Engaging learners in a blended learning environment

April 2016

 

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JILL TANNER-LLOYD, Ako Aotearoa’s communication manager, joined participants at the first delivery of the organisation’s newest professional development workshop to find out what teaching strategies are needed to maximise learner engagement and success when using blended learning.

blended learning

While it is generally accepted within tertiary education that blended learning refers to the integration of face-to-face and online learning experiences, the balance between these two modes of class/course delivery can vary greatly between educators and organisations – context is everything. Does a learner reading lecture notes in a café on their mobile device represent blended learning? What about the distance learner asking a question about course work in an online forum?

John Milne, teaching and online consultant at Massey University, is not only an experienced facilitator, but also a member of the project team funded by Ako Aotearoa that produced the research underpinning everything he shares in the workshop.

The project team developed a framework of key considerations for learner engagement when using blended approaches: how to successfully engage with learners at the start of a course, during a course, and how to recapture the disengaged if or when they have drifted away.

What I learnt from this interactive workshop is that there are many different combinations of face-to-face plus online teaching and learning along the blended learning spectrum. One participant, Gillian Croad, who runs Wellington-based PTE Playcentre Education, told me afterwards, “The workshop highlighted for me that there is a range of possible definitions depending on whether one views it from the teacher’s role in structuring the course or from what the student does in an online environment.”

Milne quickly steered the group beyond lively debate about what constitutes blended learning to using the app gosoapbox.com for participants to share their views and experiences of blended learning. This was a great way to start an interactive professional development workshop, particularly when the participants’ teaching and learning contexts were so varied – from managers of small networked groups involved in early childhood education to programme leaders and lecturers at universities delivering courses entirely at a distance, or distance combined with block courses.

Clearly there are plenty of online tools available to facilitate interaction between teachers and learners, as well as peer-to-peer discussion. Whatever the platform, two common challenges came through in the small group discussions:

  • Making the learning real via online delivery.
  • Keeping learners motivated throughout the course.

Tackling these sticking points head-on, Milne introduced the group to the project team’s top 10 engagement strategies that, when used together, will achieve the maximum benefit for learners and teachers – addressing those questions and more.

Each strategy represents a critical aspect of the learning process. Strategy 1, for example, focuses on primers for getting student attention and the importance of curiosity and relevance. Milne stressed that curiosity is a great tool to get learners engaged when wanting to use a blended approach to teaching delivery. He demonstrated that with a video clip of Ramsey Mussalam, a US high school chemistry teacher using multimedia and new technology in the classroom to heighten curiosity and inspire his learners. Mussalam firmly believes that teachers should strive to be the “cultivators of curiosity and inquiry” and argues that we need to “confuse, perplex and stump our students” to promote and maintain engagement. Challenging learners with tasks based around real-life scenarios heightens the relevance of the learning.

A take-home message from Gillian Croad’s perspective was “…the importance of remembering the basics of face-to-face settings and planning to build relationships and maybe challenge students in a provocative way to heighten their interest”.

Surveyed as to which aspect(s) of their practice they expect to change as a result of the workshop, one participant described an intention to “think more about clear structure at [the] beginning and keep on working on authentic activities”, while another was focused on “assessment – more creative and more creative teaching concepts”.

What does Milne think of his inaugural blended learning PD workshop for Ako Aotearoa?

“It was great to work with such enthusiastic people who want to learn more about providing successful blended learning experiences,” he says. “The framework we used focuses on the essential aspects to get learners engaged and keep them motivated so learners are more likely to have these positive learning experiences.”

The collaborative project Help or hindrance: Blended approaches and student engagement, led by Dr Lynn Jeffrey from Massey University, offers an excellent example of how findings from Ako Aotearoa-funded projects are often disseminated across the tertiary sector.

Ako Aotearoa’s aim is to share evidence-based outputs from collaborative teaching and learning projects as widely as possible (via a wide range of resources). This also results in development of high-quality, interactive and reflective professional development opportunities for a wide range of tertiary staff.

 

BLENDED LEARNING
Top 10 engagement strategies

Getting students engaged:

  • Primers for getting student attention: curiosity, relevance.
  • Social presence and belonging: teacher enthusiasm, immediacy and an inclusive environment.
  • Clear content structure.

Maintaining engagement:

  • Clear, unambiguous instructions and guidelines.
  • Challenging tasks.
  • Authentic tasks.
  • Timely feedback.
  • Elaborated feedback.

Re-engaging:

  • Monitoring and early identification.
  • Personal contact and negotiated conditions for re-engagement.

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