Education Talks: Putting the blend together

What does learning have in common with gin? And which frameworks can help us to understand blended learning? Michael Hallissy, independent researcher and founder of H2 Learning, delves into this timely and variously defined concept.

What is blended learning?

Blended learning is understood as a hybrid approach that combines learning in school with distance learning, including online learning. And I think that comma is very important, because that is a very nice definition, it's quite wide, and it's an umbrella, and we can fit a number of other definitions underneath it, depending on our context. And I think this is a key thing for me, but there is no one-size definition for blended learning. In recent days, I met a school, and they said to me that they thought blended learning, the term, was just being abused left, right and centre, and I smiled at them and I didn't quite agree. But I think what I said to them was, you need to create an understanding of what blended learning is within your context.

How does blended learning work in practice?

In my own case, I and a colleague and professor, Deirdre Butler from Dublin City University, we like to think of blended learning as blending gin. So, thinking of your botanicals, thinking of the ingredients and how you mix those together, and depending on the mix, you get a different blend. So, what are our ingredients? What are the parts that we need to think about when we're putting our blending together?

And the first is, where does or will learning take place? And we need a blend that fits for our students, and we need to consider: are we going to be able to be in school, in the physical building? Are we going to be live online? Are we going to design learning activities where they will do it in their own time, self-directed, where they're working possibly on a computer, or with some other medium - it could be paper, they could be in a gallery, etcetera, etcetera. And where the learning is going to take place, and how we mix those together.

The next one is how learning takes place. And these are what I call learning strategies. And this framework we have created is based on the work of Professor Diana Laurillard and her colleagues in University College London, and it's called the ABC Framework. And at the core of the framework are six learning types that are based on Diana Laurillard's conversational framework, and they are Acquisition, Collaboration, Discussion, Investigation, Practice and Production. I've also added into the mix here with colleagues, Social and Emotional Well-Being and Assessment Opportunities. And in this framework, it gets us to think about those learning outcomes. What do we want the learners to achieve? So, if we're going to create that, we also need to think about the tools, the technologies that we have. So, if we want them to engage with some content before they come to class, we might share a YouTube video with them - that's Acquisition. If we wanted them to collaborate online, we might ask them to use a piece of technology and Microsoft Teams, where they collaborate online. If we want them to have a discussion before they come to class or during class, and particularly at the moment, if they're not meeting in a physical space, we might use something like Teams or Zoom or Google Classrooms. So, we have choices. And all of the time, we need to think about the learning strategies and the technologies that will make these come to life. So, that's part of our blend. Ultimately, it's the teacher who decides, within their context.

What are some lessons learned from the COVID-19 school closures?

During this period, particularly since March 12 2020, there has been a huge investment of time and energy by teachers on learning new technologies. Using the TPACK framework, which was developed by Mishra and Koehler and built on the work of Shulman, this is known as technological knowledge, the knowledge of digital tools. However, many teachers and schools are now realising that this is only one element of the jigsaw, and that if we really want to implement good teaching and learning practices, we need to move beyond TK. And in the TPACK framework, that means combining pedagogical knowledge with subject knowledge and technological knowledge. So, for example, if we are teaching Mathematics using digital technologies in a blended learning way, we need to consider the content, the best learning strategies, and the technology, and put the three together, and we get that bull's eye in the middle, our TPACK.