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Teaching Teachers to Use Blended Learning

By Sally Knipe, Miriam Edwards / November 2009

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In 2008, Charles Sturt University (CSU) introduced CSU Interact, a learning management system (LMS) based on the Sakai framework, a worldwide collection of higher education institutions using the community source model of software development.

In addition to its basic function (providing staff and students an online collaborative teaching and learning environment, and supporting research and project activities) CSU Interact allows for integrated approaches to learning technologies within the CSU environment. The LMS has given the staff an opportunity to develop new teaching strategies, including integrating online tools, from blogs for online journaling, to wikis for collaborative writing, to chat rooms for synchronous communication.

Pedagogically, CSU Interact supports a social constructivist approach to e-learning, which, as described by Biggs and Tang (in Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 3rd edition, 2007) suggests that learning is a social process and that students construct meaning from their own experiences. In using CSU Interact, students are required to wield a range of digital tools, such as chat rooms and wiki postings, to enhance problem-based and collaborative activities.

First-Year Education Students Use Blended Learning
Blended learning is not simply the addition of ICT into traditional face-to-face subjects. It is about integrating the relative strengths of face-to-face teaching and online learning to provide a range of learning spaces where students can interact and construct knowledge. As suggested by Littlejohn and Pegler (in "Preparing for Blended e-Learning," 2006), blended learning might best be described as the act of combining and sequencing both media and activities.

Blended learning focuses on what students do and how teachers support the learning process. A blended learning experience may incorporate audio interviews to complement print-based readings or perhaps face-to-face lectures followed by a student-driven online discussion. All such design choices must be made with learning outcomes in mind.

The aim of this subject is to introduce first-year undergraduate preservice teachers (also sometimes called "student teachers") to issues surrounding the physical, emotional, social, and cultural aspects of early adolescence. Emphasis is given to issues relating to puberty, gender, and health with attention given to factors that influence an adolescent's understanding of self.

The pedagogical implications of these adolescent experiences are explored from physical, social, and cultural perspectives. The preservice teachers in this subject engage in learning experiences to assist their understanding of adolescent development from a range of cultural and social perspectives.

The integration of online learning through an LMS complemented with face-to-face teaching experiences allows student teachers and academic staff to communicate in new ways. Students are interacting through real-time online tools such as chat rooms (synchronous), while also collaborating over a period of time through forums and blogs (asynchronous). Both formal and informal social networking opportunities are provided through small group CSU Interact Project sites, the more formal CSU teaching Interact teaching site, as well as online communities external to the university. These are accessed by linking to current Australian media sites, such as the Australian Broadcasting Commission and Special Broadcasting Service.

Two assessment tasks must be completed in this subject: an exam and an in-class debate. As these students are new to university study, the idea of an exam leaves many anxious. On the other hand, the debate requires teamwork and group communication. Although these assessment items are very different in nature, both require students to approach learning in ways that may be different to their high school or life experiences. In making the transition to blended learning, these assessment tasks were re-conceptualized to take advantage of the affordances offered by both online and traditional teaching. The results were an open wiki exam and in-class debates supported by online polls and project sites.

The Open Wiki Exam
Within CSU Interact, all students and lecturers have equal access to edit or comment on wiki pages. By using a wiki to create exam questions, a web-2.0 version of the traditional open-book exam is possible. The aim of the exam is to focus on students' knowledge and understanding of all issues presented in the subject throughout the semester in relation to adolescent development and the implications of this knowledge toward their work as teachers. The questions in the exam are based on students' conceptualizations and understanding of the teaching material presented in readings, lectures, tutorials, handouts, and audiovisual presentations.

Questions, based on the week's topic, are devised by the students—not the lecturer. During the first six weeks of the semester, 10 students are required to post one question each week on the wiki in response to the lectures. Approximately 60 questions resulted, from which the final questions for the exam were selected.

By developing questions for the exam in this manner, students take responsibility for their own learning and become accountable to their peers. Students are also required to reflect upon content on a weekly basis, rather than cramming at the end of session.

The lecturer has the option of providing feedback by adding comments at the bottom of the wiki page as the list of questions grows. The intention is to guide the students through the content as well as offer advice and direction on question construction. Allowing students the opportunity to have input into questions which they know will be on the exam also assists in reducing test anxiety (as supported by a 2001 study by J. Cassidy), thereby improving test performance.

At the beginning of the semester, students are given the opportunity to develop their skills in crafting questions. Knowing how to ask questions is a skill that teachers require students to master, therefore it is appropriate to provide undergraduate preservice teachers with the framework to develop this skill.

Preservice teachers are asked to consider designing various "levels" of question types, which address a mix of theory and application. (Question design is based models of intellectual functioning, from the 2001 book, Developing Minds: A resource book for teaching/thinking.) The various levels of questions are:

  • level 1: questions are defining, describing, listing, naming type questions
  • level 2: questions are analyzing, comparing, contrasting, and predicting type questions
  • level 3: questions are judging, analyzing, and speculating type questions.

In general, students provided a range of different level questions, which varied from week to week. Examples of some questions are as follows:

Compare the similarities and differences in male and female pubertial changes. How could this have an effect on behavioral changes?

John Bowlby and Mary D.S. Ainsworth believed that if a child is attached to another person, it focuses that child's attention on the attached person. How does this influence our methods as a teacher and our importance in helping a child develop positively?

