Blending In The Cloud

Possibilities____by_akugyouza, via deviantart
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! | Possibilities____by_akugyouza, via deviantart

Happy New Year!  Lots of people make plans to change things about themselves at this time of year, and since our college is undergoing some major adjustments in 2015, I thought I’d post about some of the of the changes our ID department is planning over the next five years.  One of the major changes is the implementation of a blended learning model, so I’ve been doing some research.  There are two ground campuses and one virtual campus, and after a while of working independently from one another, we are finally putting our heads together for the greater good of the students.  I’ve used blended learning as a student in higher ed and as a teacher in K-12, but I haven’t experienced it in this type of situation before.  The questions I hope to answer through this research and through the ID process that will follow are:

  • What does an ID need to consider when planning for simultaneous ground campus and online campus blended courses?
  • What are the specific advantages of moving an online campus to blended learning, and what tools and strategies can help achieve this?

What follows is my take on blended learning before starting the planning stages of our blending mission, based on my past experience and what I’ve found so far in current research.

What Is Blended Learning?

In short, blended learning happens when some of the learning happens asynchronously through technological means.  This does not mean Googling things or showing a video.  (Remember Coronet videos on the reel-to-reel?  Amusing, but not blended.)  Nor does a “technology-rich” curriculum mean that blended learning is happening.  Rather, blended learning uses online learning as part of a well-planned curriculum to tailor, engage, and augment student learning.  For a quick explanation of traditional blended learning models, I suggest reading the “Blended Learning Model Definitions” article from the Christensen Institute.  But how can these be translated into exclusively online modes?  At first, this may seem redundant or broken, but I think there are ways to achieve a blended model solely through electronic means, and furthermore, through mirrored ground and online programs.

Why Blend?

Trends.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. | Jeff_Gaylord_in_Zubaz_Pants via Wikimedia Commons
Trends. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. | Jeff_Gaylord_in_Zubaz_Pants via Wikimedia Commons

Blended learning is not necessarily a new trend.  And as trends go, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  So you might be asking yourself if this is just a fad, or what the benefits of blended learning are, especially if you work for a school that already has a fully-online component.  In my personal experience, one of the key reasons to implement blended learning is increased student engagement opportunities.  This is also incredibly well documented with research and I won’t insult your intelligence by providing you with studies when you could google “blended learning” and have hundreds of examples at your fingertips.  Anyway, with blended learning, more of the activity is learner-driven, happening at their learning pace and at the moment they are ready to learn.  When the student is active, rather than passive (like a lecture or video), they are more likely to pay attention and have a deeper understanding of the material they are learning.  I don’t know about you, but I made some of my most detailed, intricate doodles in lecture-style classrooms, simply because it’s so passive (although I do believe there is merit in sketchnoting).  There *is* room, and need perhaps, for passive information gathering in blended learning, particularly at the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.  However, because students often learn lecture-style material on their own in blended learning, they can study when the time is right for them and even rewind an explanation if something isn’t clear (or, also like me, if they zoned out for a second).  Reluctant and low-level learners benefit from this by not having the stigma of raising their hand in class if they didn’t get it the first time.

Blended learning also usually involves more than one mode of learning as well (which is a good idea anyway), and provides integrated time for practice, remediation, or enrichment.  The ability to adapt to student needs and student individuality, no matter what the learning level, is perhaps the most effective and important reason to blend, partially because blending may offer a greater depth of assessment in learning for each learner, particularly when measuring individual progress (as opposed to general skill mastery).  In my opinion, these ideas are universal, regardless if the campus is physical or virtual.

Potential Blending Components

In 2005, Jared Carman proposed five key ingredients – live events, online content (individual learning), collaboration, assessments, and reference materials – as “important elements of a blended learning process”.  Although the suggested methods are a bit outdated, the principles still hold.  But how can these happen on a virtual campus, or better yet, on both campuses?  At this point, I can only be vague and dreamy until we work out the details and figure out how to make it all happen.  That said, here’s what I think will make the biggest differences for our students.

Flipped Classroom

I think this may be one of the most important components that is either missing from a lot of online learning – including our programs – or misunderstood and therefore misused.  Flipped classrooms may be the reason (maybe the only reason) why teaching will not just fizzle away as a profession.  As amazing as interactive programming is becoming, with AI and API guiding programs to help students in revolutionary ways, there is still not sufficient guidance and individual attention to truly help students master problem areas or complex ideas.  Watching a video on a topic can be helpful, but finding answers when one has questions may prove difficult or even frustrate the student beyond their initial struggles.  Having worked in a school district that used flipped classrooms as part of its blended learning model, it was striking to see the depth of conversation, problem solving, and student engagement achieved as opposed to the traditional classroom.  Since the students had already reviewed the material before attending class, they were there to actually work, not just listen.  An online school might achieve this with collaborative web conferencing sessions (through tools like Adobe Connect, Webex, Wimba, etc.) that go beyond lecture with strategies like live polling for assessment (like or mobile apps, which could be used for simultaneously held classes) and engagement and breakout groups for problem solving.  The integration of these types of tools will bridge the gap between physical and virtual campuses and provides instances where they can combine into one learning community.

