This essay discusses the impact of digital technology on education. It focuses on blended learning as a product of computer-mediated environments that allow learners and teachers to create a learning environment that combines the advantages of online technologies and face-to-face methods of learning. The essay demonstrates that the dichotomy between the digital natives and digital immigrants do not apply in blended learning as the approach does not seek to replace the conventional brick-and-mortar classroom or constrain itself to online learning
Significant studies about the so-called digital natives, a population of students growing up in contexts with broad access to communication technologies (Prensky, 2001; Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008), focus on how the traditional educational system fails to meet the learning needs of these students (Margaryan, Littlejohn, &Vojt, 2011). Other studies examine the extent to which these students integrate digital technologies in their studies (Ferdousi and Bari 2015), or the adverse effect of technology on digital natives (Hawi & Samaha, 2016; Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017)), or contests the existence of digital natives (Bennet et al., 2008; Jones & Healing, 2010). While this scholarship teases out the primary debates on the fundamental significance of technology to student learning, they often neglect discussions regarding the critical role of instructors in developing lessons that appeal to students born into computer-mediated environments. There are fewer studies that delve into the practical aspects of designing lessons in a computer-mediated environment. The ones that do often relegate teachers born before the 1980s into a category Jones and Healing (2010) refer to as digital immigrants: teachers born before the rise of digital technology. While this essay concurs with Bennet et al., (2008) and Jones & Healing (2010) that the binary between the so-called digital natives and digital immigrants is unstable and undertheorized because scholars often base their claims on limited empirical evidence, it argues that blended learning addresses the challenges of combining traditional face-to-face learning environments with digital technology.
Blended learning is a system of restructuring the classroom experience through designing lessons that coalesces the strengths of both face-to-face instruction techniques and online learning into a blended and more effective learning experience (Garrison and Vaughan 2010). The idea of “system” shows that the effectiveness of blended learning lies in harnessing the advantages of face-to-face classroom contact hours and the benefits of asynchronous online communication (Graham, 2005). However, as Randy and Heather (2004) cautions, blended learning does not refer to an enhanced brick-and-mortar classroom that uses technology to supplement its learning activities. It instead underscores the coalescing of two different environments into a unique learning experience that rethinks traditional teaching and learning. The concept of blended learning gained tract in the early 1990s when the personal computer became a household device to many families in developed countries. The concept has evolved with the advancement of technology, which allows many people to access the internet through mobile devices and computers. Blended learning has moved beyond educational institutions to the business world, where training and workshops run as blended learning activities. However, this essay will focus on blended learning in the academic context.
A blended learning environment allows instructors to design lessons that maximize different forms of learner interaction, such as directly with the teacher, with other students, and with the content or teaching material. Learners cannot achieve these forms of interactions in an exclusive online or onsite learning environment. Graham (2014) argues that blended learning lessons provide a platform for achieving these interactions because it focuses on learner affective and cognitive engagement. He bemoans the practice of designing lessons that only engage the learner’s mind (cognitive), and notes that student interactions that often lead to a successful learning experience go beyond the mind into the learner’s heart (affective). For instance, the motivation to learn a new language is not innate to all students. Therefore, instructors should cultivate it through creative onsite and online activities that light up the students’ “passion, desire, and confidence for learning” (76). The effectiveness of this technique rests on the idea that while face-to-face learning environment allows educators to create spontaneous interactions with students, it constrains their ability to attend to the individual needs of all students (especially in large classes) in the time allotted for a lesson. However, through online interaction, which is not limited by time and place, an instructor can tailor learning activities to individual learners and groups. Thus, blended learning transcends the constraints of online and brick-and-mortar classrooms by combining the strengths of both onsite and online environments to create an efficient, effective, and engaging learning experience.
Technology enables teachers to create a blended learning environment that encourages an in-depth approach to learning, improving student attention, and engagement. Garrison and Vaughan (2008) elaborate on this learning approach as “an intention to comprehend and understand the meaning and significance of the subject at hand” (43). The central feature of this approach is that the conditions we create in a learning environment shape how students engage in a lesson. To most students, particularly in the West, the line between face-to-face and online experiences is thin, as they seem to move seamlessly between these worlds. However, this does not mean that these students are always open and willing to form a learning community in these environments, nor does it imply a sense of homogeneity among these students, as Prensky (2002) does. Therefore, both instructors and students work together to nurture open communication that will make learning communities possible. They can attain this goal through designing blended learning lessons that move beyond the quality of learning outcome and instead incorporate informal practices that allow personal relationships to develop organically. For instance, creating online “chat” forums can allow learners to interact informally and ease the tension that often discourages students (especially those at different levels of learning) from collaborating or even contributing to discussions during a face-to-face lesson.
Blended learning enables instructors to find a balance between face-to-face learning and online learning that supports learner immediacy and social presence. Jared et al., (2011) describes learner immediacy as communication behavior that improves closeness between or among communicants. Social presence is the ability of learners to present themselves as “real people” with feelings. In a face-to-face learning environment, both learners and instructors keep a high level of fidelity or authenticity because they share the same brick-and-mortar space. In an online environment, interactions have low levels of fidelity due to lack of immediacy. However, the difference in time and space allows the online environment to be more flexible compared to a face-to-face environment. The challenge lies in blending these two modes of learning without compromising instructor and learner immediacy and social presence. Jared et al., (2011) discusses how combining platforms such as Facebook video messaging, VoiceThread video commenting, and video blogs can enhance learner immediacy and social presence. Technology allows institutions to design sophisticated learning management systems, such as Canvas, that incorporates social media capabilities with customized tools for enhancing learner immediacy. Furthermore, a learning management system can potentially mitigate privacy challenges, which are typical in social media platforms. Ferdousi and Bari (2015) argue that technology enhances undergraduate education because digital natives are predisposed to computer-mediated environments. I contend that these technology tools are user-friendly and do not require advanced digital literacy. Therefore, instructors can learn how to combine various media platforms with learning management systems to create a desired blended learning environment.
Audio-visual technology constitutes the primary tools for blended learning, and recent advances in these technologies allow teachers to tailor, edit, or adopt sounds and videos for a blended lesson. Despite this, research on the use of audio-visual technologies in blended learning does not show the extent of their usefulness. There is little empirical data that outlines how instructors and students should determine the relevance of audio-visual technologies (Canning, 2000). The use of these technologies evokes challenges such as determining how much exposure to a video can enhance student learning, how auditory components should enhance visual component, how many times students should play the video, and how to integrate an online video task with classroom instruction. Canning’s (2000) research, although conducted two decades ago and in the context of language learning, outlines elements that are still relevant in blended learning. She encourages instructors to limit videos to about four minutes because students get distracted around this minute mark. Canning further notes that getting the right length does not mean students will engage the videos effectively. Therefore, instructors should design meaningful and challenging tasks that motivate learners to engage with the video. Recent scholarship, particularly by Brame (2017), gives additional elements for designing useful videos for blended learning. They include aspects that deal with cognitive reasoning (such as signaling critical points in a video, segmenting content, and using conversational language), and active learning. It appears then that audio-visual technology can be harnessed and effectively utilized for blended learning.
While blended learning is a product of advances in computer technologies, which have become more accessible in the last few decades, we cannot constrain it to the category of digital natives. Blended learning reveals that technology is yet to replace traditional modes of learning. Instead, technology has enabled instructors to combine conventional learning methods with online techniques to develop a blended learning classroom that takes advantage of the strengths of these two environments. Therefore, in blended learning, the dichotomy between the so-called digital natives and digital immigrants does not apply. Future research should focus on examining the scope of blended learning to find out whether it can be used in all subjects.
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