Blended learning—combining face-to-face and online teaching methods—is touted as combining the best of both worlds. However, while blended learning can deliver a better student experience than “online only” distance education, it can be subject to problems.
Leaving aside issues with the technologies (and many lecturers would be quick to say that platforms like Blackboard, used by most universities, do not always seem to be up to the challenge), extended student engagement is a major dilemma. Students’ attention can diminish unless staff build in interaction rather than just expecting students to generate it themselves.
Five top tips for doing just that are:
1. Start with a bang!
Many blended learning courses begin with a face-to-face activity, which may include registration for the course and explaining how it works. Don't squander this opportunity by focusing on filling out paperwork, turn your “entry event” into a mini-conference. Some courses put on one or two days featuring staff, and sometimes guest speakers, covering key issues and basic concepts. Keep the presentations short and pacy, and use this time to create study and discussion groups that will endure across the time that the course runs.
2. Build interactivity into your online materials
The discussion features in typical online support systems may not measure up to social networking tools students use in their everyday lives, but they do have advantages: discussions stay within the group, allowing undergraduates to speak up without fear of future embarrassment and giving postgraduate professionals a forum to discuss tricky issues in relative confidence. It’s up to lecturers to create topics and guide discussions. Ask students to introduce themselves and their relationship to the topic to start, then set problems that participants can share multiple perspectives on. These tasks can include deadlines, and can be assessed.
3. Require students to engage with their work or life experiences
When students feel the course material is meaningful, beyond just earning credits towards a degree, they are far more likely to stay involved. Pose questions and topics that ask students to talk about how the course topic fits with the work they do (or want to do), and solicit experiences they have had that touch on the subject matter. But don’t just set the topic and walk away—lecturer engagement is crucial to ensure that potentially sensitive discussions remain cordial and safe.
4. Stay up to date by adding regular links to current news
Whether your topic is higher maths or social work, every week there are news stories to which it is relevant. Add regular links to such stories, both from mainstream media and from the professional literature that you hope your learners will engage with, such as specialist magazines and journals for the field they work in or want to enter.
5. Explore group online tutorial options
The tools can be buggy, but with a bit of work and patience it’s possible to use free video-conferencing software like Skype (www.skype.com) or AnyMeeting (www.anymeeting.com) to run small-group tutorials. Hearing voices and/or seeing faces makes people feel more in touch than text-only discussions.