Blended learning is a phrase which is heard with increasing frequency in the ELT world. In the third article in this series, Daniel Barber takes a closer look at what it means.
Blended learning is a phrase we hear more and more often, but what is it exactly? Education isn’t the only place where the word blended is used; everyday products are also described in this way.
Think about it
Here are some things that are often blended. Why do we blend them?
- baby food
Blending varieties of coffee combines the best flavours from different coffee beans to produce a richer, more interesting taste. Blends of paints allow artists to get exactly the right hue for the picture. Alloys are blends of metals which display properties of strength that single metals on their own do not have. Baby food is blended so that it is easier to digest. In all these cases, the reason for blending is to improve the final product in some way. It is not always successful; some combinations taste bad, while others are appreciated by some more than others.
What is blended language learning?
Similar to the above blends, blended learning can describe any combination of teaching techniques or resources with the goal of making learning more interesting, better suited to the learner and more effective. In this sense, blended language learning is nothing new; incorporating repetition techniques borrowed from the audio-lingual approach into a task-based learning lesson could rightly be described as ‘blended’. Recently, though, blended language learning has come to mean the combination of normal classroom activities with self-study learning supported by technology. A useful definition is the integrated combination of teacher-led learning with independent digital learning.
There are many possible elements, or modes, of learning to blend. Here are a few examples, going from blends that rely heavily on technology to those that require nothing extra on the part of the teacher or school.
Some English teachers exploit online tools to teach students who could be anywhere in the world. This makes sense if students want specialised courses such as exam preparation and business English classes. It could also be useful for students who live a long way from towns and cities, far from school.
Students can learn online with a teacher using a variety of tools. Video conferencing apps like Skype and Google Hangouts allow teachers and students to see each other and interact ‘in real time’. Email and messaging services are an easy way to communicate in writing. File sharing programs like Dropbox let teachers and students share reading material, written work and other class materials. You may have heard of virtual classroom platforms like Blackboard, which attempt to recreate classroom conditions using a video link, so that classmates can see each other on their webcams, and other interactive means of communicating such as chat boxes and whiteboards you can write on.
A mixed approach
In most situations, however, the main ingredient of courses is still teacher-led lessons in the classroom; the online part is often delivered by a website that combines various components in one site. This is called a virtual learning environment, or VLE (sometimes known as a learning management system).
An important function of many VLEs is that they can be used as a type of online workbook. Unlike printed workbooks, the exercises can be more varied and interactive. Also, students are given instant feedback on their work. CD-ROMs filled this role for several years, but online workbooks allow teachers to keep a check on students’ performance and can be updated with new material.
Increasingly, there are also online materials for teachers to use in the classroom, like animated grammar presentations and vocabulary games, that open up a range of possible paths to learning. Teachers can choose whether to follow a lesson plan the traditional way, go completely digital, or find a balance between the two to suit their students.
What if I don’t have lots of technology to teach with?
BYOD, or ‘Bring Your Own Device’, is a neat solution to a lack of technology in the classroom. It relies on students bringing to class their smartphones, tablets or laptops and making use of them to complete online tasks. For example, you could get students doing an internet treasure hunt to find key information.
Self-blended language learning happens when students decide to develop their English language lives on the internet without you! Imagine the school has no digital resources or the teacher doesn’t think of using computer-based activities in or out of class: a no-tech learning environment, in other words. However, this doesn’t stop students from learning informally, by finding sites and apps to practise English when their teacher’s not there. For example, many students enjoy listening to songs in English while reading the lyrics.
Ask your students what they do online in English. While some of your students will certainly be doing this sort of thing already, many others will not be. Consider giving students the chance to recommend their out-of-class ideas to each other. A new role for teachers is to help learners navigate the huge choices available and guide them to make the best decisions.
To think about – when to blend?
Although learning outcomes can be improved by combining the best elements of classroom-based learning with the best that technology has to offer, we need to be careful in how we blend. For it to be successful:
- We must make sure students have the digital resources they need.
- Modes of learning must be integrated into a unified whole and modes should be appropriate for each activity. It makes sense, for example, to exploit classroom time for free speaking practice and digital technology for restricted grammar practice.
- We should ensure that the same content can be delivered via more than one mode of delivery. This provides the learner with choice as to how to learn and gives the teacher flexibility in how best to deliver content.
Our role as teachers is changing; as the opportunities for independent study increase dramatically, it is important that we guide our students in the new choices they have available. Blended language learning is the perfect way to bridge the gap between the classroom and the online world, and it offers meaningful, motivating and effective new paths to students’ learning goals. Ask yourself how these tools could benefit your students on their journeys in English.
Think about it!
DIY (Do It Yourself) blended language learning is very common. Perhaps you have tried one or more of these blended learning ideas yourself:
- Recommending websites and mobile apps to students.
- Emailing the class with messages, links and advice.
- Setting a YouTube clip with comprehension questions as homework.
- Setting up a social media page, blog or wiki for your classes.
What other forms of blended learning have you heard of or used?
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