One Approach, Two Ends: Blended Learning as “the Best of Both Worlds” or “the Worst of Both Worlds” within the Hands of Educators

20131016-181703.jpgAs Prensky (2001) enthusiastically puts forward, on the one hand, “it is amazing […] how in all the hoopla and debate these days about the decline of education in the US we ignore the most fundamental of its causes. Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” On the other hand, VanSlyke (2003) argues clearly by stating that he finds “it hard to believe that neurological structures could change to such a dramatic extent from one generation to the next.” He continues by explaining that “yet even if we grant that Digital Natives think and learn somewhat differently than older generations, we may be doing them a disservice to de-emphasize “legacy” content such as reading, writing, and logical thinking, or to say that the methodologies we have used in the past are no longer relevant.” Although it has been over ten years since these sentences were produced, the debate still keeps its temperature and people are yet to discuss about concepts like ‘digital natives/immigrants, computer assisted language learning (CALL), web-enhanced/ blended/ hybrid or fully online education etc.’ Those stakeholders, who are not still sure about the definition of the terms, keep discussing both the advantages and disadvantages or the challenges of the integration of technology into our classrooms. In fact, literature provides a variety of definitions for ‘blended learning’ and similar concepts, but it can practically be defined as “a combination of face-to-face (physical) and online (virtual) learning environments” (Stacey & Gerbic, 2009). It seems that there is still time to lessen the debate on technology and its effectiveness; nonetheless, as a person who is interested in this marriage of technology to language learning or education, I believe that technology in the form of blended learning can benefit to all stakeholders from parents to managers and of course including teachers and students when incorporated and administered meaningfully. Therefore, I actually agree with the claim that “blended learning is emerging as a ‘the best of both worlds’ for schooling” since “traditional brick and mortar programs may fail to embrace the opportunities available to us in this digital age and full-time online schools can’t serve every student” in our world (Anderson, 2011). Regarding the question above and the blended learning environment, the advantages which make it a “the best of two worlds” will be discussed. Later on, the challenges and concerns which keep people and stakeholders away from it will also be focused on.

First of all, it is apparent that the generation today, or today’s learners and children might not be so extreme as Prensky puts forward, but it is also really clear that they are not as the same as the generation of a few decades ago. Although it might be unrealistic to put them all under a certain category or label, we, as educators, parents and older people, can observe everywhere that today’s learners tend to be dependent on using their mobile devices all the time, stay connected on the Internet, explore on their own and play games. They have their intrinsic motivation to a great extent concerning the things listed above. Therefore, instead of putting a ban on using their mobiles within the boundaries of classrooms, keeping them away from the Internet and such related technologies cannot do anything rather than killing this intrinsic motivation and their energy instead of channeling it into more educational activities. Vander Ark (2012) proposes that three students in a coffee shop rather than a physical classroom environment may still be deeply engaged in learning activities unlike anyone has ever experienced. In that case, successful amalgamation of tools like blended learning is the thing which provides educators with this opportunity.

Secondly, regarding the time constraint in schools and the fact that learners are not there all of their time, easily having opportunities like meeting their teachers and spending a great deal of time to practice what they have learnt, technology when skillfully applied, can be a tool to empower both teachers and institutions. As also mentioned above, directing learners’ energy into some teaching tools and keeping them engaged online with meaningful activities can make our learners autonomous in real sense and help spend valuable time that they might not in real classroom environments. Then, the time that will normally be spent on such activities or practice could be spend on various tasks which require more face-to-face communication in real sense. To illustrate, it is actually an undeniable fact that our learners might not have enough chance to practice their listening and speaking skills in language classrooms. However, when a variety of software programs, tools and tasks are integrated in harmony, learners could easily have chances to perform what they have learnt and improve such skills as those requiring more practice. As also portrayed in Grgurovic’s case study, even students who were not very engaged during class pair work would work on speaking tasks in the lab. Moreover, the teacher also believed that working on online materials in the lab helped less attentive students control their learning better than in the classroom (Grgurovic, 2011).

