Blended Learning: A way to assist learners in rural communities
Posted on May 29th, 2020

Dr. Gamini Padmaperuma, a Chartered Professional Engineer and a former Senior Lecturer at OUSL,

The term Blended learning” is used frequently along with the term e-Learning”. Is it just another buzz word or an old wine in a new bottle? 

It is relevant to review the present situation in the country with reference to computer literacy and the percentage of households owning computers in different sectors, urban, rural, estate, etc. Computer literacy/Computer ownership as a percentage (Sri Lanka: 30.1/22.2, Urban: 41.5/38.3, Rural: 28.6/19.9, Estate: 13.7/3.8), as per the published statistics.

The above statistics clearly indicate a vast disparity within the sectors in computer literacy and ownership of computers by households. Under such situation, a heavy emphasis on e-learning or technology based education could worsen the present relative social standing of rural and estate sectors. While actions need to be taken to reduce the above disparities in the longer run, it is imperative that less privileged sectors be provided with facilities such as blended learning to mitigate the disparities currently exist.

Blended learning is defined as a combination of multiple approaches to pedagogy or teaching. It is achieved through the combination of virtual and physical resources. Blended learning is a blend between e-Learning and traditional delivery methods such as traditional class rooms, printed learning material, etc. 

Most learners are familiar with how teachers use different delivery methods to achieve learning outcomes, e.g. lectures, discussion groups, drills and practices, role plays, audio/video clips, computer-based tutorials, etc. Therefore, it can be said that blended learning is a new name for an old concept.

Blended learning can cater to a large cross section of learners including rural and estate sectors in achieving their learning goals by accommodating different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning. All students do not learn in just the same way nor do they have same accessibility to technology; therefore, it is important to provide different methods, media and approaches to learn the same content by different students.

With regular Internet, TV, radio, etc., it is possible to deliver educational and training content for the benefit of the learners throughout the country. The content could include material for school and university programmes, improvement of general skills such as English knowledge and computer literacy, vocational skills such as repair and maintenance of automobiles, computers, etc. However, those who are familiar with distance learning are aware of the main hardships the learners face; the lack of tutor support and feedback.

The “theory” part of the learning task can be delivered through the technology mentioned above. How can the tutor support and feedback be provided? The way to proceed may be to use a blended learning approach. It is possible to meet the above learner needs through a combination of online and face-to-face tutor support. Face-to-face tutor support can be provided at venues such as Open University’s regional centres, University of Vocational Technology, technical colleges, and other suitable public and private sector educational establishments. This is a feasible approach that would directly benefit the rural sector learners.

The learners would choose the method that suits them best based on preference, accessibility, affordability, etc. Different approaches in delivery are also necessary due to different learning contexts (traditional learning, distance learning, etc.), learner types (auditory learners, visual learners, etc.) and leaning tasks (facts, concepts, etc.). Also, when the technology is not equally accessible to the entire cross-section of learners, blended learning could provide alternatives to choose from.

The factors that influence the blend of methods and technologies used to achieve desired learning objectives include: learning context, type of learners, learning task, availability, accessibility and learner attitudes towards using technology for learning, time availability for learning, language and subject proficiency levels, pace at which learning goals are to be achieved, the pedagogical approaches.

The actual making of the ‘blend’ should be based on proper study and evaluation of the learning situation. Such study is called Instructional Design. A typical instructional design process includes five stages; Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation (ADDIE). The most critical of these stages is the first stage, Analysis. Analysis is the basis for design of instructions and their delivery. The Analysis stage consists of three components; analysis of learning context, the learner, and the learning task. The selection of the type of instruction and the mode of its delivery is based on the findings of the instructional analysis. Analyses of the learning context and the types of learners will provide information on: gaps in knowledge, learner background, preferred styles of learning, performance levels, language proficiency, computer literacy, access and attitude towards technology, time constraints, etc.

These findings have implications on the design and delivery of instructions. For example, if most of the learners are either auditory or visual learners, the design of instruction should include audio and video components. Similarly, if the learners are adults who work full-time or part-time, face-to-face delivery of instruction is not suitable as the primary mode of delivery. In this case the design and delivery of instruction should be made to suit a distance learning environment. Then, the question arises as to what type of distance learning is affordable. Does the learner have access to ICT where instructions can be delivered in the form of offline content or online through the Internet? If the learners have no access to ICT, then the option will be to provide the learners with print material designed for distance learning or media broadcasts. If the analysis shows that a good part of the learners have access to ICT, then the delivery of learning content should be made through both ICT, print material and/or media broadcasts. This is just an example of blending different methods of delivery of instruction to suit different types of learners and learning contexts.

Blended learning methods also become relevant when implementation of different steps in the learning process is considered. The different steps that a learner needs to go through to accomplish a learning task are known as Events of Instruction. There are nine events of instruction: Gaining attention, informing the learner of the objective, stimulating learner’s attention, stimulating recall of prior knowledge, providing learning guidance, eliciting performance, providing feedback, assessing performance, and enhancing retention and transfer. Different approaches or media could be used to achieve each event of instruction. 

The type of learning task too has a bearing on the methods of delivery. Design of events of instruction varies from task to task. Providing learning guidance, eliciting performance, giving feedback, etc. will be dependent on the type of learning task and mode of delivery. Giving feedback on learner performance will be quite different in a computer-based learning environment as compared to a face-to-face learning environment. Also, intelligent tutoring systems can evaluate the learner input and suggest possible routes for solving a problem or task. It is the instructional designer’s task therefore to select the appropriate mix of media to ensure effective learning under a given learning situation. 

However, the challenges associated with such an endeavour include the design and development of suitable indigenous learning content suitable for delivery through technology and design and implementation of pedagogically sound blended learning environments that will result in successful learning outcomes.

With such blended learning settings, a large portion of the country’s population including those in rural sectors can benefit from the new technology and the country can steadily move towards its vision to become a knowledge-based economy with a more equitable society.

Author:

Dr. Gamini Padmaperuma, a Chartered Professional Engineer and a former Senior Lecturer at OUSL, holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand in Instructional Design for Computer-Based Learning. Email: [email protected]

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