Blended learning is an educational approach that allows students to learn through electronic and online media, as well as traditional face-to-face teaching.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding the blended learning approach became more prevalent out of sheer necessity. But the model has been growing in popularity for several years, thanks to its plentiful advantages, which include allowing instructors to play to the strengths of both online and in-person course delivery. For example, consuming lecture content through video streams, along with readings and other assignments, lets instructors use class time for interactive discussions and problem-solving exercises, encouraging students to apply what they have learned.

What’s more, students are changing—they aren’t just 18 to 24-year-olds. Increasingly, the student body on higher education campuses includes adults with work and family responsibilities, making flexibility even more important for students juggling academic, professional and family demands.

So expect blended learning to stick around. Here, we provide an overview of what blended learning is, its history, and its benefits and disadvantages. We also examine eight different blended learning styles, as well as six blended learning best practices to consider when applying it in your higher education classroom.

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1. What is blended learning?

Sometimes referred to as hybrid learning, blended learning is a combination of traditional in-classroom and online education. Individually, both have their advantages. Blended learning, however, combines the strengths of both: 

  • It provides students with opportunities to work independently
  • It allows for collaborative group work
  • Blended learning uses technology to supplement learning

To better understand what blended learning is, here’s a simple explanation. Instructors deliver 30 to 80 percent of course material through online instruction, combined with some face-to-face components. Any education program where students learn partly online and have some control over their learning pace (and place) is considered to be an integral part of what blended learning is. Students complete certain parts of the course according to their schedule and can revisit the material as needed. The rest of student time is then spent in a brick-and-mortar setting, like a classroom, lecture hall or lab, with supervised instruction.

2. What is blended learning in higher education

Higher education students today are generally less willing to tolerate the ‘sage-on-a-stage’ style of teaching, which is a passive approach to delivering educational material. Most have lived steeped in modern communications technology and social media for the better part of their lives (consider that nearly 98 percent of Generation Z members own a smartphone). That means they respond well to collaborative, communal learning approaches. At their best, blended learning environments provide opportunities for exactly this kind of engagement, motivating students more actively through discussions and exercises that promote critical thinking and creative reflection.

Blended learning requires that educators use class time to build on key concepts through dialogue and debate, and that may require rethinking how best to use in-class and online teaching methods.

2.1. Building a blended learning course for higher education

To understand how to implement blended learning in your classroom, consider the key skills and concepts students need to master by the end of your course. Then, use this to develop material, activities and assessments that align with these goals. After that, the next step is sourcing the right technology to help accomplish these objectives and deciding how the traditional and technological aspects of the model can work together. Some tech options include:

Understanding students’ prior knowledge, their comfort with technology and which (if any) learning accommodations they need is also important in delivering an effective blended learning experience. Having students participate in a student interest inventory is a great way to get the additional insights you need to fine-tune your course and set your learners up for success.

3. Blended learning strategies to implement in your course

3.1. Flipped classroom

Following the flipped classroom model, students are given pre-recorded lectures, readings and other assignments to complete on their own time. This allows instructors to use blended learning strategies during class time to help students apply what they’ve learned, as opposed to the other way around. Helping students apply learning is often a more valuable use of the instructor’s time and expertise. To maintain student focus and engagement, try to keep videos under 15 minutes and include elements, such as GIFs and real-world case studies.

Once in class, the instructor can introduce learning activities related to the material. Strategies like peer learning, small-group work, and presentations encourage students to actively apply important concepts.

Blended learning techniques provide deeper insight into how well students comprehend the material, and what’s working and what isn’t. Tracking grades, participation and attendance through online learning platforms allow you to create a more detailed and holistic view of each student. This creates opportunities in class to focus on where students are struggling, or pair up students who can help each other based on complementary strengths.

3.2. Flex

Using flex blended learning strategies, according to the Christensen Institute, students have the latitude to pace their learning more freely, tackling each learning activity based on their needs and skill level.

Online learning is the backbone of such a strategy, supplemented by teachers providing support and instruction as needed, while students work through materials and activities. The benefit is that students learn independence, and have a high degree of control over their own learning experience.

