By Edwige Simon, Faculty Director of the Graduate Certificate in Language Teaching with Technology, the University of Colorado Boulder.
WHAT IS BLENDED LEARNING?
The term blended learning can be used to define a wide range of instructional models. In this article, I will adopt the Online Learning Consortium definition for blended learning as a course where “Online activity is mixed with classroom meetings, replacing a significant percentage, but not all required face-to-face instructional activities (OLC website). For example, a first-year language course that traditionally meets five times a week only meets two or three times a week in a blended format and students engage in a variety of online assignments to follow up on what was done in class and to prepare for the next class. This model is also frequently called hybrid learning.
The very use of the word blended (or hybrid) indicates that the online portion of the course is essential rather than supplemental. A teacher who decides to add a number of online activities to a traditional face-to-face (F2F) course did not necessarily create a blended course unless she reduced the amount of F2F meetings. Similarly, a teacher who moves the lecture component of her course online for students to cover on their own time might have created a flipped course but not necessarily a blended course. To avoid any confusion, when discussing this modality with colleagues or administrators, make sure that all parties understand exactly what is meant by blended learning.
WHO’S BLENDING THEIR LANGUAGE COURSES?
While researching this article, I leveraged my personal learning network as well as several social media outlets to reach out to language educators who teach blended language courses. The majority of the teachers who answered my call at first were college instructors, probably because blended learning is still a less common occurrence at the high school level. High school students might not yet have the self-regulation and time management skills needed to succeed in this modality and high schools have a bit less scheduling flexibility, especially when on a block schedule. After further inquiries, I was able to get the perspective of several high school teachers.
DOES IT WORK?
In 2010, The US Department of Education published a meta analysis of over 1000 studies comparing F2F, blended and online courses. The study concluded that blended learning was the most effective of the three models and this finding is consistent with the experience of the teachers I spoke with, such as Nicole Bruland, French teacher in Florida: “The additional help and exposure that I’m able to provide via the blended format has resulted in increased learning gains and proficiency. I’ve noticed that my students in the blended format advance much more easily and quickly than students in the simple face-to-face environment.” However, the effectiveness of blended learning is as much the result of rigorous course design as it is a direct outcome of the modality itself.
BENEFITS AND AFFORDANCES OF THE MODEL
A GOOD COMPROMISE
In the last 15 years, blended learning has quickly become a popular alternative to fully online or fully F2F courses, probably because it affords the best of both worlds. Blended language teachers can combine the benefits of online learning with the strengths of the face-to-face classroom. In addition, the learning curve is not as steep as for online learning, a benefit for teachers and students alike.
I met with Rebecca Cottrell, a Spanish lecturer at Metro State University in Denver (CO) to discuss her department’s decision to add blended courses as a third option to the existing fully online and fully F2F Spanish courses they were offering. These two modalities did not meet all of her students’ needs and her department began offering blended courses for those students who wanted to have some F2F contact but in a flexible format. This is exactly the compromise that blended learning offers.
Blended learning presents obvious scheduling advantages. Reducing the number of weekly F2F meetings can help low-enrolling courses attract a few more students. Students might not be able to fit into their schedule a course that meets five times a week F2F, but they might find it easier to accommodate a course that requires two or even three weekly F2F meetings. This is particularly useful for less commonly taught languages where classes tend to be smaller and don’t always reach the minimal number of students. I met with Gisele El Khoury, Arabic instructor and Director of the Language center at Saint Lawrence University (NY). In her experience, “the blended model presents definite scheduling advantages with multi-language majors. Going to a blended format has allowed students to add Arabic when they normally would not have been able to. This is a good strategy for small or new language programs.”
I also spoke with Barb Clouser who teaches Spanish at Hershey High School in Pennsylvania. Her school started offering blended courses to address scheduling issues: “When students have eight periods a day, it’s very intense.” Students frequently had multiple tests on the same day. Clouser now gives her students a window to come and take the tests on the days her class does not meet F2F: “Students like this format, they like having a voice in how they manage their time.”
Alandra Giron, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Department Chair at Thomas Nelson Community College in Virginia pointed out some additional practical benefits of the model for her busy students: “They can do most of the work at their convenience. Students don’t have to drive to class, they don’t always have money for gas or parking.” At the community college level where students often hold full-time jobs and have family responsibilities, many courses meet once or twice for two or more hours in the evening. It can be challenging to keep the students engaged for the entire session. The blended model is really helpful in this respect: “It’s fun, you come to class and there is a lot of energy”, says Cottrell, “2 hours and 15 minutes is what we normally have so cutting that down to 1 hour and 15 minutes keeps everyone’s energy up, they are able to stay focused the entire time. My students have really liked the blended format.”
OPPORTUNITIES FOR DIFFERENTIATION
The blended classroom allows teachers to focus class time on interpersonal communication. But the real strength of the model is that it allows them to customize their teaching to the individual needs of their students. “Blended learning allows for differentiation in ways that you can’t do in a 5 days a week class” explained Lauren Rosen, Director of the University of Wisconsin System Collaborative Language Program. “It also helps the students be more accountable for their own learning and be more aware of what they know and don’t know.” As long as students are self-regulated enough to take full advantage of the self-paced elements of the model, blended learning has the potential to help students who struggle in the traditional and fast-paced language classroom to succeed as language learners.
