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Whether you read about it, Google it, or ask an expert, you will probably get definitions of blended learning that are actually about blended instruction. The definitions are also likely to be flat and one-dimensional because they focus on the modes — offline and online — of instruction.

I use the term blending to refer to how both teaching and learning can be designed and driven. I take care to separate teaching and learning because they are not the same set of processes.

Poor blending can lead to the teaching of content that does not result in desired learning outcomes. On the other hand, carefully designed and skilfully implemented blending is more likely to lead to powerful and meaningful learning.

Today I condense my scattered thoughts on good blended instruction. I might share a story on blended learning in a another blog entry.

Three Dimensions of Blending.

I offer a model of blended instruction that borrows from instructional design principles and TPACK. While the common definitions of blending are flat, I share one that has at least three dimensions to give it shape and form.

The dimensions of blending are mode, content, and pedagogy. The dimensions are broad design considerations that are shaped by instructional contexts. These elements are represented in the diagram above. I describe each dimension and provide examples to illustrate them.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Mode.

The mode of instruction is the first dimension and is essentially the same as most definitions of blending. In blended forms of instruction, an educator teaches and facilitates both offline and online.

The educator does this by leveraging on the strengths and suitability of each mode. The educator’s ability to do this depends on his or her experience, depth of knowledge of technology and content (second dimension), and range of pedagogical know-how (third dimension).

Three Dimensions of Blending - Content.

The second dimension is the ability to blend content knowledge. This is a multi-faceted element that accounts for the motivation for learning content and subsequent application of that content.

One way to start thinking about blending content knowledge is how one topic links seamlessly and logically to another. This should be considered not just from an expert’s perspective, but more critically the learner’s frame of mind. The learner should be taught in a manner so that the seemingly separate elements become part of a coherent whole.

Another way of understanding this dimension is to consider how information becomes knowledge, and how that knowledge is used. Meaningful learning is rarely decontextualised or standalone; if there is no context for application, there is unlikely to be any long-term learning. For example, the delivery of a mathematical concept or a new operating standard for work is empty if it is not embedded in why it needs to be learnt as well as how and when it can be used.

Such learning embraces complexity. Whether the content is the black-or-white variety (e.g., compliance standards, emergency drills) or many shades of grey (e.g., ethics in any field, geopolitics), learners often need to combine hard skills with soft ones; draw from different resources from other fields; and factor in their own prior experiences.

Yet another form of content blending is cross-or multi-displinary learning. By this I do not mean that English is the language for the delivery of game programming principles. I am referring to the fact that programming projects need proposals, timelines, budgets, presentations, and more. Peripheral processes and soft skills could be taught with central processes and hard skills.

In short, the blending of content recognises that what the teacher knows needs to be combined with other content areas, social learning processes, and meaningful contexts.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Pedagogy.

The third dimension of blending is pedagogy. This is partly the skilful application of x-based approaches as the content and context require, and as the technology allows. Some examples of x: Problem, case, scenario, team, game, mobile, social media, station, outdoor, etc.

The pedagogical dimension should also include the ability to design and implement suitable forms of assessment and evaluation, provide feedback, and draw out learner reflection.

The three dimensions of blending are dictated by contextual considerations which are often limiting factors. For example, budget, policy changes, sector (schooling, higher education, military, private), etc.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Context.

The context often determines the extent and quality of blending. For example, a paltry budget often leads to a one-dimensional, mode-only blending. There is content offline and online, and while this might look good on paper, it is not meaningful to learners if it does not have sufficient authenticity and complexity, or include timely interaction with content, peers, or experts.

Alternatively, budget or policy might dictate that instruction is separate from assessment. For example, when money is no object, the one who teaches might not be the same as the person who assesses. When budgets are tight or if there is policy to try automation or trial “analytics”, learners might be subject to low-level quizzes that are not aligned to performance outcomes.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Sweet Spot.

My ideal model of blending requires that all three major design elements — mode, content, and pedagogy — are factored into the context of instruction and application. Well-designed blending is the sweet spot that marries critical practice and rigorous research on blending.

