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Everything you need to know about blended learning

We take a closer look at blended learning, exploring what it is, the different models, and the advantages and disadvantages it brings.

Blended Learning

Over the last year, learning institutions worldwide have seen massive changes. The pandemic has resulted in a shift in the way educators teach, and while some changes may be temporary, others could be here to stay. Although the concept of blended learning has been around for a while, its use (and limitations) have been very much in focus. 

Here, we take a look at the essentials of blended learning. As well as providing a blended learning definition, we also explore how it differs from other methods and what models are available. We’ll examine some of the pros and cons of the practice, as well as some examples of how it works. 

What is blended learning? 

Let’s start with a definition of blended learning. As outlined in our open step on education design in higher education, blended learning uses various combinations of traditional face-to-face learning experiences with online and mobile technologies. The aim is that each element enhances the other. 

Of course, the concept of using technology to supplement in-person learning isn’t a new one. What’s more, definitions of blended learning have, in the past, been hard to pin down. However, in more recent years, the consensus seems to be that blended learning is the combination of face-to-face and technology-based learning. 

In higher education, particularly, the implementation of blended learning seems to be common practice. A report from 2016 identified blended learning as one of the most significant trends in education change. 

Blended learning doesn’t necessarily follow a particular pedagogical approach. It can occur simultaneously with in-person learning (synchronous) or apart from it (asynchronous). As we’ll see, several blended learning models can be used. 

Blended learning vs hybrid learning

Quite often, you’ll see the term hybrid learning used interchangeably with that of blended learning. Although there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with doing so, not-for-profit digital learning specialists Jisc point out that there is a subtle difference between the concepts. 

Jisc highlights that, although there is interchangeability, ‘hybrid learning is often used where the students themselves have a greater degree of choice as to how they engage with their learning and can move between onsite and remote delivery seamlessly.’ 

What is a flipped classroom?

Another concept that is closely linked to ideas of blended and hybrid learning is that of a flipped classroom. Again, it’s a term that can be hard to define. However, essentially it describes a learning structure where in-class exercises follow a pre-recorded lecture or other materials. As such, we can consider a flipped classroom as a type of blended learning. 

The structure is ‘flipped’ because learning that is traditionally covered in the classroom is instead covered in the student’s own time. So, ahead of class time, learners may watch videos, access online resources, or complete formative assessments. 

Face-to-face learning then focuses more on interactivity and personalised learning, including activities such as group work and case studies. You can find out more about how technology impacts the classroom with our online course. 

What are the types of blended learning?

As we’ve seen, the exact meaning of blended learning can be hard to pin down. However, that also means that several different forms of teaching relate to blended learning. Along with a flipped classroom model, we’ve picked out some other common blended learning best practices, as highlighted by blendedlearning.org

  • Station rotation. With this blended learning model, students rotate through various ‘stations’ on a fixed schedule. Usually, at least one of these stations is an online learning one.  
  • Lab rotation. This method is essentially the same as the one above, except that online learning takes place in a dedicated computer lab. It gives both students and educators more flexibility while making use of existing resources.
  • Individual rotation. Again, this model is similar to both station and lab rotation. However, it’s tailored to each individual student (either by an educator or an algorithm), and not every student will necessarily visit each station. 
  • Flex learning. This blended learning model is all about creating flexibility. Online learning is central to this method, while teachers provide support and instruction when it’s needed by the student. 
  • Enriched virtual learning. With this method, the majority of coursework is completed virtually and remotely. Rather than have a regular classroom experience, students only attend for face-to-face sessions when required. 
  • Online driver. Unlike the other models, this one takes place entirely online. It’s self-directed by the learner, and they can interact with an instructor through chat, email or message board. Although highly flexible, it lacks the face-to-face interaction. 

These represent just some of the blended learning models available to educators. It’s possible to mix and match elements to create an environment that works best for students and teachers alike. 

The benefits of blended learning

We’ll get into some of the specific blended learning advantages and disadvantages further down. However, it’s worth mentioning some of the general benefits that this type of teaching provides. 

In our open step on the benefits of blended learning and a flipped classroom, a variety of educators discuss their experience with using these models. On the whole, there are several points they raise: 

  • It allows educators to link online and in-class activities, allowing them to draw upon the strengths of each. 
  • It means a variety of different mediums and resources can be utilised for learning, such as videos, presentations, podcasts, and industry material. 
  • Resources can be created or recorded once and used multiple times and across various classes. 

Advantages of blended learning

Now let’s explore some of the specific advantages of blended learning for students and teachers. It’s important to bear in mind that different methods will be suitable for different students and their specific needs. You can find out more about developing a more inclusive style of education with our online course. 