Students collaborating on blended learning activities around a laptop

3.3. À la carte

À la carte blended learning strategies allow students to choose when their classes take place and which modality—in-person or online—they’ll use. This learning model gives students more flexible schedules, which can be especially useful for those with work or family responsibilities. This way, students can study and complete assignments when it is most convenient for them.

3.4. Project-based

Project-based blended learning provides students with real-world tasks, with resources provided by instructors, based on lesson concepts

To implement effective project-based blended learning strategies, instructors should ask themselves why students are learning a concept or subject, rather than just what they are learning. Then, try focusing on activities that require them to apply those concepts and put them into action.

And by working with students to identify where support is needed, you can provide guidance and resources to assist them.

3.5. Self-directed blended learning

In self-directed blended learning, students make use of online and face-to-face learning. This way, they are able to choose how to pursue personalized inquiry, meet learning objectives and collaborate with their peers. Since these blended learning strategies are self-directed, the role that online learning and instructors play change often, as there is no formal course structure to follow.

3.6. Inside-out blended learning

Following inside-out blended learning strategies, student learning experiences are designed to extend beyond the classroom, while making use of both in-person and online environments. Instructors can implement real-world case studies, videos, podcasts and group discussions in their classrooms. This way, students can grapple with course concepts in meaningful ways. This in turn leads to a deeper understanding of course material.

Students begin new units and learning modules in the classroom and then complete the learning independently. Much of the higher-order thinking activities are completed on their own time and give students more flexibility to learn in a way that works best for them. This framework is especially beneficial, as higher education student populations become increasingly diverse. The added level of flexibility provides students with childcare responsibilities, part or full-time work and other obligations to learn in a way that makes the most sense for them.

3.7. Outside-in blended learning

In outside-in blended learning, students begin learning activities independently as a homework assignment or self-paced learning module and cement that learning during class time.

This provides instructors with a great deal of flexibility in the classroom. Many choose to make use of blended learning techniques that use less traditional teaching and learning. For instructors who choose to primarily engage their students in synchronous learning experiences, outside-in blended learning provides a helpful framework to build on learning that students have begun independently. Classroom discussions and team-building activities are great ways to help solidify course concepts. An example of such an activity is think-pair-share. Think-pair-share exercises encourage students to collaborate and share their thoughts with one another. First, each student works independently to solve a problem or answer a question. Then, they tackle the same challenge with a peer, before sharing with the broader class. This way, instructors can use the classroom as a space for students to share, collaborate, create and receive feedback that helps them grow as learners.

3.8. Supplemental blended learning

As part of the supplemental blended learning model, students complete either entirely online work to supplement their face-to-face learning, or entirely face-to-face learning experiences to supplement the learning gained in online blended learning techniques.

Students perform tasks to meet learning objectives in one space. Meanwhile, the ‘opposite’ space provides learners with supplemental blended learning strategies to complement what they learned in the other space. For example, one modality provides students with collaborative group work while they pursue independent study in the other environment.

4. What are the benefits of blended learning for students in higher education?

Many students appreciate the flexibility that blended learning provides, and having direct access to the instructor to ask questions about challenging aspects of the course. But that’s not all. Here are some other benefits.

4.1. Faster feedback for students

Online learning platforms offer several options to assess students through regular low-stakes assessments. Because they are digital, the instructor can see the results almost instantly, and students can receive feedback more quickly.

Auto-graded tests and quizzes can be administered online, so students know immediately where to dedicate further study instead of waiting until the next class to get their results. Frank Spors, Associate Professor of Optometry at Western University of Health Sciences, leverages these informal assessments to guide his lectures. “The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help,” Spors said.

4.2. Increased flexibility

The ability to control when and where they engage in coursework and lectures provides students with some autonomy in their learning and opens up classroom time for more collaboration and project-based activities.

This flexibility is necessary for some students, allowing them to focus on online components when it suits them.