However, reality bites hard. Practical realities and unquestioned practice might have led to one-dimensional implementation of blended learning. While such teaching practices might be efficient or even impressive on paper, it might not be as effective in terms of learning.

Instructional designers, educators, managers, and decision makers need to honestly evaluate their existing designs and processes for blending. They could start with a simple models like the three dimensions of blending.

Yesterday I shared the reasons for my three dimensions of flipped learning.

I have thought of two more possible dimensions.

Five Ball by Dricker94, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Dricker94 


The fourth dimension of flipped learning could be learner-initiated evaluation.

If one of the desired outcomes of flipping is a more independent and self-directed learner, then the ability to assess and evaluate one’s self should be something to nurture.

To oversimplify, assessment is the measurement of knowledge, skills, or even attitudes. A number or letter indicate how well a student has done often in comparison with others. This is typical of summative assessment. Even the most beneficial form of assessment — formative assessment — is often conducted as part of the processes leading to summative assessment.

Evaluation, on the other hand, might be considered the value one places in a grade or a score. For example, student A might have a score of 95 while student B has a score of 50. If the previous assessment of A and B resulted in scores of 90 and 30 respectively, an assessor of mastery would label A more successful than B. However, an evaluator could place more worth in the 20-point increase by B.

Both assessment and evaluation have their place, but conventional teaching places heavy emphasis on summative assessments and scores. One problem with mishandled assessment is that students learn to tie self worth or ability to them.

Another is that assessment processes tend to be teacher-centric in that they begin and end with the teacher. The teacher sets the task, tests for it, provides feedback and/or remediation, and the cycle starts again. There is nothing wrong with this if it is not the only or main strategy.

For a balanced learning, students should be given opportunities to reflect, evaluate themselves, and critique others. Their self worth should not be tied only to a teacher’s opinion or the score on a piece of paper.

It is time to flip evaluation and put that power and responsibility back in the hands of learners. If learners do not know and/or are not comfortable doing this, then the instructor needs to show them how.

The fifth dimension of flipping could be just-in-time learning.

Conventional instruction as just-in-case and front loading. Students or employees are taught things without context or in advance of knowing why.

Students or trainees are given large amounts of disparate information just in case they need it later for a test or work. But this sort of learning, while potentially challenging, is rarely meaningful because it does not make sense at the time it is received.

One way to flip learning in the fifth dimension is to show real-world relevance first with a problem or issue from life or work (bring context to the class or training venue).

Another is to embed learning in the real world via internships, apprenticeships, or community service (learning in context). The need to internalize new information, practise a new skill, or adopt a new value system makes more sense that way.

Whatever the larger strategy, the learners understand the need for learning something first. The instructor guides learners along by providing just-in-time information by teaching, directing, coaching, mentoring, connecting, etc.

On reflection, I have generated these five dimensions by practising all of them. I tried various forms of the flipped classroom and found most to be ineffective as they did not focus enough on the learner. I found a strategy that worked because it focused on learners-as-teachers and learners-as-content creators.

As I facilitated learning by using these 3D strategies in my courses and workshops, I evaluated the robustness of the model as practised by my learners and me. I tested my own understanding of this emerging set of operating principles by trying to write something coherent in two blog entries.

I wrote this in advance of a talk I led among a group of educators and this has not only made me reflect some more but also made me look for just-in-time resources to justify my model.

Video source

When I came up with the three dimensions of flipped learning last year, I did so because I thought that some commonly implemented ideas of the flipped classroom were flat, teacher-centred, and even irresponsible.

If teachers use video cameras and YouTube to flip their classrooms, they are might be simply substituting themselves with technology equivalents. Alternatively, they might just be augmenting the lesson because their students can now pause, replay, skip, or speed up parts.

Why does this superficial change happen? When teachers think first of content and videos, they are doing the same thing they have done before: Focusing on the curricular race and didactic delivery.