Another important need to integrate technology into our teaching is games. As Prensky repeatedly underlines, today’s learner spend a considerable part of their time on games, and they are also very attractive even for adults who actually could be regarded as digital immigrants. One professor, as quoted in Prensky’s article (2001b), states that digital natives have really short attention spans especially for the old ways of learning, but not for games or for anything else that actually interests them. At this point, to actively engage learners in our language classrooms, we can try to figure out ways to make use of technology and blending it into our teaching rather than solely a focus on conventional teaching methods or inventing still-to-be-discovered tools. Games might be really effective regarding different learning styles, as put forward by Kolb (1984), Gardner (1995), Fleming (2007) and Jackson (2005), since they appeal to a variety of learning styles from visual to musical, or from social to even kinesthetic styles. Hence, instead of avoiding them or ignoring their effects on teaching and learning, educators should consider the ways of utilizing them to benefit more from games. On the other hand, it should be noted that this does not necessarily mean that every game can directly be an effective and magical teaching tool all at once. Prensky explains that if some games do not produce learning, it is not because they are games, or because the concept of ‘game-based learning’ is faulty; instead, it is because those particular games are badly designed. Therefore, as also stated and underlined above a few times, what is in fact really vital is a successful and meaningful integration of all technology-related tools into our teaching.

As for the advantages of blended learning and reasons why it is portrayed as a ‘best of the two worlds”, there are many more to jot down, but due to space constraints of this paper, one more benefit will be explained prior to challenges and maybe disadvantages. It is widely accepted that the competitive nature of our world today and far-fetched expectations from institutions and educators seem to put a heavy burden on both. Their responsibility is to equip learners with necessary and relevant knowledge which will help them to be successful in their later life. As language teachers, our burden is even heavier since learning a language can be affected by individual differences and their motivation. Therefore, instead of allocating most of our time to catch the attention of our learners and do more than our best, we as educators can also channel a considerable part of this energy into looking for the ways to blend technology into our classrooms and spend our time and energy even more wisely. To illustrate, giving feedback might not be most challenging part of our jobs, but it is certainly one of the top time-consuming tasks of a teacher. Instead of consuming most of our time on marking and writing comments, we can create tools via various learning environments and they can easily take some of the burden from educators. Software and online packages of various course books are a good example for this. Teachers can focus on content in classrooms and do a necessary amount of practice, then these packages can do the rest. Since they are also customizable, we can adjust the feedback, comments, and grades in the way we want and learners can do the rest studying online. For the ones who are not happy with allocating their financial sources for such packages, there are even freeware programs and learning environments to achieve it. As a result, it all depends on how we as educators modify the nature of our course and how we plan it. We should, in fact, plan it so meaningfully and conscientiously that we can gain from all those advantages listed above.

Although not as many as its advantages and benefits it provide, there are also a few challenges regarding blended learning. Firstly, the individual differences both from teachers’ and learners’ perspectives are one of the few challenges to deal with. In fact, as one cannot guarantee that all learners today, called digital natives, bear the same characteristics which make them all active, social, dynamic, and technology-literate people; similarly, there are also discrepancies among educators’ both personal attitudes and professional knowledge. As for both the learners and educators, some of them might even dislike using technology in almost all phases of their life including education. Therefore, the challenge which educators today come across while teaching in technology-blended classrooms is trying to consider such individual learner differences in order to win them all. The assumption that all digital natives bear the same characteristics will probably end up with a failure and it has the potential to make it a “the worst of both worlds”. As stated by Van Slyke, a typical classroom is much more diverse, with students coming from a range of backgrounds; many do not have computers at home, some have disabilities, and some are simply not interested in computer games. Hence, blending technology successfully with conventional ways of teaching means taking into account all those factors in our teaching plans. Furthermore, thinking about the other side of the coin, teachers might not be similarly equipped with the necessary knowledge and background regarding blended learning classes. Especially, at institutions where blended learning classes are encouraged and even forced to be used, teachers might have potential problems and could be dealing with spending a considerable amount of their energy figuring out the ways of achieving it, which instead could be used more productively when channeled into something familiar in the short run.