The lecturer provided general responses to questions by adding a comment on the wiki. Questions that were not deemed suitable were not considered for the exam.

Some very good questions have been designed, thanks to all those people who have put thought into the structure of their questions. We have a range of "skills" required to address the questions, including recalling knowledge and comprehension.

Table 1

Table 1. The open wiki exam schedule demonstrates Littlejohn & Pegler's approach to blended learning. Activities are specified as being either off or online. The responsibilities of both lecturers and students are identified.

Debating Issues of Adolescence
The second assessment task involves an in-class debate. The class is divided into small teams with allocated topics. Each team consists of six people, three who argue for a given statement, and three against.

Debate topics are related to, and reflect, the subject. Examples of debate topics are:

Young people, under the age of 16, should be subjected to curfews as a way to reduce underage drinking and unsafe sex practices.

Low retention rates of year-12 students in some states and territories are as result of poor teaching and lazy teachers.

Middle schooling cannot take place in traditional school structures that is K/P-6 primary schools and 7-12 high schools.

The national targets set for indigenous health in Australia will not improve educational outcomes.

These topics challenge each student to reflect upon controversial issues as educators. First-year preservice teachers (who have often only recently exited high school themselves) are at the early stage of constructing their own philosophies of teaching. These debates reflect the importance of group participation and preparation for the face-to-face debate is emphasized.

Although students must prepare their own speeches, they must also support other team members to ensure their argument is strong and that each team member plays a different role.

Prior to CSU Interact, students prepared for these debates in traditional ways. They met in the library or classroom and rehearsed. The day of the debate would arrive, and the lecturer would facilitate the debate sessions.

Now through the use of both synchronous and asynchronous online tools, students are developing ideas outside of class at whatever time they find convenient. Each debate team is given a CSU Interact Project site, which only they can access. Communication regarding the debate topic, sharing of resources (such as links to policy documents, articles and other readings) and general strategies regarding the team's argument is supported through the use of a wiki, emails, announcements, and chat room.

Reflection is an important component of the debate assessment. On the first day of class students are asked to complete an online poll which addresses each of the debate topics. Students must agree or disagree with each statement. All students are given one week to vote. Results of the poll are public and discussed during their second meeting, at which time the debate teams are formed. Students know from the beginning if they are arguing a popular or unpopular side to their topic and which way their classmates are thinking.

Of course, they also know whether they are arguing a point they don't necessary subscribe to. After the final debates occur, the polls are re-opened. Students vote again on each topic, and another live class discussion occurs. Have their own ideas changed over the course of their study? Have they convinced others to change their views?

The polls also offer the opportunity for students to discuss the complexity of the debate topics and for students to express if they have altered their view and for what reasons.

Table 2

Table 2. Littlejohn & Pegler's approach is used to illustrate the blended learning experience of week 1. Activities are specified as being either off or online with the responsibilities of both lecturers and students identified.

A Sustainable Model of Teaching
The aim of the new blended approach is to provide students with a range of learning activities which also refine technological and online communication skills. Strategies such as using in-class and online discussions complemented with readings assist students in developing their thinking around issues related to adolescent development.

The teaching site, as well as the individual project sites, is a reusable resource. At the end of the semester, students are "unjoined" from the sites; the lecturer may modify the content and tool selection for the next semester when a new cohort of students will populate the site.

Evaluations found that this subject was very helpful in understanding the way children develop physically and mentally. Students commented at the end of the subject that they could handle the many different situations which may arise in a school setting. Students acknowledged that the subject content was interesting and well executed. The interactive nature of activities and group work was very stimulating and helpful in developing their knowledge and practice.

Student Expectation
One of the greatest challenges facing university lecturers today is meeting the changing expectations of students. Subjects must be offered which allow flexibility in terms of learning opportunities. Student cohorts are becoming more diverse in terms of age and as a result they bring competing personal demands and employment requirements to their university study. Accommodating these needs is a necessity for universities today. Blended learning strategies provide flexibility in terms of learning design for both the teachers and the student.

But it is not simply a case of doom and gloom. Lecturers who develop blended learning strategies also benefit from the process. Additional options for assessment which matches the learning activities and desired outcomes are realised. Subject materials published online may often be reused in later sessions or for different cohorts of students. With lecturers from across the university and beyond sharing resources a cross-fertilisation of ideas is also a possibility.

With a blended approach to learning and teaching, the student experience is all-important. What students bring to this subject, and any similar blended subject, can also be harnessed for future students. Oftentimes a student find a web site, television program, blog, or journal that they upload and share, leaving a "footprint." In this way both lecturers and students construct their learning.

The variety of teaching methods used in this subject, including online chat and silent conversation. Interact was constantly updated, and different methods of teaching were employed which kept it interesting. The success of this approach will lead to increasing the blended approach taken for teaching in this subject.


  • Tue, 13 Jul 2010
    Post by sert

    Im having a problem styling the div.rounded-block, I edited the png files so they had transparent backgrounds, but the left side of the block is just showing up white.

  • Mon, 25 Aug 2008
    Post by Scott Sampson

    Hi Lisa, Looks great. I don''t believe your experience is unusual, which is exactly why we answer every inquiry within one business day, and usually much, much quicker. It''s one of our competitive edges. Let me know if we can ever be of any additional assistance. Perhaps you''d like to review one of our course packages sometime. Sincerely, Scott Sampson e-LearningCenter PS. We really were glad we could help. :-)