In this article, we will explain the concept of Blended Learning which is one of the main concepts behind E2Language.

A student that took a recent IELTS test asked the question: “is three hours of well-designed teacher-guided online English language learning as effective as thirty hours of teacher-led classroom learning?”[1] This question begs another: is the online learning environment better suited to the teacher-led or the teacher-guided approach?[2] With the shift to new ways of delivering English language test preparation, teaching and learning, are 1 to 1 sessions with an IELTS tutor online more beneficial than taking IELTS classes with a group of 20 or 30 other students?

These questions are very broad, of course. The effectiveness of different teaching and learning approaches is affected by the age, learning objectives and educational background of students. Nevertheless, using high-stakes English language exam preparation (PTE Academic, IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL and OET) as the focus of this article, we examine how over-reliance on a teacher-centred approach (whether via video or in a classroom) can affect the quality of online learning outcomes.

Teaching and Learning

Teaching and learning is an iterative and dynamic communication process. The idea that teachers teach and that students, hopefully, learn neglects that teaching and learning is a two-way communication loop. This means that the teacher is also learning. Through direct teacher-student interactions, a good teacher will be sensitive to the student’s learning path, speed of knowledge acquisition and the depth of their comprehension. The pace and depth of knowledge transfer is continuously adjusted to achieve better learning outcomes for students.[3]

However, rather than taking a holistic approach as advocated by the teaching and learning literature, in practice, the online education revolution has been heavily weighted towards the student-side of the equation.[4] New technologies have been introduced to incorporate and distribute richer media and materials to students; or to shift basic testing and assessment online. To a great degree, the online education revolution has side stepped the role of the teacher. While student-centred activities have migrated online, new teaching approaches by and large haven’t.

Why is this the case?

Re-Visiting the Old ‘Teacher-Led/Student-Centred’ Debate

For a long time, a classical debate in the field of education is whether teacher-led or student-led learning is more effective? Is knowledge transfer more effective when a teacher stands in front of a classroom explaining and illustrating ideas- a method where students play a more passive role? Or, is the learning process more effective when students a take an active role and greater responsibility for acquiring knowledge at a pace and depth that better suits their individual requirements?[5]

These questions, of course, represent extreme positions on a continuum. Teaching and learning is a social interaction between teachers, individual students and groups of similarly situated students. To the extent that some optimal position exists somewhere in between differs for each and every student. On one hand, if students are not actively engaged in the learning process, they feel disconnected and quickly become bored. Effective knowledge transfer fails. On the other hand, if students are left too much to their own devices, they loose direction, confidence and the motivation to continue to learn.

In the online English language test preparation space, student support is heavily materials focused, not engaging and often completely without guidance. As a result, students quickly become bored and find it extremely difficult to maintain the motivation necessary to complete online test preparation programs. The extremely low retention rates isn’t very different from other more general courses offered online.[6] When left without proper guidance, many students have a tendency to waste time reinforcing skills they have already mastered rather than focusing on weaker skills.

The Internet and Blended Learning

Somewhere between the extremes described above, new technologies, tools and teaching approaches have emerged enabling new ways to find that elusive balance between teacher and student. The journey towards finding that balance has resulted in different concepts surrounding ‘blended learning’ also emerging.

First Generation Blended Learning

The first generation, and still the dominant understanding of what blended learning is, tends to place the teacher in front of a class or audience using a teacher-led approach, in the first instance. To the extent blending does occur, it is weighted heavily to the student side of the equation. The internet is used to provide new ways of distributing and providing access to digital materials not to mention the management of these materials and related media.

The teacher-led function occurs independently of the student-centred activities. Blending exists only to the extent that the new technologies are used to support the teacher-led approach.

New Generation Blended Learning

A more sophisticated concept of blended learning has evolved in recent years focusing on more sophisticated ways to better integrate the teacher side of the equation. With new tools and technologies, more efficient and effective ways of knowledge transfer are possible. At the same time, more sophisticated ways of designing and digitising materials to be more engaging also strengthens the student-centred side of the equation.

Combining the two, technology can be constructive rather than disruptive. A ‘constructive’ digital platform is one that provides benefits to all parties. This can only be achieved with good governance and guidance on the part of the teacher. The student has a role to play in meeting the terms of the student/teacher compact. This side of the bargain is more easily kept if students are engaged by the technology they are expected to interact with.

Seeking the Optimal Blend: Teacher Guided, Student-Led Learning

When more balanced blended learning approach is pursued in curriculum and lesson design, it should seek a more coherent balancing of strategic ‘guidance’ and constructive ‘engagement’. The new technologies can facilitate both provided that curricula is well designed involving a mixture of student informed guidance drawn from diagnostic assessment and face to face interaction as well as highly engaging, interactive, self-supporting teaching materials.

Rather than 30 hours of passive, classroom learning reinforced with un-engaging, static learning materials, studies suggest that 3 hours of 1 on 1 guidance integrated with well-scaffolded and engaging digitally delivered materials can generate as efficient and effective learning outcomes.[7] Further, rather than the one size fits all classroom approach, a more direct two-way interaction between teacher and student allows the teacher to better calibrate the speed and depth of knowledge transfer to individual student needs much better.

Studies show that well designed and scaffolded learning materials provide a more efficient path forward enabling students to self-direct their learning more effectively. The teacher is responsible for ensuring that students stay on that path and assist where weaknesses in understanding are flagged or identified.

 

[1] Palloff, R. M., Pratt, K. (2013) Lessons from the Virtual Classroom (2nd Ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Richards, J.C., Rodgers, T.S. (2013) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (3rd Ed). Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press

[3] Innovation and Change in English Language Education. By Ken Hyland, Lillian L C Wong, 2013 Routledge Milton park

[4] Teaching & Researching: Language Learning Strategies. By Rebecca L. Oxfor

[5] Sheppard, C. and Gilbert, J. (1991) “Course design, teaching method and student epistemology” 22(3) Higher Education 229-249.

[6] http://static.duolingo.com/s3/DuolingoReport_Final.pdf

[7] Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States.Wellesley, MA: Babson College.

 

Written by: Tom Connors

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