Thoughts on Blended Teaching and Learning
What is Blended Teaching
I would actually categorise most of my teaching as blended, these days, in that there is generally a traditional Face to Face (F2F) component taught in class and an added online compnent which means that students can also work outside class at their own pace. In my case the F2F component is usually taught in quite large university classrooms that can seat anything up to a hundred students and that are equipped with computers, projectors and online access to the Internet. This choice of projectors rather than IWs makes sense when you work with large groups of young adults, as learners cannot easily be coming up to the board and interacting. My students are very happy with the idea of our courses having a central Class Blog (which is hosted by edublogs) that has a page for each course, for students to consult regularly, as well as an information wall, wikis, useful links and various other pages.
As a teacher I find this useful as I can do a whole range of things which help me to stay in touch with my students in a way which, just a few years ago, would have been impossible. I use the main wall to post messages, ideas, reminders etc. as well as encouraging notes to different classes. On the specific course pages students can generally find an overview of work done in class week by week with links to backup activities and further study and there is usually information about how they can prepare for their next lesson too. This is valuable for everyone but particularly for those ho miss lessons or cannot remember links we have looked at in class etc.
I can also post links to spaes for students to sub,it written or spoken work in public or more private formats (such as Google Docs) and when they have posted it I can then correct and post their tracked work and include other comments and discussions etc, all in a handy place that we can always look at during lessons in the classroom. This has, over the past few years, meant that I’ve been able to develop relationships with students in these “large classes” that would have been unimaginable ithout the blended element.
Why “Blended Teaching” and not “Blended Learning”
You may be wondering why I am talking about lended teaching rather than blended learning, which is the more usual term. Well, this is because what I do is to teach in a blended format, but I recently wondered if my students see things in the same way. This term I was very enthusiastic about one course that I was going to do at the University of Bolzano. This course had actually been marketed to the students as a “blended learning” course, rather than me just doing it as blended learning. The students had been told that they would be doing one class F2F a week all term and that they would be given access to online materials, as well as doing chats online, outside class. I therefore had very high expectations of this course perhaps overfaced them slightly at the beginning, expecting them to be familiar with online contexts like Twitter, to name one, which they had certainly heard of and used, in some cases, but needed more guidance in to be able to use them for the purposes of our course. Some of them had not really understood the spirit of blended learning, or, I think, the discipline and planning skills required to take advantage of this type of course. The lesson to be learned for me as a teacher, is that it is essential to take things slowly, one step at a time, and to be aware of the fact that time needs to be spent working in class, increasingly, on supporting students who are learning to work in online environments. Here is a summary of my approach.
One step at a time
1) the class blog: the first step is to introduce learners to the class blog, making sure that they know how to access it and what to do with it. They needed very clear instructions such as: “go to the home page and read the messages, ,and then go to your class page and read the overview of the lesson as well as the preparation work for your next lesson.” This was a starting point and as the course progressed new tools and spaces were introduced both in class, and on their page. The students quickly learned how to use the blog, which is the mainstay of this course, everything else radiating out from there.
2) symbaloo: One of the biggest problems in a course like this is organising resources, especially if they are new for learners so some kind of bookmarking system needs to adopted. Symbaloo is a visually very effective format and it lets me, the teacher, make a webmix (a collection of links in button form) for my students, which I can update and share with them. They can also make their own webmixes to share with each other, and access ready made webmixes; for instance, someone may make a webmix with resources for Cambridge Wxams and choose to shre it with others so that everyone can benefit. There is also the option, however, to keep webmixes private for your own personal use. The advantage of this for learners is also that they can go directly to that page, or even set it as their homepage, and find the link to the class blog, the other sites we are using and resources too. Although they could have done that from the blog, using symbaloo is highly intuitive and appeals to some learners. (it’s all about providing tools for differing learning strategies).
3) the Macmillan English Campus (MEC): these learners were given access to the MEC which provided them with a whole range of materials that they could use online throughout the course, mirroring the coursebook we used in class. Once again, however, we used quite a lot of F2F time learning how to find our way round the resource and what we could do with it. The students used it for remedial grammar work, for reading news articles, and some of them explored the exams practice resources available there too. This meant that they could work autonomously in the ways that suited them best. One of the plus points abut the news articles is that learners can choose to read the same article “at different levels”, so that you could, for instance, read the “easy” version of an article and then read the more difficult version later. Learners developed different strategies for approaching these articles, which was fascinating to see. Some people chose to approach them the other way round, starting with the more difficult version and then reading the easier one as a sort of summary. In any case, what was very positive about this was that they had the choice, and this enabled them to develop these personalised strategies. Having said that, however, the MEC was not the be all and end all of “blended learning” but should be just “one” of the resources for blended learning. Whilst the resources available are well developed and the students liked them, they tend to be somewhat mechanical and not relevant or personalised to the learners themselves, and added to that there is so much material available freely online these days, or in DVDs that come with coursebooks, that it may not be cost effective to use such a platform in the long run.
