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IBLC 10 - Session - Martin Oliver's Keynote

Myths and promises of blended learning While lots of people write about blended learning, it...

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Marija Cubric
2 June 2010

Myths and promises of blended learning

While lots of people write about blended learning, it isn’t always clear what is meant, or whether people are writing about the same thing. The purpose of this talk is to identify some assumptions and common assertions made about blended learning, so that these “myths” – claims that seem natural, because their historical and constructed status has been hidden rhetorically – can be explored and challenged. Such myths include the existence of purely online and purely face-to-face learning that can then be blended, ignoring the complex ways in which students learn; the idea that we should incorporate new technology because it is demanded by a new generation of students, ignoring the diversity of students’ experiences and evidence that technology use is not ‘generational’; and the claim that we can turn courses into learning communities through blended learning. Based on this critique, a more complicated picture emerges, highlighting the importance of learners’ purposes, choices and contexts. Throughout, I will argue that a body of work has developed that takes account of this messier, less controllable situation, and that we need to turn to this to as a basis for developing our thinking about blended learning.

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Marija Cubric
8:40pm 2 June 2010 (Edited 9:46am 3 June 2010)

This looks like a really interesting talk, I am looking forward to it!  Cannot resist to add my favourite definition of blended learning (by Garrison&Vaughan, 2008):

The key assumptions of blended learning design are: thoughtfully integrating face-to-face and online learning, fundamentally rethinking the course design to optimize student engagement.

Bex Lewis
9:11pm 2 June 2010 (Edited 9:11pm 2 June 2010)

The definition that has reappeared on my slides over the last 6-8 months:

“The term is commonly associated with the introduction of online media into a course or programme, whilst at the same time recognising that there is merit in retaining face-to-face contact and other traditional approaches to supporting students. It is also used where asynchronous media such as email, forums, blogs or wikis are deployed in conjunction with synchronous technologies, commonly text chat or audio.”
Janet Macdonald Blended Learning and Online Tutoring: Planning Learning Support and Activity Design, 2008, p2

Martin Oliver
7:39am 3 June 2010

Thanks for getting this moving - and good to see some attempts to circumvent the necessity of my talk before it happens!


That Garrison quote is a great one to start with - would it be possible to add the reference, please? (It'd be useful to have various sources available from this cloud.)

Personally I think the Macdonald definition is the more defensible - because it's more precise - although I recognise and appreciate the values that motivate Garrison's definition.

Peter R Bullen
9:34am 3 June 2010

Hi Martin. Thought that I should add the UH defintion of Blended Learning from the original CETL bid document,  for completeness:

"Educational provision where high quality e-learning opportunities and excellent campus based learning are combined or blended in coherent, reflective and innovative ways so that learning is enhanced and choice is increased"

We later adopted a phrase (not really a definition): "harnessing technology to enhance learning teaching and assessment" becuase it was more meaningful to our staff. This brings me to the point about what is the definition for? We were thinking about how staff perceived the BLU and what it did. Rhona Sharpe and Greg Benfield, in their review of Blended learning for the HEA, suggested that there was a possible advantage in having a variety of definitions/descriptions of the term Blended Learning. I wonder how precise one can be as you say the reality is very complex.

Mark Brown
9:58am 3 June 2010

In my own institution, we talk about blended education rather than blended learning, which involves purposefully integrating different learning resources, environments and delivery modes to provide an exceptional and distinctive experience for all learners. Technology is not explicit in this definition and it deliberately recognises the importance of student supports and services along with the interactions (content, learners and teachers) that take place in formal and informal educational contexts. 

Sarah Flynn
12:31pm 3 June 2010

Really looking forward to this talk Martin.

When sitting in on discussions of how to "do" blended learning or how to change a course so that we "do" more blended learning I have always been amused/distraught (depending on mood!) as to the lightining speed at which the discussion turns to how much technology can be stuffed into a module :o)

It will be great to have some insights into reversing the whole process and thinking more about the holistic experience and enjoyment of the gourmet meal than constructing something purely because there are truffles available!