When that happens, teachers worry about the quality of their videos, the access their learners have to technology, and whether students obediently consume content before coming to class. These are not wrong in themselves, but these teaching foci are less important than learning foci.

Far too few think about how to improve the other half of the flip when they meet in the classroom. For example, how the lesson could be redesigned to focus on remediation, feedback, individualization, differentiation, etc.

Furthermore, far too many think of flipped classrooms as a way to help increase curricular time by using travel, family, or personal time of students.

The first dimension of flipping should be about learners and learning, not about the teacher and teaching.

In the other two dimensions of flipping, the role of the teacher and content creator are flipped. Students teach in order to learn deeply and they prepare content like a teacher would in order to teach.

Why get learners to teach?

Teachers know their content well because they teach it over and over again. The cyclic processing, reprocessing, and reflection hone teachers’ internalization and treatment of content. So why not let students do something similar?

Learning Pyramid by dkuropatwa, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  dkuropatwa 

The oft cited theoretical basis for teaching-to-learn is the Learning Pyramid and how different strategies lead to different retention rates.

Side note: I have not found a reliable source for this model despite the labels on graphics like the one above. It seems to be a variation of Dale’s Cone of Experience. But any practitioner will be able to relate to how an instructor develops content competency and confidence by repeated teaching. Any theoretician with knowledge of the information processing model of the mind will be able to rationalize the merits of learners-as-teachers.

Side note 2: Learning is messy and does not happen by numbers nor does it form a neat pyramid. At best the model should be used as a visualization on what might lead to meaningful learning. It is not a reliable descriptive model. It is definitely not a prescriptive model with which to design courses or programmes.

Why get learners to create content?

Artefacts are externalized manifestations that provide evidence of internal processes. In simple speak: You do not know what a learner knows, does not know, or misunderstands, until you get him or her to explain it to you.

The creations can vary in complexity from a summarizing tweet to a concept map to a musical play.

Content when performed as evidence of learning requires viewership. In traditional instruction, each student typically has an audience of one — the teacher. In flipped learning, the student has a larger audience that could comprise a small group, the whole class, or anyone in the world. This is the audience effect.

Most people will intrinsically understand how having an audience “ups the ante” because of the social and reputational pressure.

I explained the audience effect at two talks I gave a while ago. I cited a Vanderbilt study where the learning outcomes of three treatment groups of kids were measured. Predictably, the kids who had an authentic audience performed the best.

The second and third dimensions of flipped learning are what really give flipping its shape and depth. They focus on the learner and what they can do to learn more meaningfully and effectively. They also remove the unnecessary pressure for teachers to prepare content all the time. However, they require teachers to unlearn old content-focused habits and relearn how to operate as true facilitators.

One of the things that an academic has to do (whether s/he wants to or not) is attend conferences. Conferences are a good way to get a trial paper into a conference-linked journal or a journal proper. It is part of the “publish or perish” adage that academics live by.

Whether academics like to admit it or not, we choose conferences not just as opportunities to network and catch up with friends, but also to travel to cities we have never been to.

Today is the deadline for submission of proposals of one of my favourite conferences. This conference introduced a practitioner track and I was keen on sharing a more elaborate version of my three dimensions of flipped learning. But something stopped me.

Video source

It was not the fact that I will be leaving my job as a university faculty soon. It was more about the fact that most conferences are run more like businesses and cost a lot to attend. I questioned the need to pay airfare, accommodation, and conference fee in order to share something of value that I created that will benefit only a relative few (the few that pay to attend and get the documents).

I did not have to play the usual academic game anymore. I decided that if I am going to share an article, it should benefit those it is meant to reach (practitioners), an in order to do this, I should do it openly.

Video source

If I make any contribution to the discourse on flipped learning, it might be this video.

There are two parts to this three-minute long piece.

In the first part, I share three stories of my attempts at flipping in 2007, 2009, and 2011. The first two were failures that I learnt from. The last was something I do to this day.

The second part is a simple framework for what I think are at least three dimensions of flipping.

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