As for the planning blended learning classes and equipping institutions with state-of-the-art technological inventions, another point would be to give a thought to critical pedagogy. First, the decision-makers who want blended learning classes might not be the ones who actualize teaching in the real sense. Real teachers might not be asked about their opinions regarding both equipments and planning blended learning classes. Finally, what institutions expect their teachers and students to study and get familiar with might not represent the reality. To illustrate, there are still a lot of countries where primarily teachers and also students know what a slide projector or a computer, of course, is; however, they might not have access to such tools in their classrooms or personal lives, which will possibly create a discrepancy between what is real and ideal.

Last but not least, a strong and improper focus on technology and, not maybe blended learning classes, but dependence on designing fully online courses assuming that everybody adores them might result in a society or generation who has not had a chance to socialize. Prensky claims that digital natives are even more playful and sociable compared with previous age groups since socialization or sociocultural development is not solely based on face-to-face contact and since digital natives have several online game groups which make them sociable. However, this kind of socialization could be asynchronous most of the time and it could even be monotonous since the focus is usually the same. In this sense, regarding Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, we can assume that a limited level of social contact with others and peers as a result of too much focus on technological devices could affect personal and cognitive development phases negatively since factors like mediation and ZPD would only be limited to online interaction.

All in all, regarding all the discussion and related advantages, benefits and potential drawbacks of blending technology into classrooms, it can be easily grasped that it requires a very careful analysis and successful planning. Provided that both teachers and institutions have a say in designing blended learning classes and buying relevant equipment; as long as learners’ individual differences are taken into meticulous consideration; and finally on the condition that all this process is carried out thoroughly and skillfully, it is possible to conclude that blended learning can be portrayed as a “the best of both worlds” where face-to-face (physical) and online (virtual) learning environments are blended in harmony. Otherwise, it really does not require extra skills to make it a “the worst of both worlds” where neither educators nor learners would have an idea of what is being done.

References

Anderson, A. B., & Amanda S.. (2011). Blended learning: The best of both worlds. http://www.dkfoundation.org/sites/default/files/files/BlendedLearning-BestOfBothWorlds-Feb2011.pdf (September 27, 2013).

Ark, T. V.. (2011). Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=jKjViK5jgq0C&oi=fnd&pg=PT11&dq=Getting+Smart:+How+Digital+Learning+is+Changing+the+World&ots=zDwmsVY1aM&sig=kJuwhnPMSGTSrpgItAi1crX0fFI (September 27, 2013).

Fleming. H, & Amit J. Shah (2007) Using Learning Style Instruments to Enhance Student Learning. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Educationdoi:10.1111/j.1540-4609.2007.00125.x

Gardner, D., & James W.. (1995). Learning styles: Implications for distance learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 67.

Grgurovic, M. (2011). Blended learning in an ESL class: A case study. Journal, Calico 29(1): 100–117. http://www.u.arizona.edu/~mpolat/articles/Grgurovic.M.2011.pdf.

Jackson, C. J. (2005). An applied neuropsychological model of functional and dysfunctional learning: Applications for business, education, training and clinical psychology. Cymeon: Australia

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN0-13-295261-0.

Prensky, M, and BD Berry. (2001). Do they really think differently. On the horizon. http://britannia-spb.ru/downloads/Prensky-Digital-Natives-Digital-Immigrants-Part2.pdf (September 27, 2013).

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon 9(5): 1–6. http://www.emeraldinsight.com/10.1108/10748120110424816.

VanSlyke, T. (2003). Digital natives, digital immigrants: Some thoughts from the generation gap. The technology source. http://depd.wisc.edu/html/TSarticles/Digital Natives.htm (September 27, 2013).

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