Peter R Bullen
1:29pm 3 June 2010

The point about blending the use of technology with face-to face teaching is about realising the opportunities that technolgy can bring to teaching/learning. If you drop the 'technology' then it misses the point about the 'wonderful opportunities that technology can bring . The emphasis has always been on the opportunities that technology brings to 'principles of good teaching  (and learning) practice e.g. Chickering and Gamson, i.e the holistic experience - as you put it Sarah. This applies to both face- to-face teachng (possibly using technology) and the use of technology on-line, and most importantly their integration into a cohesive whole. This is why we often refered (at UH)  to the opportunities that technology brings to enhance, extend or replace the classroom.

Sarah Flynn
1:37pm 3 June 2010

Absolutely Peter - maybe I should have included that it is when you see technology being used indiscriminately and in an unknowing way that it can be more disabling than enabling to learning.

I think that one of the real successes of BLU has been to demystify technology and really spread the word about what the potential of the particular technology is, before people started to include it unthinkingly, and so the result being that our colleagues are using it wisely and appropriately.


Martin Oliver
9:36am 8 June 2010 (Edited 9:37am 8 June 2010)

A lot of contributions to catch up on here - I'll do what I can to catch up! Sarah - yes, I can empathise with that amusement/distress; that's the kind of thing that's motivated me to look at this topic in this way. Glad I'm not alone in that!

Very much liked Peter's definition, with things "blended in coherent, reflective and innovative ways so that learning is enhanced and choice is increased". That focus on the purpose, not just the forms, is appealing. I'd also agree with Rhona and Greg - I think one of the reasons that e-learning lasted so long as a term (longer than, say, computer-based learning or multimedia learning) was that it was so vague it outlasted specific technologies.

I also like Mark's mention of Blended Education, which I think is probably a much more honest description of what most places focus on than the rhetorical nod towards 'learning'. Again, the emphasis on purposeful integration makes a lot of sense to me.

Wasn't so sure about Peter and Sarah's subsequent response (although I liked the bit about making people think!), mainly because I'm cautious about the idea that face-to-face learning is somehow separate from technology. "Technology" is a pretty broad idea, and it'd be easy to include everything from the chairs and forms of language used in it.

I also feel troubled by the metaphor of technology "bringing" things; I can't help but think of the way in which researchers of games and learning feel quite happy saying, "this game improves learning", but find the headline, “Video gaming leads to surge in rickets” (Metro, 22nd January, 2010) ludicrous, when both are rhetorically the same kind of claim (A causes B). I'm not sure how much I'll go into that in the talk, though; that might be a separate issue.

Peter R Bullen
5:27pm 8 June 2010

I agree that the words 'technology' and 'bring' can be interpreted in this way but this was not intended. This is the problem with language or maybe the problem with my loose use of the terminology. I would rather concentrate on the idea that the appropriate use of  ICT can provide opportunities for enhancing learning and teaching and how we can realise these opportunities, but it is interesting to unpick how the use of language can lead to myths and misconceptions.

Martin Oliver
9:16am 9 June 2010

I'm hoping it's interesting anyhow - the talk will fall a bit flat otherwise!

I'm sure the connotation wasn't intended, and it's partly an issue of mine in that - being interested in this - it's something I spot all over the place. Whether it's authorial intent or me reading into it is, of course, another matter. Nevertheless, I do think it's this layering up of language that builds the myths.

Peter R Bullen
10:51pm 13 June 2010

I agree Martin. Its an interesting subject I have a personal dislike of the word deliver as in 'deliver the curriculum'. it has connotations of lecturer delivering to student much as a delivery van might deliver its content to a customer. Brendan one of our Blended learning champions raised this some years ago and I have been concious of it ever since - thanks Brendan!

Gráinne Conole
9:58am 16 June 2010

Looks like a really interesting keynote Martin, sorry I am not there. Are you able to post your powerpoint slides here and or any relevant references?

Martin Oliver
10:03am 16 June 2010

Of course - I gather there will be a recording of the talk, and I'm sure we can create a link to that when it's ready.

Also, yes, the slides will definitely go up here after the talk. They might not make much sense without the talk to go with them (I'm trying to take a more impressionistic approach rather than having the script on the powerpoint) but they will have all sources used listed in the notes for each slide.

Gráinne Conole
10:05am 16 June 2010

wow that was a quick reply! :-) thanks for this and will keep an eye on this space for updates. Nice to see Mark from NZ contributing to this debate as the current drive for Massey is to take a blended learning approach. I was part of a series of talks back in December at the Massey sites looking at this - will add a link to the cloudscape. 

