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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.

Have you noticed how reflection is mishandled so that it becomes negative?

When I was a teacher educator at NIE, I would overhear student teachers complaining how their tutors would make them reflect in every course.

I have also noticed how some school teachers require their students to write reflections if the latter misbehaved or did not do as told. This has led children to associate reflections with punishment.

That is why I try to find out WHY teachers want their students to reflect, particularly if reflections they want are to be part of a “whole school” approach or are over-structured.

Reflections by Gryphes, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Gryphes 

I like to describe reflection as a learnt behaviour that one must HONE. It must be:

  • developed as a Habit
  • ideally Owned by the learner
  • a Natural process of metacognition
  • linked to Emotion

Good habits are often a result of disciplined practice. A teacher might require his/her students to reflect before, during, or after a lesson to start this habit. The teacher should persist with such an effort and be a model of reflective thinking as well.

There are various structures teachers can use and I shared some in the tweet below.

Teachers should be careful to prevent scaffolds from becoming crutches or even barriers to reflection. Counter strategies might include varying the reflection scaffold, media, point-of-use, and frequency.

However, those strategies do not necessarily create ownership of the process or product of reflection. The teacher is still telling students to reflect as well as when, where, and how to do it.

To create ownership, teachers might consider asking students what they think about reflection, what structures they might like to create, and where and how they wish to reflect. For example, simple structure might be to mention two takeaways (teacher-imposed) but to give learners options on whether to write, draw, photograph, audio record, video record, etc. (learner choice).

If the reflections are collated in e-portfolios, teachers might look into ways of encouraging students to use tools or platforms that learners are already comfortable with. The range of reflection spaces is huge: blogs, Facebook posts, tweets, Pinterest items, Instagram photos, YouTube videos, podcasts, online stickies, etc.

Giving students choice and voice is a step towards strategizing reflection. There are pros and cons of each platform, scaffold, or strategy. Getting students involved helps them realize how thinking about thinking (metacognition) is a natural process instead of a forced one.

The goal of this form of nurturing is to get learners to realize how reflection is a natural extension of who they are, what they do, and what tools they use. It bursts the bubble that reflection should only happen at the end of lessons or only in classrooms.

Mandatory, structured, and teacher-directed reflections can become dry quickly if they are merely academic responses devoid of emotion. There is no reason why reflections cannot be fun or funny. Next to odour-linked phenomena, emotional events are the most likely to be remembered.

Rising above my suggested framework on how to HONE reflection, it might be obvious that the first two, habit (or automaticity) and ownership, are relatively easy to describe and implement. They might even be formulaic because these are functions of teaching practice.

The latter two, naturalness and emotion, are not as easy to describe. These are functions of a teacher’s philosophy of education. Does the teacher believe that his/her students have a natural capacity to learn or must they be prodded constantly? Does the teacher value the staid objectivity of content or does s/he make learning personal?

It is immensely gratifying to see learners reflect on their own volition because it is has become an automatic habit of mind. Such actions do not always come naturally; they are a skill set that can and must be honed early on.

First, some context.

When I integrate video games in my courses or workshops, I do so not to deliver content but to provide participants with shared experiences from which to generate discussion, critique, and reflection.

I can use the same games for topics as diverse as self-directed learning, collaborative learning, mobile learning, video game-based learning, and change management.

Video source

While I can model this process of video game-based learning (vGBL), I realize it is very difficult for others to emulate because I have made the process uniquely mine.

This got me thinking about the possible categories or levels of vGBL. The taxonomy I am about to suggest is no way sequential or prescriptive, but there is an inherent value system.

I may add to or subtract from my framework in future. For now, there are four types of vGBL: 1) backward, 2) basic, 3) intermediate, and 4) advanced.

A harmful implementation of vGBL is drill-and-practice disguised as video games.

These sorts of games often require students to apply a fixed set of rules repeatedly for game rewards. These rewards have nothing to do with the content mastery and focus on extrinsic motivation instead.

For example, if the student gets an arithmetic problem right, a racing car moves forward or a squirrel gets a nut. This is similar to giving a child a sweet every time you tell them to be polite. They do not learn why it is important to be polite; they learn they get rewarded for doing something.

This sort of implementation perpetuates the wrong idea of vGBL and gives vGBL a bad name.

To dissuade teachers from adopting this strategy, I get them to experience drill-and-practise “gaming” from a learner’s point of view. When they reflect on how boring it is, I ask them how their students feel. It is a powerful lesson in taking a learner’s perspective.

Mention vGBL and most teachers think about how video games might be used to motivate their learners and/or teach content in their classrooms.

While there are some great games that might do these, this approach is potentially harmful and not sustainable in the long run.

Using games to motivate is one possible reaction to needing to teach content that is boring. To borrow a phrase from other thought leaders on GBL, this is like getting kids to eat chocolate-covered broccoli.

However, gaming merely to motivate is like applying a superficial bandage to a deep-seated injury. It does not address why there is a disconnect between teaching and learning.

Video games worth learning from are also costly. They take a long time to create and cost a lot of money. Given their development time, they also run the risk of being irrelevant by the time they are ready.

It is unlikely that teachers will find a game that addresses their context, scheme of work, or administrative standard. There will invariably be some social or pedagogical customization.

When teachers take parts of video game experiences and integrate them into their lessons, they breach the level of intermediate vGBL. They may start to operate outside the boundaries of what the game was designed to do.

One teacher might use a game like Civilization to teach historical principles. Another might use Angry Birds to seed a discussion on terrorism (watch this short segment in my TEDx talk).

Video source

Yet another form of intermediate vGBL is taking advantage of mobile and location-aware games outside the classroom. This MindShift article is a good example of what I mean.

I should add that the mobile-assisted “learning journeys” that some schools here put students through are neither location game-based nor learning-oriented in their implementation.

This form of vGBL is like design thinking.

Teachers might experience games and then deconstruct them to identify what makes them effective. I do this in my workshops by asking participants this question: How might you incorporate game-based learning without playing games in class?

Elements that emerge from effective vGBL like failing forward or just-in-time/just-for-me learning are principles that I draw out from workshop participants. Then I challenge them to integrate one or more principles into their teaching.

This form of vGBL is challenging. If participants are teachers, advanced vGBL focuses on challenging, changing, or improving pedagogy. If advanced vGBL is designed for students, the focus is higher order thinking skills, metacognition, or value systems. Game play and content is almost secondary and a means to those ends.

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