Note that the flipped classroom cannot be one that relies on pretty PowerPoint presentations.  Lectures are not the main focus of classroom time in blended learning.  Although the article is geared toward K-12 situations, Victor Small, Jr. offers some similarly important considerations when planning a blend.  The flipped classroom online is also not just a rehash of what face-to-face professors encompass.  Hopefully, your professors have already embraced the “guide on the side; not the sage on the stage” school of thought.  Spouting off endless material is not what teaching is about.   In fact, flipped classrooms may actually leverage the effectiveness of the teacher and his/her ability to support learning.

Social Learning

We already have online discussions, but they could use a makeover.  I’d like to see more socially engaging qualities added to our discussion boards.  Our chief design officer suggested including a Facebook-inspired “Like” button.  Maybe this could be used with a caveat that you could like/dislike (maybe “agree/disagree” with?) something, but you had to justify it with class materials or outside scholarly resources. Could there be automatic tagging, like in social media pages when you start typing someone’s name, and it notifies them of your post?

I also think student mentorship is a win-win for more involved learners.  This might be a program within the school where students who are farther along in the program act as mentors or tutors to those beginning their programs.  Not only does the beginner gain another person in their support network and have a connection to someone who’s experienced what they are going through, but the mentor has a chance to practice leadership, be reminded of their program goals, and gain motivation from seeing how far they’ve come. There’s an awesome graphic and article on how this is used in the business world in this article.

Finally, I’d love to see students learning with the professional community of their program.  I think this is different from PLEs and PLNs because it could be more specified for each course.  I’ve found PLEs and PLNs to be a little aimless and sometimes bloated, though I know a lot of people like them.  In my vision, students could join professional associations related to their programs and use them to find current and course-relevant information in their field, scholarly articles, etc.  This may also help them in making connections to professionals in their area and could foster mentorships or job opportunities.


Low-tech yet highly effective interactivity.
Pong. Low-tech yet highly effective interactivity. | Pong via Wikimedia Commons.

Much of our interactive experience for the online programs right now is (with a few exceptions) limited to writing paragraphs and whatever the textbook bundles include.  This puts our virtual campus students at a big disadvantage since they are not often practicing the lab activities that a ground campus student experiences.  How can we expect them to compete if we don’t give them the tools?  And, I don’t think the interactivity needs to be complex and sparklingly beautiful, it just needs to be meaningful and reflect real-life usage of what students are learning.  It could be something as simple as an interactive video made with Captivate or other elearning authoring tools that quizzes students for understanding throughout the learning process.  Better yet, the video could look like the tools being used on the job.  If the objective is to have a criminal justice major be able to correctly fill out a police report, why not make an interactive report?

So, how much interaction?  Borrowing from the business world, we could consider something like the 70:20:10 approach. Personally, I’d adjust the percentages a bit since the learner is still learning, but given that this is based on experiential learning, we would need to offer real world application and/or simulation. Some programs already have this integration, like the accounting courses that feature QuickBooks, but I see it expanding to other disciplines.

Although they will not be the first things to implement, gamification and simulation should have a place in our plan.  A musician doesn’t become a proficient player by reading about his/her instrument, they need practice.  Reading does not equal skill.  And, reading is taking a backseat anyway.  I mean, you’re skimming this article right now, aren’t you?  And practice doesn’t have to be painful.  Students signed up for their programs for a reason.  They ARE interested, and they deserve authentic learning experiences.  Michael Allen’s elearning manifesto provides an interesting comparison and substantiates the need for effective elearning.

Two other guidelines for meaningful interactives are Allen’s Context-Challenge-Activity-Feedback model (CCAF) and Cammy Bean’s Four Ways to Make Interactivity Count slide deck.  If we can apply the tenets of these resources, we’ll have valuable, engaging, powerful material.

Branching and Microlearning

Chances are, if you are a product of the traditional American school system, you were in some sort of leveled reading or math group.   One-size-fits-all is a lie, and I have more than enough oversized race t-shirts to prove it.  Yet a lot of the material in our courses is currently one-size-fits-all.  We can better serve our students if we use even a bit of branching.  I also love branching because it gives immediate assessment.  Students with experience have a chance to jump ahead while those who are struggling get the practice they need, when they need it.

Microlearning is another current trend that I’d consider.  Combined with branching and the CCAF model, this could be a real winner.  Microlearning is one area that I don’t know much about and hope to learn more through our planning. John Eade’s article gives 5 “commandments” of microlearning that seem like good suggestions, even if the modules are not micro-sized.  I’ll also be reading more from Ravi Pratap Singh’s 17 Awesome Resources on Micro-Learning.


Now that MOOCs and other non-traditional modes of learning are being recognized with badges, I think it’s time to incorporate them more into traditional modes of learning.  Badges could be earned for both hard and soft skills.  Mozilla’s could be an ideal place to start since the badges can be shared anywhere.  Aside from the general motivational reasons for badges, I could see them being used to build a resume for a new career.  Collecting badges would act like a cv of accomplishments and skills that a student could show off to potential employers.  The stipulation would be that the badges should be somewhat difficult to earn and require representation of very high level, high quality work.