Advantages for learners

  • Students can move at their own pace. Those who are familiar with the subject matter can work through online material faster, while those who are less confident can pause and re-watch the tricky parts. 
  • Material is available at all times. Whatever time a student works best at, they can log on and access the classes, lectures, and other materials when they’re going to learn best. 
  • Students can prepare before class. When looking at blended learning for practical work, students can explore key themes and topics through online learning ahead of face-to-face demonstrations. This allows them some familiarity with the material, meaning more time can be spent on interesting and engaging activities. 
  • It may improve retention. Several studies from the 2000s suggested that blended learning helped students to retain more information. Although newer studies are needed, it could prove beneficial. 
  • It can help with independent learning. With many blended learning models, students are given self-advocacy and freedom to take the initiative with their studies. This can help to prepare them for further education, as well as the workplace. 
  • It introduces new technologies. Blended learning gives scope for learners to experience new software and hardware. Discovering how to use such technology can prepare them for future endeavours. 

Advantages for educators

  • Teaching across contexts. Educators can draw on a wide range of resources to provide learning materials across different contexts. For example, they could use lectures, tutorials, and practical settings when teaching a particular topic. 
  • Technology can facilitate different pedagogical approaches. Using blended learning can encourage active learning, the use of real-world scenarios, social learning, and the application of knowledge to new situations.
  • Set goals and track progress. Many blended learning tools allow teachers and trainers to track the performance of their students. This can give educators a better insight into which methods are most effective. 
  • Create a tailored approach. By creating online resources, educators can then focus on tailoring their face-to-face class time to the needs of their students. 

Disadvantages of blended learning

Of course, as with many methods of teaching and learning, there is the potential for downsides when it comes to blended learning. Below, we’ve picked out some of the drawbacks for both learners and educators. 

Disadvantages for learners 

  • Access to resources. A blended learning model often requires students to utilise technology outside of the classroom. Not every learner will have equal access to the resources, which can make online learning difficult or even impossible. 
  • Supporting individual learners. There is no catch-all approach to education. Students with different needs and digital literacies may not find technology-based learning as accessible without the right level of support.
  • A lack of direct contact. Although self-directed learning can be beneficial, learners that are struggling with online material may not be able to find solutions by themselves. 

Disadvantages for educators

  • It’s often a bottom-up approach. Teachers or other staff often have to take the initiative with blended learning. As such, there is a need for formal instruction and professional development to support their blended learning practice.
  • The infrastructure may not exist. It can be difficult to set up the internal structure needed to implement blended learning. The resources and budget may not be available. 
  • Time constraints. Moving towards a blended learning environment can take time. As well as the necessary setup and logistics, training and material preparation is often needed. It can be difficult to manage this time alongside current teaching requirements. 

Examples of blended learning

As we’ve seen, there are all kinds of models and approaches to blended learning and teaching. Creating a blended learning model that works takes a lot of time and planning. However, it’s useful to gain some specific examples of how these methods can be used.

Below, we’ve picked out several blended learning examples to demonstrate how it can be implemented: 

Blended learning in healthcare

This example is taken from our open step on training healthcare trainers and relates to a blend of learning routes used to teach the skill of cannulation: 

OutcomeDelivery route
Name the main veins of the forearmOnline
Identify components of a cannulaOnline
Insert a cannula correctlyClassroom
Cannulate patientsBedside (mentored)

As you can see, the theoretical learning outcomes can be completed online, leaving time for face-to-face learning to show more practical elements. 

Blended learning in language teaching

This example is taken from our open step on the different digital tools for different types of learning. Here, the instructor uses FlipGrid to help students rehearse their speaking skills. They created a recorded and written version of the particular question, and students can then record a response. 

The tool allows students to practice together, then individually record what they’ve done on audio and video. The teacher then offers personalised feedback for each one, and finally, they share their best examples with each other.

Blended learning for practical work 

This example is taken from our open step on blended learning for practical work. It looks at how a teacher can get the most out of their class time, which focuses on group discussion and practical work. 

Students can prepare for the in-class activities by completing a pre-class learning experience. The teachers create a straightforward type of activity that requires students to review some information and input a textual answer. They are required to engage with the material, helping them to later contribute in class discussions. 

Final thoughts

It’s easy to see why blended learning has become popular over recent years. The approach of combining online and remote activities with face-to-face learning can help both students and teachers. However, it’s important to remember that not everyone will benefit from this type of learning, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the needs of all learners. 

If you’re interested in learning more about blended learning and the various approaches available, our ExpertTrack Blended Learning Essentials for Vocational Education and Training covers many of the fundamentals. You can also find a range of courses on inclusive teaching that explore some of the different aspects of blended learning.

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