Blended learning also appears to be a good fit for shy students, said Bhavya Singh, Hindi teacher in California: “Introverted students who don’t like to speak in front of the classroom like this format. An online assignment allows them to record themselves with the camera off in the privacy of their room.” Of course, the main goal of language learning is to prepare students to sustain spontaneous conversations in the target language. However, the performance-oriented nature of the language classroom can discourage students who are suffering from Foreign Language Anxiety or other forms of social and public speaking anxiety from taking a language. Having less F2F time might be an incentive for them to give a language a try, especially when asynchronous online activities are used to help them prepare and build confidence for synchronous interpersonal exchanges.
Clouser’s approach to blended learning is especially conducive to differentiation. On the days her class does not meet F2F, she works with students who need extra help and practice. This model allows her to “individualize in a way I could not when I had 29 students in the class”.
Bruland also takes advantage of the opportunities for differentiation that the model offers to provides her students with additional exposure to the target language. “This additional exposure,“ she noted, “can also be tailored to student interests, thus engaging them in a way that may not be possible in a simple face-to-face classroom.”
TECHNOLOGY AS A MOTIVATOR
In some instances, the technological aspect of the blended model is the most exciting part of the course. Singh’s students shared with her that they would have been less motivated to continue with the Hindi summer program if it were not for the technology activities she added to the course: “They are middle schoolers, they want to be around games, they bring a lot of applications for us to use in the classroom.”
The blended model allows her to create assignments and tasks that cater to her students’ enthusiasm for computer science and engineering, which are particularly popular subjects amongst her students: “The technology allows me to combine language education with STEM and STEAM subjects, and my students enjoy this very much.”
CHALLENGES OF BLENDED LEARNING
So is blended learning a silver bullet? Definitely not. The model doesn’t work unless students and teachers receive adequate preparation and unless teachers are willing to take on an increased workload, at least at first.
TIME MANAGEMENT SKILLS
The teachers I interviewed unanimously raised the issue of adequate student preparation.
“It all depends on students’ motivation,” said Cottrell. “We have students who switch from a hybrid class to a F2F class for the second semester. They’ll just say “That wasn’t working for me, I needed to move.”
When Giron first started teaching blended and fully online courses, she was convinced she could make the model work for every student: “ I thought I could mold anyone into the perfect online/blended student, but some students need to be in the classroom.” Students who struggle with time management find the model particularly challenging. Giron noticed that some students wait until the last minute to complete an assignment and often underestimate the amount of time needed: “They think they can complete a three-hour assignment in 15 minutes. It’s not for everyone. It’s a good fit for students who are driven, motivated and organized.”
At the high school level, students rarely have the self-regulation needed to be successful in this format. Clouser’s high school designed a system that helps scaffold the development of students’ time management skills. She sees her students every other day F2F but she is still in her classroom on the days the class does not meet so students can come in and ask for help. Only the higher levels of the language courses are available in the blended format. Finally, blended students sign a contract where they commit to coming to class every day as soon as their grade falls below 75%.
IS IT MORE WORK?
This question turned out to be quite divisive. According to Cottrell, “If you design your class well, it should not be more work to design your blended course. If it is significantly more work, then you designed your class wrong and you should restructure it.”
But upon further investigation, it appeared that rather than more work, it is the nature of the work and the way the work is distributed that is different from a F2F course. Giron noted for example that “As a hybrid teacher, I feel like I’m wearing a lot more hats compared to when I teach F2F. You will need to do tech support at times.” Cottrell also mentioned that “It is generally more work on the front end, the work is spread out differently.” For a teacher who hasn’t had to design a course from scratch in a while, it can feel like teaching for the first time over again and it can feel a bit overwhelming, but in Clouser’s experience, “It’s going to take a couple years until you feel really good about what you are doing. It is a lot of work at first until you find your feet.”
Rosen explained that blended students do complete more online assignments than F2F students, which can easily lead blended teachers to think they need to spend more time grading: “One thing teachers get caught up in is having to assess every little thing. Yes, you have to give students grades but you can do a lot of check-plus check-minus kind of activities that are low stakes.”
The fact that most online assignments are recorded and available for assessment does not mean that the teacher needs to listen to it all. As Cottrell pointed out: “It’s not fair to tell the teacher, oh you’re not in class with the students but you’re going to do 21 hours of interviews with students every week. Yes, the live chats are recorded but you don’t have to listen to it all. You wouldn’t hear everybody in the classroom.”
A common mistake is to hold the blended classroom to higher standards than the F2F classroom, feel guilty about the time not spent in class and try to overcompensate by assessing everything students do.
While many new blended teachers struggle to control the workload of the blended classroom, they also need to face the misperception of the public and of educators unfamiliar with the model. As Clouser pointed out, ‘This is not about teaching less. I am doing the same things, but in a different way and I am meeting the needs of my students whose needs are much different from the needs of students when I started teaching 20 years ago”.