Sarah Flynn
9:25am 17 June 2010


Wow. I've certainly had my preconceived understandings of blended learning fundamentally challenged and I know that I need to go away and be comfortable with my own construct of the blended learning concept

I do hope that you post up all the references to some the texts that you spoke of, as it sounds as though many of us listening would like to follow up on some of this material.

I really like how you drew out the concerns that people have about change - the Victorians and literature for example - I guess these things are cyclical. It does make me wonder as to what will come next that will concern people? I saw the new X-Box (?!?!?) on tv this week that works on motion capture without a controller and saw the demostrator "play" in a boxing game and they were really physically engaged in it.  My first thought was concern for fostering violent behaviour but later on, thoughts on what we could do in terms of workplace simulation activities for student - so is the change proposed, the change that will actually manifest?

Thanks for such a thought provoking talk, I'll be cogitating it for a good while.

Kind regards, Sarah

Martin Oliver
10:51am 17 June 2010

Thanks for the kind words; glad it got you thinking! Can't ask for more than that, really.

As requested, references from the slides now up. So is a link to the slides, which have references in the notes.

Interesting link to the XBox stuff. There's a group of people looking into embodiment and play; you could take a look at for example. The violence/video games debate is an obvious point of reference but it's hard to engage and not get caught up in alarmist discussions. Things are rarely so simple. Of course, if games don't cause violence in a simple way we also have to ask if they "cause" other kinds of learning too... that's where it gets more interesting!

Marija Cubric
2:02pm 17 June 2010 (Edited 3:03pm 17 June 2010)

Hi Martin

thank you on a very interesting and  thoughtful talk.  It was good to include some of the challenging aspects of 'community of learning', to think about the 'background' of a learner first, as well as  about the purpose and format of the learning activity.

However, I still think that BL is a very simple concept ("thoughtful integration of face-to-face and online learning" ) based on an opportunity provided by the  Internet, to extend the teaching & learning opportunities in time and space...

Looking forward to read through some of the materials and links you posted,



Steve Bennett
11:24am 18 June 2010 (Edited 11:26am 18 June 2010)


A wonderful talk - cleared a number of misconceptions, and your ideas about the "myth of the student" and the "myth of the community of practice" - brilliant.

However, although you convincingly demonstrated the falsity and also crass commercialism of ideas like "millenials" and "digital natives" - can you suggest a different model of a student?

As academics, we do need to have some hypothetical model of a student (even if tacitly expressed) otherwise it is very difficult to have any sort of discussion as to how we plan our courses or the kinds of learning experiences we design.  When we say "students typically find xyz hard, so therefore we need to ...." - there is some tacit model that we are working with, be it stereotypically generic, or more sophisticated (I vaguely remember Mike Biggs "traditional susan" with "untraditional robert") - or something like that.

Do you have any ideas about where we could draw such models from, or maybe, just some thoughts about how we measure the validity of the student models we are potentially using?


Martin Oliver
2:10pm 21 June 2010

Steve, excellent question. One with no easy answers, I'm afraid.

At a simple level I think we muddle along with our preconceptions just like we always have done. I think we'd all benefit from refining those, and I think the need for that is particularly acute when we do research, since the claims we make are taken out of the context in which they were generated.

I quite like the idea of "traditional susan" and so on; much more personal, less of a category. I'm sure more could be done along these lines.

The trouble, I think, is finding a balance: if you look back at the work done on Intelligent Tutoring Systems, one of the thorniest problems researchers grappled with was how to model learners. Student modelling became a sub-field in its own right, and the models became ever more complex. And now no-one does ITS work, at least in mainstream education, because the effort of getting the student model (and the domain model) good enough to be useful is just too great.

So it's finding something that's good enough, and being clear what it's good enough for (and what it's not).

At a simple level, though, the thing I keep coming back to: build relationships with your students. Ok, you can't know them all, but knowing some is better than knowing none, particularly if effort can be made to find out about the ones you aren't currently supporting well (judged on the basis of, say, the perception of their inability to participate or persist with the course).

Angela Alexander
10:02pm 30 June 2010

Haven't learners always blended their own learning even before IT came on the scene? Looking forward to discussions at University of Reading on Monday.

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