4) tracking online work and integrating it into the F2F lessons: as with any good course, the work learners do outside class must be integrated into class work too. Learners need to feel that there is a purpose to the work they are doing online, and that it is leading somewhere. There are many ways of doing this, which I will be looking at below.
One of the problems with online work is that learners may feel isolated and/ or may be lazy and simply not do it. This is why a certain amount of tracking is essential. Teachers can easily track ehat learners are doing on the MEC and then ask why so and so hasn’t done anything etc. (I would suggest a tactful approach here, as there may be all kinds of reasons why people are not doing something. Sympathy and interest can motivate students a lot more that censure and criticism).
Integrating the Online Work into the F2F Context
One of things I consider to be of great importance, as I have just mentioned, is integrating the online work back into the classroom so, for instance, if students watch a video online, then they can write about it on a Google Form (see Google Documents) which they then submit to me. I can correct that work with a self correction code programme such as Markin, and then post a document on the class page with this work (anonymously posted in the interests of privacy). Learners can then correct their own work or other people’s work and the results can be discussed in class.
Alternatively, learners may be asked to choose an article (either from the MEC or elsewhere, or videos from the TED talks etc.) and asked to give a short summary of the article in class. The other students in the class are then asked to ask one question to each speaker and this was developed into a discussion, with subsequent remedial work on accuracy and extension of emergent language coming out of the discussion.
Hootcourse and chats
After the first two weeks of our course, when the learners had become familiar with the blog, the MEC and the procedures involved in our course we began to use chat. Again, I felt this needed to be introduced gradually and in a sheltered environment so I chose to use Hootcourse rather than Twitter (although both have advantages and disadvantages.) The plus point with Hootcourse was that I could set up a course for my class and we could use it together easily and in different ways. Enrolling on the course proved rather problematic though for some, as we discoved that the best way to do this is to use a Twitter account. Those who have a Twitter account can use it to access Hootcourse and join our course. Not everyone had Twitter accounts so this complicated matters, but in the end after a whole lesson on the subject, everyone managed to access the course.
Demonstrating chat by using it in Class
To show everyone how it worked I used it initially in class with learners using their mobile phones, tablets and laptops to post questions whilst other students were giving presentations of their news articles (these were articles they had chosen from the MEC). Hootcourse has a function that enables classroom viewing so we could all see the chat stream appearing on the projector and this meant that after each presentation we already had a series of questions from learners that we could discuss. It provided a focal point for everyone, and although there was inevitably some overlap in the questions, what ensued was a highly motivating discussion. Once we had used this course in class we started using it outside the F2F context.
Using Hootcourse outside Class
We began to use Hootcourse in two main ways. The most natural unplanned use was for people to send messages to me and to each other, which was much quicker and more direct than email. It meant, for instance, that if someone couldn’t come to class, they had a quick and easy was of telling me. I had embedded the Hootcourse onto the blog page too (which is very easy to do) so that we could all click on the Hootcourse tab directly from the class blog, this meant that I, for example, checked it almost every time I went on the blog, which was most days.
The second way we used Hootcourse was for our weekly chat, where we focused on a variety of skills ranging from error analysis of learner work which they prepared in advance to topics that learners chose and we all then read an article about and discussed in the chat. If you would like to see the sort of thing we did in more detail go to the Blended Learning page on the blog and scroll down until you come to the sections related to chat. You will also be able to see the transcripts of these chats which learners could look at after the chats themselves had taken place. This is useful because of the nature of chat where information comes in fast and furious and nobody can take note of everything. I fact the chats were often very useful as brainstorming sessions and things that came up during the chats were then developed in the following F2F session. The lesson I learned from this was that next time I’ll go back to more structured chats, that I used to do but have not done for some time. In structured chats participants are given behaviour codes, and it is not a free for all. The moderator will ask a question or give an instruction and participants can answer, or post “?” if they want to ask a quesn and then eait for the moderator to tell them to post. In this way there is more of an element of “listening” to the chat, which makes it a bit easier to follow, particularly when have more than three or four participants.
Aims and Final Thoughts
The language aims of this course were for the students to progress from B2 to C1 during the course, and since the ones who came regularly and did both online and in class work, were highly motivated they made a lot of progress. As I said, most of my teaching is blended but here, because of heightened interest from those who had chosen this specific course type, the motivation to explore new study tools and strategies was greater perhaps than in more traditinal courses, and the sense of online communitynprovided by the chat led to a greater bond in the F2F classes, and therefore more confidence. The key factor in a course like this is motivation because learners who are interested in what they are doing make progress almost without even being aware of it. In fact, that is why, at the end of the course I can say that this course was not only blended teaching, but involved a lot of blended learning too, both for the students and for me. One of the students, in fact, at the end of the course said she had learned so much more than she had expected from this course, and not only the English Language: this is the sort of feedback that makes it all worthwhile