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Blended learning – From ancient Greece to the digital age

In ancient Greece, citizens converged in city squares called agoras to trade goods and share ideas. They were the political, economic, cultural and philosophical hubs of Greek civilisation and the exchanges that took place there altered the course of history. In today’s more globalised world, agoras are online, where people from all over the world can share knowledge over social media.

Hans van Bergen, a senior consultant in technology education at the HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht or HU, Netherlands, argues that these social hubs can enhance student learning experiences.

“Social relationships are very important for deep learning,” he said during this year’s 7th annual African Network for Internationalisation of Education or ANIE conference held in Accra, Ghana, from 5-7 October.

“When you read something you can learn a little bit. When you do something you learn a little bit more, but when you can talk about it with someone else, it makes learning much deeper and much better.”

Van Bergen’s pedagogical concept, which seeks to create knowledge by enabling students to “co-learn in a social context”, is part of a larger movement in higher education to modernise traditional teaching and learning methods in a digital era. This practice, called blended learning, is a relatively new phenomenon. The term was first introduced in academic circles in 1999.

Beyond the classroom

“What happens in blended learning is that the knowledge transfer which we are used to seeing occur in the classroom is moved beyond the classroom,” said Nicole Reith, a lecturer in American literature and culture at HU.

In blended learning, course materials are placed in an online environment where students can hold discussions in web forums and access instructional videos and digital lectures uploaded by the professor. Reith said this framework “flips” the traditional model of teacher-student engagement.

The deepening of knowledge that traditionally occurs outside of the classroom during homework activities is now happening inside the classroom where the majority of the time is spent reinforcing application, analysis and evaluation of concepts as opposed to rote memorisation and retention of information.

Blended learning also reduces face-to-face time between students and teachers, allowing students to learn according to their own schedules. Other benefits include offering content through diverse media and turning students into active learners, according to Reith.

Coping with the unexpected

When a disaster strikes or an unexpected event impedes traditional face-to-face classroom interaction, blended learning means universities can continue running operations.

In a 2012 study called Blended Learning for Academic Resilience in Times of Disaster or Crisis, five lecturers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand examined how the resourcefulness of faculty and staff helped the university overcome challenges instigated by a series of devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 which led to a temporary campus closure and limited teaching space and facilities.

The environment forced academic staff to devise innovative methods of teaching to ensure that course disruption was not prolonged. During the campus shutdown, they relied on alternative online media such as web portals and social media networks to communicate with students.

However, this was only a temporary measure. When the campus finally reopened three weeks after the earthquake in February 2011, staff had to plan longer-term strategies and rethink how they were going to administer their courses in a new context. Their solution: blended learning.

Virtual classrooms

“Physical spaces were scarce and online pedagogies were essential for ‘restart’ teaching where virtual classrooms provided not just content delivery, but also a place for students to interact and ask questions,” the 2012 study read. “Precious face-to-face time was reserved for workshops, hands-on activities, and discussions to explore what had been presented online.”

This new blended teaching model required students “to take greater responsibility for their own learning”, the study added.

Before the earthquakes, the University of Canterbury already had an advanced technological apparatus that equipped academics with the necessary skills to incorporate aspects of online learning into their courses. This made it relatively easy for staff to embrace new models.

Infrastructure

Not all universities, however, have the institutional infrastructure to enable them to transition online and adopt blended learning pedagogies during times of crisis. Even under normal circumstances, many universities, especially in the developing world, have limited access to technology. And where there is access, frequent power outages may result in a weak or unreliable internet connection.

And as more developed universities continue to strengthen their technological capacities at impressive rates, less privileged universities worry that they won’t be able to keep up.

However, low internet penetration and limited access to technology should not be excuses for universities to dismiss the blended learning strategy, according to Reith.

“There really are some things you can do to prepare yourself as an educator for the kinds of things you might have to do in the future and that you cannot do yet,” she said. “You can experiment by challenging your students to search for knowledge outside the classroom. Think about how you can help students go beyond mere retention and really master knowledge.

“Infrastructure is improving in huge leaps and bounds,” she said. “It will come.”
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