For Teachers

Blended not Scrambled – How Learning Happens by Design

We are living through a new iteration of the Digital World. The COVID-19 Pandemic has triggered unprecedented challenges for education. Students cannot get to class in the numbers, configurations and durations that were previously available. 

The role of the teacher has changed – changed utterly. To quote Yeats, “a terrible beauty is born”. 

Blended learning is here to stay.

There are few positives to be gleaned from the awful circumstances in which we find ourselves. The trauma caused by the forced imposition of deep structural changes to education delivery should not be underestimated. Many students and teachers have struggled with the transition and many are left behind. 

However, we also need to maintain a sense of perspective and to ask honest questions on the nature of learning and the purpose of teaching.

From the earliest moments of our lives learning enables us to participate effectively with others. Children learn to speak and listen and control their world and through iterations of this process, they grow to become autonomous, self-directing adults. 

Teachers are the energising agents of the learning process. They direct, guide, model, cajole and organise purposeful learning. 

Although teachers want learning to happen, they cannot make it happen – that is up to the student. Teaching is a communicative relationship between people characterised by the common purpose of learning. It does not have to be immediate or complete. 

One of the biggest misconceptions is that the sole purpose of classroom based instruction is for the teacher to explain so students can acquire new knowledge. This may be regarded as a transfer model of instruction – it is a limited and inadequate view.

In contrast, more recent and useful conceptions emphasise learning as the process of the learner making something meaningful. With this model, the learner-teacher relationship is more like an on-going interaction. Teaching is not limited by physical presence in the classroom. Tasks, texts, time and tests (my 4Ts of good learning design) extend the range of influence of the teacher beyond the single instructional event.

Adults need to learn how to direct their own learning. For many, progress from school to college is marked by an increased expectation of self-direction. Some students resist and hanker for teachers to tell them what to do and guide them all the way. This is a legacy from childhood – a time before autonomy. 

Categorising the Elements of Blended Learning

People are worried that in the scramble to on-line instruction some colleges will provide an inadequate learning experience for their students. I share these concerns. I am an advocate of blended learning not scrambled learning.

I have always believed in ‘blended learning’ as the optimum means of instruction – especially for colleges. Blended learning is learning by design often involving a mix of instructional events and learning spaces. 

Blending involves the harmonious and purposeful mixing of ingredients. Good blends – as in tea, perfume, music, colour, textile and whiskey – achieve balance and effectiveness by combining a variety of characteristics and qualities.

Blending not scrambling can make learning happen by design. 

This is the new challenge for teachers.

So what then are the ingredients of good design for learning – a good blend?  A really useful step is to organise the elements into three categories: Instructional events (live and pre-packaged), learning spaces (in-college and on-line) and the 4Ts (tasks, texts, time and tests). 

This approach helps organise and simplify the design process. The figures provide some of the characteristics of each of these ingredients and will help teachers think about how to make learning happen for their students. 

One final and important point. A ‘college’ is a collective term for a community of learners, teachers and support staff who work together for the common goals of education. You cannot have a college without community. In our design for learning we also need to consider how communities are nurtured and developed. Students identify with the course and institution they attend and the physical campus is often the embodiment of that identity.

The social aspects of college life also need to be supported by the learning spaces. New strategies to support inclusion, friendship and connection will also need to be developed.

The framework is just a starting point.

The purpose of teaching has not changed – it is to make learning happen.

The purpose of colleges has not changed – it is to change lives through a community of learning.

With good design and honest questioning the ‘terrible beauty’ of blended learning might eventually emerge as a positive outcome from the current crisis.

Let’s work to make that happen.

One Comment

  • Tina Reddin

    Excellent article Leo and aligns to my thoughts on blending learning and our new normal. Thank you for sharing and articulating what we need to do in such a succinct and clear manner.

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