We need to revamp our assessment pieces.  A lot of our courses are stuck in “essay-quiz-repeat”.  There is nothing wrong with essays or quizzes, but they shouldn’t be the sole methods of assessing what a student has learned.  I’d love to incorporate ways to measure progress instead of only the final product (a grade at the end of the course). This is also something the Higher Learning Commission looks for, so it’s good for students and for our school in general.  Portfolios were used at one point but were banished for some reason that I am not privy to.  Having taught for many years, I’m also interested in new and alternative ways to assess.  I’m curious to learn more about API and how it can play a part of assessment.  ADL provides some tools (including grabbable code) and some example solutions.

I also would like to see more competency-based learning integrated into the courses.   These types of assessments could work nicely with badges. Phil Hill provides a nice overview and some insights to the growth that competency-based learning has undergone in the last year.  I also like the idea that these could easily be used for both the ground and virtual campuses.

Considerations When Planning


Yum? | Green Spinach & Kale Protein Smoothie, Robert Gourley via Flickr
Yum? | Green Spinach & Kale Protein Smoothie, Robert Gourley via Flickr

Perhaps one reason why some blended learning is either ineffective or less effective than one hoped (assuming they did not mistake technology integration for blended learning) is imbalance.  No one wants an all-kale smoothie; although it is a “superfood”, it is not the only important component, and without a banana and some blueberries, your smoothie is both boring and lacking important nutrients.  On the flip side, too many components may confuse or overwhelm learners.


This should  be obvious, but unfortunately, it sometimes falls by the wayside.  A recent (2013) Kineo report on best practices in blended learning dissects possible reasons why certain blends work and offers some words of advice – “[don’t] focus on the technology, at the expense of the pedagogy”.  “Design” is still a key word in our job titles, so use it! Even if you don’t read the whole report, check out the top ten tips at the end.  Also, they have some excellent suggestions for activities and different integrations in their Designing Blended Learning Guide (hooray for free downloads!).

And, of course, assessment is key.  Many of us still consult Bloom’s taxonomy on a regular basis, and for good reason.  A few years ago, Andrew Churches made a digital version of Bloom’s taxonomy. Its updates are valid and essential while still keeping the theory and concepts of the original.

I’m not sure John Antonetti’s Learning Cube has made its way into the ID world, but it made a difference in my classroom and its ideas could translate nicely to online learning as well.  Its pedagogy is sound and it offers easy ways to get off the “essay-quiz-repeat” cycle.


If this venture is going to be successful, communication will be key.  Our school is still in transition of coming together to synchronize what is happening on the ground and online campuses.  This is a slightly backwards approach from a traditional college, but I don’t think it was the intention to have split schools.  However, from this standpoint, I can observe the importance of collaborative evaluation between both ground and distance faculty with the IDs.  I’m curious to know how this collaboration happens at various colleges and universities and what methods they use to communicate.

Once we’ve made a plan, we’ll need to prepare the faculty so that they aren’t confused and overwhelmed.  It would be great to have a training that is blended so that they get a feel for it. This could help get the brain waves moving instead of inciting fear.

We also need to provide the means for professors to access and learn how to use online materials.  Sacramento State’s elearning tools resource page provides a plethora of fantastic resources for professors, including a professor-created video library, fair use resources and definitions, accessibility ideas and templates, and audio/video/image resources.  We need this!

Lastly, Dr. Brian Beatty has some good guidelines and resources that may be helpful to consider when moving to a blended (or in his case, HyFlex) model. He also provides kind of a “needs assessment” and checklist of how to combine ground and online classes.  His needs are different than ours, but he points out some important considerations.

Student Tools and Accessibility

We’ll be updating the ground campus to support more technology.  Ohio State University’s digital union provides a nice model for ground campus students and online support and resources for online students.  Dr. Beatty also poses important questions on how to support students, including what student support teams need to support students!  It goes without saying that we need 508 and ADA compliance.  Our team already has some support in place, but we’d be remiss to not double-check that our implementation plans cover student needs.

And, of course, asking the students what they need couldn’t hurt.  Here‘s a quick review from one student’s experience. We need to design courses and student support systems that plan for these potential pitfalls.


LLAMA?! | Lama_animal by GdV via Wikimedia Commons
LLAMA?! | Lama_animal by GdV via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve already mentioned CCAF, and of course there’s ADDIE, SAM, AGILE, LLAMA, and all of your other favorite guiding acronyms.  Whichever you choose, there are always new considerations to account for.    Debbie Morrison’s blog and the folks at Weejee Learning give us some ideas to chew over for the new year.


As we plan for these changes, we have a lot to think about!  Considering that percentage of remote workers is growing, blended learning is probably not just a trend, but rather something that will lead students into the flow of the workforce.  My greatest hope is that all of the time and effort my team puts into this project will make a difference for our students.  I’ll keep you posted!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s