Blended learning models—the idea of combining online education with in-person interactions—have moved at warp speed from a concept being considered and experimented with in many settings, to a concept that has now suddenly been embraced wholeheartedly. COVID-19 initially caused schools around the country to close, sending all students home to learn remotely. Then, this fall, schools opened up, only to close back down to some degree, leading to a hybrid model for reopening schools around the country.
Chances are, say the experts, this blended learning is likely to continue even post COVID-19.
A Rapid Transition to Blended Learning Models
Michael Huseby is CEO and chairman at Barnes & Noble Education (BNED). “The rapid transition to online learning made by colleges and universities in response to the coronavirus pandemic has forced educators and students to reconsider the role of digital transformation in higher ed,” says Huseby. But, he adds: “While the switch to online learning has certainly highlighted the value of online options in supporting education continuity, it has also called to attention the continued significance of the in-person experience in driving student success and wellbeing.”
Huseby points to a recent BNED survey on the impact of COVID-19 and mental health and learning, which indicates that 89% of students strongly agree that in-person social interaction is an integral part of their college experience. Recognizing this he says, is leading many institutions to pivot to providing blended learning solutions.
Blended learning, says Huseby, is predicted to extend into spring 2021, and beyond. While he acknowledges that a “return to normal” remains the ultimate goal, he says that blended learning options can and should have a role in the future of higher education. “In the space of two semesters, we have already come a long way. By responding to the lessons learned during this time, colleges and universities are building toward a new, more adaptable future for higher education,” Huseby says.
Blended Learning Strategies: A New Standard
Blended learning models will become the standard for universities in the future, says James Wallace, Ph.D., EVP of enrollment and partnership services at All Campus. “At the very minimum, they will become the norm for graduate-level programs, where students will eventually expect flexible learning options tailored to their needs as busy professionals,” he says.
In other settings, says Wallace, universities are currently segmenting students via modality—online vs. in-person. “This segmentation will eventually fade away and be replaced by hybrid options that allow students to select from both online and on-campus courses to complete their degree programs.”
And, while blended learning has been primarily something colleges and universities were exploring and blended learning in elementary school was not as prevalent, COVID-19 has meant that even the youngest students and their teachers have now had experience with what is rapidly becoming a new standard.
There are both benefits and drawbacks to blending in-person and online teaching tools in higher education as we move beyond the pandemic and back to a more normal state.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Blended Learning Classrooms
In the short term, says Wallace, the primary advantage of blended learning is that “it’s finally happening and being prioritized.” COVID-19, he says, “may provide some leeway for institutions that have made mistakes during this rapid transition to online and blended learning models as they improve their online experiences moving forward.”
Thomas Hoover is Chief Information Officer at Louisiana Tech University. “There are some advantages to these newer forms of learning,” he says, predicting that blended learning will have impactful changes on higher education. “The demographic of the traditional college student continues to change from someone just out of high school to someone older looking to get an advanced degree, someone that is going back to school to finish their degree, someone looking for a new career, etc.,” Hoover says. “This new blended learning model is more conducive to these new students that are sometimes full time employed students and distance learners. In reality, this has been occurring over the past twenty years but has more recently affected practically all institutions.”
There are potential drawbacks, though, and issues to consider, especially if blended learning continues to play an integral role in academic programming which it is likely to do.
During the virus, says Wallace, course development and faculty training were compressed. Good instructional design, though, he says, “takes close coordination and collaboration with faculty to ensure that their vision for their courses comes through.”
In addition, Wallace says, “a desire to shift to blended or online-enhanced learning structures may be met with regulatory or accreditation roadblocks, which may still question the validity of online learning experiences when compared with on-campus experiences.” Ultimately, he says, the priority must remain on demonstrating successful student outcomes during these challenging times, when the majority of learning is taking place online.
Looking Ahead with Blended Learning in Mind
The student services area is one opportunity for improvement. Student services have historically been focused on students on-campus, leaving online students without many of the benefits these services could provide, especially if they’re geographically remote from the physical school setting. “This could change drastically, shaping a better slate of student service offerings for all students, regardless of modality,” says Wallace. But, he adds: “In the long term, students may lose access to on-campus events and networking opportunities if they shift exclusively or mostly online. Additionally, not all programs are viable partially or fully online, as they necessitate an in-person component.”
Hoover agrees that one of the disadvantages of blended learning is students’ need for engagement with other students and their faculty. “In my experience as a Chief Information Officer and as a doctoral student, it is crucial for the faculty member to engage with their students and stay connected,” he says.”
Still, Wallace predicts that blended learning models will “lead to better investment in technology in the long run, which in turn will lead to better student outcomes.” When online learning is prioritized, he says, so will the tools and technology that power it, providing a better student and faculty experience.”
When it comes to the blended learning classroom, the genie is out of the bottle.
“I think that some form of blended learning is here to stay,” says Hoover. “The COVID pandemic has forced all institutions to move in new directions.”