Blended synchronous learning and teaching: Is this the future of university teaching?

For the past twenty  years or so we have been wondering when the disruptive influence of the Internet will start having an impact on university education. It appears the long wait is over. The university as we know it is about to change, and the culprit is a curiously named emergent learning and teaching mode known as blended synchronous learning.  In this article I look at this emergent learning and teaching mode with my main objective being to shed light on the fundamental changes that the Internet is now bringing to university-level teaching.

Advances in Internet technology now enable lectures to be simultaneously delivered to students physically located in a classroom and to students located away from the classroom. Web-conferencing technologies such as Adobe Connect and Blackboard Collaborate as well as room-based videoconferencing systems such as Polycom are proving particularly effective at facilitating blended synchronous learning via Internet-connected computing equipment like desktops and laptops.

Blended synchronous learning is defined as “learning and teaching where remote students participate in face to face classes by means of rich-media synchronous technologies such as video conferencing, web conferencing or virtual worlds” (Bower, Matt, et al., 2015). Whilst there are still several issues to be resolved with regard to teaching quality, these concerns are diminishing.  Some researchers are even finding out that student learning outcomes for students taught using blended synchronous learning now outperform all other modes of teaching, including face‐to‐face teaching in the traditional classroom (Hastie, Megan, et al., 2010).

Modes of blended synchronous learning

Hastie, Megan, et al. (2010) have proposed various ways for integrating physical classroom and cyber classroom settings in order to connect teachers and students from any part of the world.

Teacher located in a physical classroom

Teachers can be located in a physical classroom, just as in the traditional face-to-face brick-and-mortar classroom. In this case the teacher can be teaching to students present in the classroom, or to remote students viewing and participating in the class via the Internet, or to both physically present and remote students.

Enhancing face-to-face brick-and-mortar classroom teaching

In the modern face-to-face brick-and-mortar classroom, students physically interact with the teacher, and also engage with the lecturer via networked computer devices. For instance, students can use clickers to respond to questions, or they can post questions via text messaging and chat rooms.

Integrating local and remote students

In another scenario, which is now increasingly becoming the norm in most master-level programmes, the teacher could be simultaneously teaching students who are in the same physical classroom with them, and online students who are logged in remotely from their homes or workplaces. This scenario makes it possible for students who would be physically unable to attend classes to do so remotely via the Internet. This includes international students living and working in their own countries to log onto the Internet and participate remotely in a class taking place in another country.

Enhancing study-group tuition and institutional co-teaching

In another scenario, which grew out of distance learning, the teacher delivers lectures in a physical classroom, and students gather together in one or more remote physical classrooms and engage with the teacher directly via the Internet. In this scenario, the teacher is beamed into the remote student classrooms, and in the simplest case, students can individually connect with the lecturer via chat text messaging. In more advanced scenarios, the remote student classroom is beamed back to a screen in the teacher’s physical classroom. This enhances the interaction between the teacher and the remote student classroom.

This scenario is effective for study group modes of learning whereby students get together in a classroom and participate in lectures delivered by a teacher located remotely. It is also effective in situations whereby a local institution engages another institution to deliver some or all its lectures on a particular programme. This is particularly important in postgraduate engineering teaching whereby institutions can actually deliver postgraduate courses in areas in which they lack the necessary expertise simply by linking up with another institution with the necessary expertise. In both instances, the quality of learning is improved when teaching assistants are assigned to the remote physical classroom.

Enhancing collaborative teaching between institutions

Blended synchronous learning can also facilitate collaborative learning and teaching between different institutions. For example, postgraduate students taking a module on development studies at a UK-based university can collaboratively study with their counterparts at an African university. A possible scenario would be to have the two physical classes linked via Internet, with the classes being simultaneously beamed to each other. Both UK-based and African-based students would be able to see and interact directly with each other. In addition, chatroom technology can be used to enable individual students to communicate with each other. Teachers from both institutions could take turns to deliver combined lectures, and other teachers can be brought in remotely to enhance the learning experience of the students.

Teachers located Online

Another variation is to have teachers delivering their classes online via the Internet. For instance, lecturers can deliver their classes entirely online via personal laptops in the comfort of their homes, or guest lecturers can participate remotely in co-delivering classes with other teachers who are physically present in a classroom.

Online teaching enhances access to subject expertise

A major advantage of online teaching is that it makes it easier to bring subject expertise into the classroom. A university can enhance its teaching by hiring eminent teachers to conduct one or more lectures for their students without them having to leave their countries to travel to the university. Indeed, it is becoming common for subject-matter experts based at particular institutions to conduct lectures for other institutions via the Internet.

With regard to employability, online teaching is also making it possible for guest lecturers from industry to co-teach with university lecturers without having to leave their day-jobs. This is helping to bring industrial expertise directly to the classroom without inconveniencing both the industrial expert and their employers. Indeed, with the increased emphasis on project-based and design-based teaching, this mode of co-delivery is likely to become commonplace.

Concluding Remarks

A lot of work is currently taking place to try to understand blended synchronous learning better. I have included a short bibliography at the end of this article that may be helpful to anyone wanting to get to grips with this topic. Some of us may choose to ignore this emerging learning and teaching mode, but we do so at our own peril. As someone said, it is better to take charge of change, rather than let change take charge of you.

Bibliography

Ho, Curtis P., and Richard W. Burniske. “The evolution of a hybrid classroom: Introducing online learning to educators in American Samoa.” TechTrends 49.1 (2005): 24-29.

Rogers, P. Clint, Charles R. Graham, and Clifford T. Mayes. “Cultural competence and instructional design: Exploration research into the delivery of online instruction cross-culturally.” Educational Technology Research and Development 55.2 (2007): 197-217.

Lin, Qiuyun. “Student satisfactions in four mixed courses in elementary teacher education program.” The Internet and Higher Education 11.1 (2008): 53-59.

Rovai, Alfred P., and Hope Jordan. “Blended learning and sense of community: A comparative analysis with traditional and fully online graduate courses.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 5.2 (2004).

Bower, Matt, Andrew Cram, and Dean Groom. “Blended reality: Issues and potentials in combining virtual worlds and face-to-face classes.” Curriculum, technology & transformation for an unknown future. Proceedings ascilite Sydney (2010): 129-140.

Bower, Matt, et al. “Design and implementation factors in blended synchronous learning environments: Outcomes from a cross-case analysis.” Computers & Education 86 (2015): 1-17.

Hastie, Megan, et al. “A blended synchronous learning model for educational international collaboration.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 47.1 (2010): 9-24.

White, Carmel Parker, et al. “Simultaneous delivery of a face-to-face course to on-campus and remote off-campus students.” TechTrends 54.4 (2010): 34-40.

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