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Possible Futures: Blended Learning and Transforming Higher Education

showPicture.phpLast week I participated in an all-day Workshop exploring possibilities for blended learning at TRU. Our Workshop’s keynote speaker was Anya Kamenetz—and as preparation for the event, participants were asked to read her recently published article, “How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education,” a fast-paced overview of education 2.0 and how open educational content, new technologies and new delivery models are creating an exciting mix of anticipation, advocacy, enthusiasm and confusion.

The Kamenetz article offered an enjoyable, even provocative, read—though I confess to being less than convinced by the rhetorical clichés of her conclusion (i.e., the students are already using social networking, twitter, etc., and thus we, as educators, need to as well—or risk being “left behind”). Those students (individuals and focus groups) I’ve talked with over the last few months seem unimpressed by the prospect of their profs “intruding” into their online spaces. One young woman said firmly, “If one of my profs asked to be my Facebook friend, I’d ignore the request. It would feel creepy.” On the other hand, that same student praised her experience with Blackboard and Moodle. Technology can certainly enhance teaching and learning, but, when introduced inappropriately (say, in a manner not tied to the furthering of well-considered learning outcomes), it can also detract from teaching and learning.

Like others, I’m fascinated by talk of high-tech do-it-yourself education, of possible new models of education and the new economics of learning implicated by those models; that said, it seems to me—and I’m certainly no expert in this area—that instead of falling prey to what are essentially scare tactics and false analogies (e.g, if universities don’t act quickly, they will share the fate of “newspaper chains and record stores”), we have a wonderful opportunity to triangulate consideration of audience, desired outcomes, and then the mode or modes of instructional delivery.

The Workshop presentation (and the discussion that followed) raised still more questions, and opened my eyes to a range of possibilities.

Here are some initial thoughts: The first two years or so of university engender enculturation (an introduction to the university, to the work of the disciplines, to advanced literacy development—and to learning the basics of how to learn); and, with these outcomes in mind, first- and second-year students would no doubt benefit most from face-to-face instruction enhanced by classroom-based technology—for it is hard to enter an intellectual community or any ongoing conversation without face-to-face interaction. Blended learning is likely best integrated at this stage as a means of extending the classroom, providing additional examples, and copies of class notes. A possible focus might also involve the reinforcing of what have been identified as “threshold concepts,” those disciplinary ideas that are fundamentally transformative, “akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something . . . it represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing . . . without which the learner cannot progress” (Meyer and Land, 2003).

Senior-level students, however—especially those studying in academic disciplines that might not routinely employ extensive hands-on, practice-led learning experiences—might respond well to even more extensive hybrid instruction (perhaps incorporated via a project approach, or a capstone semester in the final year).

Graduate students (including international grad students) seeking compressed degrees and concentrated learning experiences (and here I’m thinking also of experiences that draw especially on local expertise, history, culture, landscape, etc.) would make strong candidates for an array of innovative approaches—a mix of f2f and web-based instruction.

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