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Online and Blended Instruction: Benefits and Challenges

“Online courses allow learning to take place synchronously or asynchronously.” Image by jscreationzs and accessed from wikicommons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Online.jpg

This is the second of a two-part series focusing on online and blended instructional design (for the first part see:  Online and Blended Instruction: Thoughts about Where We are (or are we?)). This writing will examine three areas of discussion focused on specific teaching and learning benefits and challenges found within online instructional design.  As with the first part of this series, much of what I am presenting comes from various workshop discussions I have had with other faculty and instructors.  Additional sources for this piece include different higher education and IT resources and my recent attendance at the EDUCAUSE West/Southwest Regional Conference 2012.

This discussion builds on previous reflections about the general trends, debates, and ideas surrounding online and blended instruction and learning.  These reflections are not only a mix between ideas and concerns expressed by those participating in our workshops and the national sources, but also come out of my own online teaching experiences over the last eight years.   The ideas here are presented as summaries and as prescribed answers to the concerns raised.  My hope is that others will post comments reflecting on their own ideas for answering the challenges.

Self-paced or Self-directed?  In many ways this is an oldie but a goodie.  Really what this revolves around are different ideas about how an online learning environment should be structured and what are the student expectations for participating in the online environment.   The debate, if we want to call it a debate, forms around the balance between allowing students to engage with the online materials at their own pacing and giving the students a set of structured deadlines and guidelines.  As a personal example, I view my course as “self-directed,” in that the students have a good amount of flexibility of when and where they access the course materials, but at the same time I see the course as a learning community where timely and frequent participation is key.  This then is not a correspondence environment where the students access content then take a test on their own “self-paced” schedule, but of course I see the need for and importance of this type of format for both instructors and students in certain contexts.

One recent trend this issue addresses is the possible challenge of working with students who approach learning from what is now seen as a “free agent learner” perspective.

“This free agent learner is one that is technology-enabled, technology-empowered, and technology-engaged to be … an important part of driving their own educational destiny. To some extent they feel … it’s a responsibility. They also feel it’s a right to be able to do that. So technology has enabled this free agent learner. We have the opportunity in education to make sure they’re on the right track and to be supportive of their learning experiences.” (Students as ‘Free Agent Learners’)

There are some advantages to students feeling more in control of how they put together their own learning.  For instance, picking and choosing the content that most interests the learner can be a strong motivating force in the learning process.  But when does this become too abstract and, as such, take away from the metacognition processes of learning?  For more about the importance of metacoginition see this excellent piece by Jason Schreiner.

Multimodal and Multimedia versus Reading and Writing?  This question revolves around the ideas and concerns about using technology in ways that foster multimodal learning (working with multiple learning styles and multimedia content delivery approaches).  Again one can see how this relates to the ideas of providing a learning environment that allows for different ways to engage students.  Will the use of video, podcasts, video games, and so on detract and distract from the development of important reading and writing skills?  Taking this to the next level, if an instructor uses media to present content, why not allow the students to use media to present their research and course learning?  If the students are using media to present their learning, what are the best ways to assess this learning?  These are the questions I have heard in many different forums, and they are excellent to consider as we continue to move forward into the world of online teaching and learning.

Open or Closed?  This is an area that is a little more recent in its overall discussion.  The questions here focus on the ideas about providing more open access to course content and even more access to full course participation itself (I have addressed the general background of this conversation here:  Open Education: free for all?).   This again comes back to the recurring and overarching question about allowing for a learner to access the course on his or her own terms concerning time and pace.   As such, the sub-question becomes, where does the instructional structure fit itself into the process?  Additionally there is an important component of the function of higher education itself.   Questions are being raised about who is best served by an open learning environment and who is best served by a regulated and paid-for system of facilitation (see this recent profile of the Open Learning Initiative’s Candice Thille in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

There are other main areas that need to be considered when working with online and blended course design, but as an initial introduction, these are the main areas that have received the most discussion of late.  Online teaching and learning is an area of important and emerging discussion.  It is also an area that will only continue to expand its offered benefits and challenges as we continue to explore the ways online education fits into higher education and our society overall.

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