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The Value of Blended Learning

By Steve Hulse, Manager, Learning Solutions


I like e-Learning as much as the next guy, but sometimes a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t…well, fit. Maybe it’s because the subject matter isn’t a good match for the technology, or the audience doesn’t have the requisite skills to learn effectively online. Whatever the cause, it’s up to us as instructional designers to craft an approach that has the greatest impact on the greatest number of learners.  One way to do that is by using blended learning.

Blended learning is not just combining online with classroom instruction, although that’s part of it. It also uses a variety of teaching and presentation methods within the classroom itself.



The place to start planning for blended learning is during the analysis phase. What do learners need to know, and when do they need to know it? What technology infrastructure is available to support the learner, and what computer skills do they possess? Do they have a preferred learning style? Identify this information and make it an online prerequisite for the course. Subject history, terminology, and content overview all fit well into an online format, and it helps level the playing field for learners new to the subject compared to those with more knowledge or experience.  When learners arrive in class everyone has a similar working knowledge of the basic information.


PSU Scientific Communications Class


That was the approach used by the Penn State College of Medicine as part of its Scientific Communications curriculum. Students were required to complete a short online segment before each class, most ending with an assignment to be completed and brought to the next class meeting. Class time was used to look at students’ work and then begin to build on that foundation for the remainder of their time together. The result was that faculty could focus on building complex skills instead of teaching basic knowledge.


Class time can be used to answer questions and build on basic information, or course, but there’s more to blended learning than that.



My ninth-grade civics teacher rarely spoke a word, choosing instead to write his notes and comments on the board which we all laboriously copied into our notebooks. That was not teaching. Neither is the modern equivalent of reading PowerPoint presentations word-for-word. The strength of live classroom teaching is the interactivity between teacher and learners, and between learners themselves. While this can be done online, it can be more effective to use a live classroom setting.


What does this look like? Consider collaborative assignments like posing a problem to a group of learners and challenging them to find the answers. In medical school they call this “problem-based learning.” A group of six to eight students are assigned a “patient” – actually just a case history contained in a chart – and asked to make a diagnosis or devise a treatment. Students are free to search the Internet, talk with experts, and read journals. Along the way they learn considerably more than just how to treat the patient. Anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and other topics are just some of the collateral knowledge they pick up. And to bring the blended learning example full circle, they often use technology to present their findings in class.


So the next time you’re considering using blended learning, look beyond the obvious classroom/online dichotomy. While each has its strengths, both can be made stronger by blending elements of technology and live interaction in different and creative ways.