With all the buzz about blended learning coming from our campus based colleagues, it got me thinking about the value of “blended learning” in distance and online courses. I realize that there are a number of different ideas and “blends” associated with the term ‘blended learning’, but it seems the common institutional and educational use is to describe blending online and Face-to-Face(F2F) education programming. What strikes me as especially salient is the blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities and opportunities. The increase in availability, coupled with reduction in cost for online forms of synchronous (audio, video, text and immersive) conferencing, got me thinking. Maybe what is critical in the F2F experience is the immediacy and social presence associated more with synchronous activities than with the face-to-face, body language enhanced gathering. And maybe this provides a promising theoretical rationale for 0nline blended learning.

Like many of my ideas, a quick Google Scholar search revealed that Groenl, & Li, (2005) have written a paper making many of the arguments I would have related. Their paper, Achieving the Benefits of Blended Learning within a Fully Online Learning Environment: A Focus on Synchronous Communication is mostly a think/theory piece with a paucity of data, but it made sense to me. They use our now familiar Community of Inquiry Model and argue that the essence of the ‘blend’ is in fact the synchronicity – available in multiple modalities on the Net. The major value add is the increased social presence, with resulting increase in networking, cognitive presence and social capital building.

Of course distance educators always think about the access issue, and so the ‘binding in time’ associated with synchronous activities always raises its ugly head! ‘Freedom of Time’ is one of Paulsen’s 6 Hexagon Of Cooperative Freedom s (and my own added seventh – Freedom of Relationship). A learning designer has to insure that the value added by restricting time, covers the cost (in many forms) to the learner and the teacher. The most obvious cost is related to cost of time shifting by learners. For many job and family responsibilities preclude a great deal of time flexibility – even if the session is available ‘any place’. But time zone issues are also a cost. As a Canadian, with 4.5 time zones to contend with, we are accustomed to juggling our lives to fit times that work for national colleagues. But on a global scale it gets even more bothersome. Last course I taught used weekly Elluminate synchronous sessions and it was the wee hours of the morning for a student in France and middle of the work day for another in Singapore, but it worked. I was likely guilty of a little synchronous overkill, using a weekly 2 hour block, but it did create a new and generally appreciated online experience for learners in our Masters of Distance Education program.

The use of digital recording adds another dimension to the freedom issue. Most of the text, audio, video and immersive experiences are easily recorded. They can (and I am not saying all should) be tagged and made available for indexing and retrieval (with appropriate and hopefully Creative Commons type licensing) by others. Thus creating learning objects. The objects are not in the same technical ballgame as purpose-built simulations, web sites and other mass learning objects. But they are personalized to that class and provide opportunities for greater personal, academic and institutional integration (which have been long associated with persistence (see Steve Draper’s review of Tinto’s Drop out model). Alan Woodly (2004) also talks about integration and further argues that what we need are interventions (read design-based research) as much as grand theories of design and interaction. Perhaps synchronous activities are the types of intervention needed to add social presence upon which individual and group learning thrives.

But what type (text, audio, video, immersive or combination) is the most appropriate type of synchronous activity? As a university prof, I of course usually answer such questions with ‘it depends’ – and it does! I have never been a good enough typist, nor been immersed in SMS long enough to enjoy text conferencing or chat, but it might be quite useful in countries with low bandwidth availability. Audio is fine (the real workhorse of third generation distance ed.) and when it gets enhanced with joint web excursions, clicker type feedback, text on the side, small group breakouts, application sharing and good turn taking tools, it is even nicer. Video (low res web cams) has been added to many of the web conferencing tools but the hardware and bandwidth costs associated with good resolution H323 conferencing and the challenges of recording, make me usually think it isn’t worth the bother – but maybe I just not a visual type guy. Immersive environments like SecondLife also have bandwidth and hardware issues, but offer hyper doses of social presence and so will likely be used increasingly as blended interventions in online learning.

What is actually going to happen in these sessions? I know the “drop by at 8:00 PM my time and talk about the course” approach rarely works except for those students who least need it! Fortunately there is a wealth of material on facilitating supporting adult learning (see for example Tammy Dewar’s Adult Learning Online) and of course the tried and true lecture mode so popular on campus. I like the break out rooms, icebreakers, tell your story type activities for building social presence, guest appearances are usually fun and informative (and easy for the presenter) and having student presentations and productions creates really powerful (and recordable) learning and teaching opportunities. Of course, every good course has at least an optional end of class party

Here at Athabasca University we have a university license for Elluminate -. It is an expensive Canadian product, providing nearly all the bells and whistles of a good web conferencing suite and excels at allowing multiple users coming in a various bandwidth – including dial up. We are starting to use it in our mostly cohort and paced graduate programming with generally good results. We also use it quite regularly for meetings and presentations in our “distributed work force” here at Athabasca. We plan to experiment with synchronous sessions in our un-paced and continuous enrollment undergrad courses as well, but that is a tougher nut to crack.

Just yesterday, I dropped by a demonstration of a new web 2.0 tool called Wiziq. It is Flash based system (no client to download) that provides fairly good audio, powerpoint and whiteboard. What is interesting is the social, calendaring and content sharing tools that have been added to the basic web conferencing tool set. What is even more interesting is that (for now?) the services are all free. Should be great for student presentations!

WizIQ and one can imagine many other mashups of personal learning environment and even LMS tools, will soon be providing a cheap and accessible platform for online blended learning. There is no magic bullet that adds value above cost to all online contexts, but there seems to be theoretical and some empirical data on social benefits of various type of synchronous interventions to warrant active exploration and scholarly reflection. It would really be nice to have support to fund major studies that test the affordances and designs associated with important improvements in the blends, in many contexts!