The flexibility of blended learning techniques also helps students self-monitor their time and pacing, teaching them valuable time management skills that will help them outside of school. Students who are struggling can spend more time on concepts they find most difficult, while those with a stronger grasp on the material can move ahead at a faster pace.

Studen on laptop working on blended learning modules

4.3. Better learning outcomes

Digital learning helps increase student engagement by appealing to a wide array of learners. Students can work both independently and collaboratively through online learning platforms or real-time online lectures.

As teachers participate in online discussions and grade and analyze course work, they can also get a better handle on how students are progressing, and tailor instruction accordingly. Being forthright with the skills and concepts students need to master by the end of a course helps students take away much more relevant and meaningful learning outcomes.

5. The disadvantages of blended learning in higher education

Blended learning models might not apply to all types of subjects and classroom settings. While it’s ideal for cognitive learning, it isn’t as applicable for hands-on practice, such as professional programs like dentistry or nursing. Context can also be lost online without factors like facial expressions and voice inflections.

Blended learning is heavily dependent on technology, which raises concerns around student equity, especially for those who don’t have sufficient access to a computer or the Internet. Many students rely on their campuses for these resources, and when campuses are closed, the impact on learning and academic achievement can be significant. Further, students and instructors may not understand the full value of the tool, and not use it to its fullest capacity.

Feelings of isolation are also more prevalent when a good portion of the learning process happens away from the classroom setting. This can lead to feelings of confusion, anxiety, and frustration. Here are a few more common disadvantages of the blended learning model.

5.1. Time investment

Once set up, technology can be easy to use. But it can take time to feel comfortable conducting elements of a course using new teaching platforms.

5.2. Dependence on technology

Blended learning requires instructors and higher education institutions to have access to reliable, easy-to-use technical resources and tools. When adopting new tech platforms, instructors should also consider whether students have the tools and equipment they need to complete coursework.

6. Best practices to incorporate blended learning techniques in your class

Presenting information to students in the right way can be the difference between achieving learning outcomes or not. Blended learning can be tremendously effective, because it involves imparting and applying knowledge, and helps students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as opposed to passively consuming information. Here are six strategies that make your blended classroom engaging and effective for students.

  • Ensure activities are relevant to student learning: Students must become personally invested in the curriculum. If they don’t see the point of what you’re asking them to do, they’re less likely to do it.

    Activities and projects must connect to their interests and have a meaningful purpose. Using real-world case studies, incorporating multimedia elements and encouraging collaboration through online discussions are all ways to ensure students remain engaged.

  • Provide students with different types of learning activities: Blended learning incorporates both face-to-face and online instruction, giving students different avenues to explore concepts. This helps make learning more varied and effective. By reinforcing concepts through several modalities and activities, students are better able to reflect and think critically on the lessons.

  • Familiarizing students with mobile learning tools: Blended learning typically involves using a learning management system (LMS) and other online learning tools to support students.

    When adding a new piece of technology to the classroom, instructors shouldn’t assume students automatically understand how to access and navigate these systems. Taking time to walk them through how to log in, navigate it and access important resources is essential to ensuring participation and engagement in the course.
Student writing in notebook as part of blended learning homework assignment
  • Help students set goals that are actionable and realistic: For students to be engaged, they need to be agents of their learning. In class, they are often given information that may or may not factor into what is important to them.

    Without specific goals in mind, students quickly become passive learners. Keep them engaged by helping them set goals that match their interests and the knowledge they need.

  • Make sure assignment instructions are clear: When instructions and assessments are unclear, students are more likely to get distracted and discouraged. Consider taking the time to make sure students are clear on course expectations and what resources are available, academically and personally.

  • Create variety in learning: Providing students with different types of tasks, activities and assessments keeps them engaged by providing multiple opportunities to reinforce learning. In blended learning programs, instructors can also gauge student performance and adjust subsequent lesson plans according to what students do and don’t know.

7. Looking forward

As instructors become better acquainted with technology and teaching online, expect to see continued growth in blended learning as they take the best of both worlds to create more dynamic, more flexible and more impactful approaches to teaching.

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