What is blended learning
In this section the DHET definition of blended learning is interpreted by comparing its implications for contact and distance modules by:
- Unpacking the elements of the definition
- Summarising the requirements of contact-time as specified by the DHET
- Showing various course delivery options that are available within the parameters of the definition
DHET definition of blended learning
The Department of Higher Education and Training provides the following broad definition of blended learning:
Blended learning is the provision of structured learning opportunities using a combination of contact, distance, and/or Information and Communication Technology (ICT) supported opportunities to suit different purposes, audiences, and contexts.
This definition thus implies that blended learning includes modules with a combination of contact and distance components; contact and ICT supported opportunities; distance and ICT supported opportunities; or contact, distance and ICT supported opportunities. Since contact and distance programmes are funded differently, the definitions of these modes of delivery have not only pedagogical implications, but also financial implications. The DHET stipulates that for contact qualifications, the following should be adhered to:
Summary of contact-time required for contact-based modules
- Undergraduate courses (NQF Levels 5 – 6): more than 30% of the stated Notional Learning hours must be spent in staff-led, face-to-face, campus-based, structured learning activities.
- Undergraduate courses (NQF Level 7): more than 25% of the stated Notional Learning hours must be spent in staff-led, face-to-face, campus-based, structured learning activities.
- Initial postgraduate courses (NQF Level 8): more than 25% of the stated Notional Learning hours must be spent in staff-led, face-to-face, campus-based, structured learning activities.
What does this mean practically?
For a 16-credit module on NQF Level 5 or 6, with 160 stated Notional Learning hours, more than 48 hours should be contact-based, while for a 16-credit module on NQF Level 7 or 8 with the same Notional Learning hours, more than 40 hours should be contact-based.
What constitutes contact time?
It raises the question, what does staff-led, face-to-face, campus-based, structured learning activities entail? The answer is not definitive but could include the following activities:
Examples of staff-led, face-to-face, campus-based, structured learning activities
- Traditional lectures in a classroom
- Campus-based practical sessions
- Face-to-face tutorials
- Face-to-face lecturer consultation hours
Blended learning in different modes of delivery
Both the DHET and the Council for Higher Education (CHE) recognise that the distinction between contact and distance education is more complex than a simple continuum with pure distance and pure face-to-face provisioning at opposite ends, especially with increasing use of educational technology over the last few years. To this end, the DHET and CHE published documents to conceptualise the difference between contact and distance learning. Each presents a two-dimensional figure (see Figure 1) that illustrates the variation possible in designing learning programmes in South African higher education institutions.
Figure 1 shows various course delivery options. Modules that are completely online and campus-based would, for instance, be a module that is presented in the computer labs on campus (Block A in Figure 1). All lectures would be in the computer labs. Block B shows an example of a module delivered at the other end of the contact-based spectrum. Modules presented in this way would not have any online or computer-based components. Study guides and class materials would be paper-based and the module would not be on Blackboard. All communication between lecturers and students would be face-to-face in class or during consultation hours. Block C is an example of a contact-based, blended module. Such a module would include any number of face-to-face activities but would also include activities on the LMS or any other digital / internet-supported activities (such as requiring students to do an assignment on a Word document for which they need to consult sources either in the library or online that they need to submit on a LMS). Area D shows the possible combinations for contact-based, blended modules. Block A, B, C and Area D assumes the minimum contact-time as specified by the DHET per NQF level. If the minimum contact-time is not spent in a module, it becomes a distance module. Block E is an example of a module delivered in a similar way as the delivery method depicted by Block C without the minimum contact-time.
A more comprehensive understanding of blended learning
In this section, a more comprehensive description of blended learning is provided by:
- Proposing a definition from the literature elaborates on the DHET’s definition of blended learning
- Unpacking the key components of the definition
- Distinguishing between blended learning and technology-enhanced learning
In the past eight editions (with the exception of the 2018 edition) of the NMC Horizon Report blended learning has been featured as a key trend in higher education globally (Alexander et al., 2019). Despite its relevance, there is no consensus in the literature on a single definition for blended learning. It may be useful to consider some of the most widely accepted definitions to gain a clearer understanding of what blended learning is, as well as what it is not. Such an understanding is crucial if one is to implement it effectively in practice.
The International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) produced an insight paper to address the varied interpretations of blended learning, as well as its implementation in higher education institutions (Ossiannilsson, 2017). One of the most prevalent definitions in the literature is offered by Christensen, Horn, and Staker (2013, p.7):
Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home. The modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.
Key components of blended learning
If Christensen et al.’s (2013, p.7) definition is adopted, the following three elements need to be present for a module design to be ‘blended’:
1. Some components of the module are delivered online and some components are delivered in a face-to-face environment
2. For the online components in the module students have control of one or more of the following:
- Time: learning is not restricted to a specific day and time. Students are allowed to complete the activity at their own time. Student control over time refers to asynchronous activities, however, it is important to note that it is not only asynchronous activities that are included in blended learning. For this reason, the definition specifies that students only need to have control of one of these elements. If they, for instance, have control of one of the other elements (such as place), synchronous activities, such as attending an online tutorial at a specific time from home (or anywhere else) would still satisfy the criteria of this definition.
- Place: students do not have to be at a specific place (such as a classroom or computer lab) to complete the activity.
- Path: learning is not restricted solely by the pedagogy of the lecturer. This means that students are presented with a choice regarding some of the online activities they complete and how they complete them. It also means that they can access any additional material related to the content without it specifically being indicated by the lecturer.
- Pace: students are not restricted to the pace of the rest of the classroom. They can, for instance, go through some of the content at a quicker pace or can revisit the content that they struggle with.
3. The online and face-to-face components are designed to provide an integrated learning experience
The following examples of what blended learning is and what it is not are simplified to clarify the definition and to highlight the importance of planning and design of online activities.
Examples of what blended learning is and what it is not
This does not mean that the examples provided that do not qualify as blended learning should be discarded as bad practice. Nonetheless, it does make a distinction between ‘blended learning’ and ‘technology-enhanced learning’. Simply using technology in your teaching does not automatically imply that a module is blended. While effective technology-enhanced learning does not have to satisfy the specific criteria for blended learning, lecturers should always aim to create an integrated learning experience between the face-to-face and online components of a module. For the use of technology to really enhance learning, it cannot be used without considering pedagogy.