Finding the Human Connection in Blended Learning

One of the biggest challenges when delivering blended learning-styled courses is engendering, facilitating and maintaining participant engagement. We are leveraging technology and machines — but we are are all still human and need to find forms of contact that allow for us to express and embrace that humanity as part of the process of learning and discovery.

A few years ago I was forced by circumstances to deliver a course online that had been advertised and designed as a standard 3 hour face-to-face lecture format. On the first day of lectures, the eager students spent a fruitless hour waiting for the lecturer to show up. The lecturer was eventually tracked down and when asked where I was informed the puzzled/desparate caller that I was in fact delivering a lecture at another institution in another city and would so be for the rest of the term. After getting past my own initial shock and then panic, I agreed to Plan B and at short order constructed a blog, plugged some critical widgets to allow for more interaction and spawned spaces on social media to allow for exchange of ideas. There was little planning time and little planning done.

The next Tuesday rolled around and following initial confusion, the students and lecturer all managed to find themselves in the same hall the next week where students discovered that things would be different. Having enrolled in the course expecting physical lectures and a standard form of assessment now panicked themselves to discover that the remainder of the term was going to be delivered online. Some students were seized with a realisation that three hours of Tuesday night were suddenly ‘free’ and embraced the luxury of time that had fallen into their lap — expecting to carry out online duties at convenient times of their own choosing. Others were dismayed that they were going to be deprived of riveting and spellbinding lectures by yours truly (I must have an astounding reputation) 😉 And that was the last time we all met face-to-face.

In the end we muddled through together, found ways to communicate and when I took the opportunity at the end of term to give them 10% for evaluating their judgement of module effectiveness I made some significant discoveries — as did the students.

Most significantly, many of those that had welcomed the freedom to carry out course activities at their own schedule discovered that they were challenged by the discipline that that demanded. Almost to a person they agreed that the way in which the course was delivered called on them to devote more time than anticipated and even imagined to completing tasks. This may have been the product of over ambition on my part (a nice way of saying that there wasn’t great forethought in the planning process). However, those same respondents who acknowledged that extra work also made another startling discovery — at least to them — and that was that the process had demanded that they learned be collectively organising and interacting and not just listening to the lecturer. They discovered the value of peer-based learning. It was learning based on shared experiences and it came through a process of active engagement.

I have been attempting to accomplish this same process in the lecture hall and classroom for years — interactive seminars, group work, breakout sessions, workshops, hands-on group-guided instruction — among others. I have also apparently achieved some success in this-apparently. However, the mechanisms leading to effectiveness have been less visible to the actual participants — often only to me and in fact I have been doing a lot of the learning as well.

What was learned:

  • The use of social media as a learning tool — the repurposing of popular tools such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Medium, Pinterest and even SnapChat-for radically different use really worked;
  • Those same tools demanded a lot of extra engagement and forcing their use goes against their primary design principles and doesn’t work;
  • Attention to course issues presented through these media sometimes required intervention to start discussions but they took on a life of their own;
  • It was more difficult than anticipated to integrate traditional writing and research assignments with presentation through social media and possibly to a public audience;
  • It was absolutely essential to find a means to separate personal and professional lives during the course due to the use of social media; and
  • There was an overwelming fear that employers would see and judge their contributions via social media and that stepping outside of a private institutionally bounded courseware forum was a step into dangerous territory.

It is often a combination of what may appear unfortunate circumstances that can lead us to rise to greater accomplishments and possibly also greater clarity of vision. In this case we turned to the familiar, found the means to share ideas and embraced technology to reinforce the core aspects of our humanity.

Note: I recognise the students who shared this experience with me and also shared their reactions as part of their evaluation and inform this reflection. Thanks very due to their perseverence and thoughtful reflection on the experience.

Lecturer in Digital Humanities, Social Computing at UCC, QUB & TCD. Digital Historian and data visualiser, sometime dotcom adventurer and definite contrarian

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