Friday, May 3, 2013

The Blended Classroom

The virtual classroom is popular because it works and fits well with today's students and faculty. Delivery methods have improved as the tools have been tweaked and instructors have learned best practices in using them. Faculty and students have warmed to the flexibility of meeting online and/or receiving instruction and content on demand, and the convenience of learning from home, hotel, or favorite login spot is undeniable. The quality and effectiveness of online instruction has improved in both perception and reality. A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education actually reported that students in online courses performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.

There are downsides to virtual-only instruction, however. Online learners drop out more than face-to-face students. The Handbook of Blended Learning cites lack of support and problems with the technology as principal contributors to the lack of retention of online learners. A recent study of community college students showed that students avoided online courses "due to the weaker instructor presence (and, to a lesser extent, the weaker student-student interaction)." Student perceptions of online courses are that more independence and accountability are required in them and that students who take them are isolated and often inundated by questions and confusion.

Enter the blended (sometimes called "hybrid") classroom, which combines face-to-face with online instruction. It need not be "half bricks and half clicks": there are many examples that do not require or even recommend an even split between online and on-site time. Lower dropout rates are reported for virtually every blended classroom scenario imaginable when compared to online-only classes. Some researchers report that greater community is established when there is at least some face-to-face time with the instructor. Others indicate that students who have at even one in-person contact with their instructor and/or other students manage their time better and and have a better understanding of how to prepare for assignments and study in appropriate ways.

It may not always be possible to provide a blended classroom, since institutional and student requirements may prohibit offering a physical setting. But the evidence is strong that retention and achievement are improved when virtual is combined with physical.

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