure that those excellent learning experiences I mentioned above are created, and that they are delivered in a blended environment.

So, essentially, Blended Learning is mixing two or more modes of learning together – like face-to-face sessions and an online lecture – and designing an activity that will help the student to take part in them, create meaningful pieces of learning that they can digest, and can reflect on to consolidate it all.

The CAIeRO model’s early days actually started as the Carpe Diem model from University of Leicester (now called the 7Cs of Learning Design Workshop). CAIeRO has been adapted over a number of years, and successfully used in a variety of disciplines ranging from hands on sciences, health and education to fine art and performing arts (plus many more!). During the research for this post, I discovered that the original Carpe Diem model was used at Falmouth with MA Professional Writing back in 2008 as part of the original CHEETAH project with Leicester and 5 other UK HEIs.

The Educational Technology team are here to help you with the design stage of course development, as well as implementing it into the Learning Space, or the most appropriate technology to facilitate it. Get in touch to have a chat about setting up a session for your course or module.

References

Verpoorten, D., Poumay, M., Leclercq, D. (2006), The 8 Learning Events Model: a Pedagogic Conceptual Tool Supporting Diversification of Learning Methods. Interactive Learning Environments [e-journal] 15(2). Available at: <http://hdl.handle.net/2268/10129>

Schmidt, J.T. (2007), Preparing Students for Success in Blended Learning Environments: Future Oriented Motivation and Self-Regulation. Ph.D, LMU München: Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences. Available at:  <https://edoc.ub.uni-muenchen.de/6561> [Accessed 16/10/2015].

(re)Designing learning material for online delivery

With increasing pressures on HEI’s to accomodate increasing student numbers and enabling wider access to learning, a fully online or blended delivery is becomming a popular means to manage this.

With reference to modern web design, we take a look at some considerations for appropriate online learning content.

Screen real estate

It’s really important to make content that meets the needs of our learners as quickly and efficiently as possible.

A recent survey suggests that our current cohort of students exist in a “a world that offers them instant access nearly everywhere to nearly the entirety of human knowledge, with incredible opportunities to connect, create and collaborate” and as such any content we produce must get our learners’ attention as quickly as possible, and hold it for as long as possible. We must make important information available up front, leaving lesser or secondary information until later; such as further down the page, or on secondary pages. We can also omit decorative or non-content elements, such as decorative images, allowing students to focus easily on the content that matters to them the most.

Here’s an example of how bookmarking tool Pocket takes article content from a site and re-fromats it without any additional ‘noise’ from the original post.
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Writing for the web

We tend to be less comfortable reading online, so it’s important our writing communicates efficiently.

Keep texts short

Keeping word count to a minimum is a good way of increasing reading speeds, which tend to be around 25% slower online. Reduce by half, and then half again.

The guiding voice

Humour and attitude play an important role in information retention. By using our own voice,  we can guide learners through our content in a personal and human way to help develop their understanding of the ideas and concepts we are presenting.

Writing in a language the audience understands

Avoid use of “eduspeak”, acronyms or unfamiliar terms when writing learning content. Learning outcomes or assessment criteria should be clear and easy to understand and may need to be translated from institutional lingo to modern language appropriate to the audience.

Scannable content

Around 79% of people scan web pages on the first visit and ascertain whether the content is relevant. By designing content that is easy to scan, we make it easier for learners to pick out, analyse and synthesise relevant information.

Be concise

When writing text, reducing word count by around half is known to increase a user’s ability to scan. You may be able to remove unnecessary words (often adjectives and adverbs) without the text losing meaning.

Scannable layout

A scannable layout can be achieved using properly formatted content, using elements such as headers, bullets and lists.

  • Headers, given appropriate titles, can aid readability by being informative and acting as a resting place for the eye whilst scanning.
  • Bullets can be used to clump important ideas together, whilst keeping the word count to a minimum.
  • Numbered lists can be used where the number of bullet points becomes excessive, aiding readability and information retention.

The online presence for the UK government is a good example of minimal content that is in a language that users understand.
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Page titles

Page titles play an important role in the navigation of online content. Provided they are given an informative title, they explain what will be found of the page.

An optimal page title, designed for quick scanning, should include information-carrying terms towards the start, beginning with a word that meets the learner’s immediate needs. Page titles should also be around 40 – 60 characters in length, aiding scanning.

Page titles need not be grammatical sentences, and may read more like advertising slogans drawing people to the content and maximising impact.
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Mobile-friendly content

It is important to consider the constraints as well as the affordances of mobile devices to make sure the content we produce is always available to, and consumable by, our learners.

Large and unnecessary images are one of the main culprits for a poor mobile reading experience. Due to slower mobile download speeds, it is important that images be information-carrying and of importance to the user, and optimised to allow them to be downloaded as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Screen size also affects our reading ability online. Secondary material should be linked to as ‘extended reading’ or omitted altogether.

The context of mobile use also means that learners expect content to be instantly available, so ensuring content is concise and scannable means learners can engage at a time and/or place suitable to them.

The process of making our content adaptable will benefit  learners using a range of devices; phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, so the benefits outweigh the cost of designing mobile friendly content.

If you don’t have a mobile device to hand, the emulation mode available in Google Chrome allows you to view content as you might see it on mobile.
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Images

As mentioned, use of images should be minimised due to download speeds, especially on mobile.

Eye tracking studies have shown that images with little or no use are simply ignored by learners; therefore decorative or non-informative images should be omitted from your content. However, learners do want to see images containing important information; a course/module introduction might contain an image that represents the theme and engages the learner in the same way that a Title might.
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Avatars or profile pictures are also known to positively affect user behaviour online, as they add a human touch that is often missing in online content. This is particularly relevant to fully online courses, who might make use of Forums for posting content.
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Including meta-data, such as an image description within images posted on the web aids accessibility and means those with slower internet connections or who make use of screen readers get useful information about that image.

Video

Like images, internet bandwidth must be considered for use of video. Home based/Off campus learners may be relying on mobile internet speeds to access content and whilst they may be able to view a one minute introduction to the course/module, they may not be able to view an hour long lecture recording or interview.

Video is a good way of giving the learner a sense of personality and to introduce your voice.  Avoid “talking heads” and opt for showing movement in video, as this adds to the user experience and gives context. A Screencast may be able to explain a concept much better than presenting it in a lecture and allow learners to follow along at their own pace.

[vimeo 75034342 w=540 h=338]

However, video may be more expensive and time-consuming to produce, compared to other content types, so consider whether another mode of delivery might do the same job. Also, due to the visual nature of video, audio quality is often overlooked, making for a frustrating experience;  spoken word may be more difficult to understand and becomes a problem, particularly for those with impaired hearing or non-native speakers. Consider making use of closed-captioning to make the video more accessible.

Audio

Audio is a welcome and often overlooked alternative to text content on screen as it provides a separate channel to the visual information on the page.

Audio can often supplement commentary or help information, without obscuring any visual elements that the user may be interacting with.

Using voice overs, we can give a sense of personality to what might otherwise be monochrome text

As well as being an alternative to text, audio may be more favourable than video due to the lower production costs.

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Staff at Falmouth University can subscribe to this module to find out more about presenting content in Learning Space.

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