GETTING STARTED WITH BLENDED LEARNING
Not all language courses are well-suited for the blended format. A first-year course, for example, is not the best candidate. It is a lot to ask freshmen to learn a new language using a format they might not be familiar with. Conversation courses are probably not a good fit for the blended format either. Although it is possible to have conversations online, it is a lot easier to do in the classroom. Second, third and fourth-year courses are probably better suited to be offered in a blended format and finally, any type of writing-intensive course is an excellent candidate.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR STUDENTS
While blended learning might not be a good fit for all students at first, it does present an opportunity to help them develop self-regulation and time management skills, which has benefits beyond being successful in blended or online courses. According to Cottrell, students quickly get used to the new model: “We had to train our students to be good “blended students” and that was really hard at first, it was something we had not considered and we had to build it in the curriculum. It was a rough first week but they learned quickly and we did a lot better.”
It would be tempting for the instructor to give in and cover the online materials in class but it would defeat the purpose of the model and be unfair to those who completed the online work and discourage them from continuing to do it. El Khoury recommends creating incentives to ensure that students come to class prepared: “When we first started with the blended model, the students were not always doing what they were supposed to do. I had to come with online quizzes on the film and documentaries they had to watch.”
WHAT GOES ONLINE, WHAT STAYS F2F?
Cottrell, a seasoned instructional designer, used a backward design approach to design her blended courses. She started with a list of desired outcomes, then she moved everything that did not require F2F interaction outside the classroom, including exams. She designed her courses so that the exams themselves count for a small portion of the students’ final grade, compared to the many in-class formative assessments.
As far as what to do in class and what to assign online or at home, Rosen recommends using class time for speaking practice: “Interpersonal communication is one of the hardest skills to practice” but also the most important one. She also recommends avoiding busy work and making sure that there is a clear articulation between what students do at home and what they do in class. If students don’t see a clear connection, they might be less motivated to complete the online assignments or even come to class. For example, Rosen assigns many presentational tasks outside of class and does follow-up activities in class: “Having 30 individual or group presentations take place in the classroom while the rest of the class listens is a waste of time. If they record them outside of class, students can watch them ahead of time and discuss them in groups, ask questions, and take it from a presentational activity to an interpersonal one.”
In addition to presentational assignments, the best activities students can complete outside of class include asynchronous speaking practice with tools such as Flipgrid or VoiceThread; worksheets; live chats with peers or conversations with trained and vetted language partners using a service such as Talkabroad or Boomalang, for example.
Rosen also recommends assigning interpretive and presentational activities outside of the classroom “because it allows students to go at their own pace, especially if the task is followed by a concept check that gives them immediate feedback that the instructor can see as well.”
Clouser also assigns a wide variety of mostly interpretive and presentational activities online using tools such as Edpuzzle, Adobe spark, and the Canvas discussion board. It allows her to expose her students to Spanish-speaking accents other than her own, and students can work in groups if they want to. Although not required to do so, many students choose to work collaboratively, which helps to build the sense of community that they thought was missing from the school and that partially motivated the implementation of a blended curriculum.
ROLE OF THE TEACHER
The success of the blended classroom is heavily dependent on adequate student and teacher preparation but also on teachers’ willingness to adopt truly student-centered practices and embrace the use of various educational technology tools.
There are many challenges along the way. As Singh learned, for example, popular tools are not always compatible with non-alphabet based writing systems: The biggest challenge for me is to find applications that support the language that I teach [Hindi], said Singh. But as she puts it, it forces her to find creative workarounds.
It does not mean that the blended teacher needs to become a technology expert. As Rosen pointed out, the teachers’ job in a blended or online model is “to know the language and culture they are teaching. It’s ok to not know all the technology. It’s ok to give the students the freedom to choose the technology they want to use. You’re going to get the best product.” The blended teacher needs to be flexible and adaptable: “If you look at the 21st skills map, a lot of the skills we expect to see in our students are also skills we need to see in our teachers.”
While not a perfect model, the blended classroom is a strong instructional approach, as long as the course is well-designed, the teachers well-supported and the students well-prepared to take charge of their own learning. We would love to hear your perspectives on and personal experiences with blended language learning in the comments!
Thank you to the following language educators who kindly agreed to share their experience with blended language learning with the FLTMAG:
Nicole Bruland, French teacher at Barron Collier High School in Naples (FL)(nicoleflesvigbruland at gmail.com)
Barb Clouser, Spanish teacher and World Language Department Coordinator at Hershey High School (PA). (BClouser at hershey.k12.pa.us)
Rebecca Cottrell, Spanish lecturer at Metro State University in Denver (CO).
Gisele El Khoury, Arabic instructor and Director of the Language Center at Saint Lawrence University (NY) (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Alandra Giron, Assistant Professor of Spanish and department Chair Thomas Nelson Community College (VA). (Alandra.Giron@colorado.edu)
Lauren Rosen, Director of the University of Wisconsin System Collaborative Language Program (lrosen at wisc.edu)
Bhavya Singh, Hindi teacher in the Sunnyvale school district and technology specialist (CA) Bhavya Singh (email@example.com)