Is online learning as good, better, or worse than a blended learning model?
The surprising effects and advantages of a fully online vs a blended learning model and how we’ve tackled class communication, engagement and community since going fully online
It’s now been more than a month since we took our coding bootcamps fully online due to Covid-19. We have been pretty confident in how we run our bootcamps in normal circumstances and why a mix of online and offline learning is the exact thing we needed to achieve the high retention and satisfaction rates we normally have.
When it became clear that we had to go online, we had to rethink that mix and it gave us a chance to really dig into the world of fully online learning. We did a lot of studying up on blended vs online bootcamps and we came across a study that was quite an interesting read, and we wanted to share that with you here.
To our surprise, the study concluded that online learning actually can be more effective and that some students like it more.
So why is that? And do we experience the same things now as we’ve tried to adapt some of their recommendations?
There are several reasons for the positive results and it has a lot to do with friction. In the blended model, the students work on multiple platforms and in multiple settings and they tend to experience that in different ways.
Some believe that going through the online curriculum is all they need and classes don’t add anything in terms of learning how to code. Others are completely opposite and believe classes are the place where you really get to understand everything.
Having multiple options on how and where you learn the best can be a little confusing for some and it takes away their focus.
The study argues that having only one approach can actually be beneficial for the students. With only one clear path everything becomes more consistent and you’re not waiting for someone to take the lead. There are no second options to learn. You might say that people learn in different ways and you might lose some only by having one approach. That’s certainly a thought we’ve had ourselves.
But the study at least showed that the opposite can be true as well, and that was a bit of a surprise. It also showed that completely online programs have a better retention rate and in general students are more satisfied with the course. It even showed better learner outcomes.
Three areas of focus
However, it is key to mention that you can’t just take a course, put it online, and then everything suddenly works better. There are different approaches for both the online and blended learning models. But between the two, the teaching is fundamentally different. It is a shift in the way we do things and requires new skills.
No matter what the study would have shown, we would have been forced to go online anyway, so it was always more a matter of exactly how we would do that. How we would replicate the success we’ve had with the blended learning model bootcamps. We focused on three areas we knew we needed to address: Tooling, communication and community.
In terms of tooling, this is the easy part. We’ve looked at the tooling options available and best practices of all the best online bootcamps on how to do in-class teaching, live-coding demos, group sessions, etc. The tools we use are:
- Zoom — for our classes. With audio, video and breakout room features, this is integral to the whole program. Re:Coded Fellows must have their video cameras on to be considered in attendance.
- Visual Studio Live CodeShare — for parallel programming and code along.
- Github — for assignment submissions and code reviews.
- Calendly — an appointment booking platform that allows the fellows to book time with trainers directly into their calendars.
- Notion — Re:Coded trainers and program team members will use the company’s all-in-one workspace and team management platform.
- Slack — for out of class communication.
- Google Calendar — for time management.
- Google Gmail — well, you know… emails.
In the end, tools are just the means to something else. It is about providing them with the right amount of information and how it affects how both students and trainers work.
One of the positive experiences we’ve had so far from our Istanbul bootcamp is the amount of communication going on. The number of communication channels has increased and it has allowed students to interact and ask questions in the way they prefer whether it is written in an email, informal messages on Slack, or by chatting on Zoom.
In essence, we get a lot more questions now, even in class, and that reveals an interesting dynamic at play here. The multitude and nature of online opportunities allow for asynchronous communication. In class, it’s normally one student at the time posing a question in front of the whole class. Not everyone is comfortable with that. They can either be a bit shy or don’t want to interrupt the class or the teachers.
It still requires the trainers to encourage questions and to make it clear that there are no stupid questions, but the results have been remarkable. Students can ask questions on Slack in a dedicated channel for in-class communication, or on the zoom chat channel, or even by raising a virtual hand to signal the teacher that they have a question. It is much easier to raise your hand by using a mouse click rather than having to keep your hand up until a teacher sees you or finishes the topic they are on. Also, if a student is shy and doesn’t want to speak out in front of everyone, a private message can be sent to the teacher or anyone else from the teaching staff. This lowers the barriers to asking questions for the more introverted students in the class.
The final piece of the puzzle is the sense of community and team dynamics. A successful learning experience is not only about learning. A lot of our students love the sense of belonging they get from seeing the other students in the class. Normally a lot of that happens when they go for coffee between classes. So the question is — how do we facilitate that? How do we create a structure for that without controlling and setting everything up?
The sense of community and belonging is important for engagement throughout the program and it keeps everyone focused all the way through. In class that’s much easier to spot the dynamics and work with them because you get a sense of the students and the group as a whole. We have around 20–30 students and online we won’t get to see each other and pick up on a lot of those visual clues you can in a class setting.
We obviously can’t send them out for coffee, so we have to look at it from a different perspective. And the interesting thing is that going online has actually had some unexpected benefits to the team dynamics.
There is simply less friction when splitting the team into groups. The technology makes it much easier to do randomized splits and get everyone to work with each other, so we have a lot more control of class dynamics. In class people often tend to turn to those closest to them or those they know. Here there are no chairs scrambling or people trying to figure out where to find a silent corner of the classroom to work in as a group.
The teaching itself
So we’ve discussed the main three main areas of focus for online programs. But how has the teaching process changed? How has the training team adapted to the new reality?
The changes in the tools we use, the way we communicate and the community-building process has forced our training team to adapt quickly.
It is a steep learning curve to go from teaching in class with a blended learning model to a completely online program within one week. One day you’re standing in front of a class with twenty students. The next week, you need to be comfortable talking to a classroom from behind a camera on a desk, miles away.
We generally try to limit the amount of traditional teaching that happens within our classrooms. However, this is more important online. The students want to get their hands dirty from day one and write code. So the trainer team changed the way we plan lessons. A bigger emphasis is put on practical exercises and writing real code.
The trainers are tackling the same hurdles and obstacles of any team going remote. But as an extra dimension, they need to each guide a group of students to remain eager, curious and engaged which is not an easy feat.
The solution? They try to make it more fun! By remaining positive, optimistic, and creative, the team has come up with various ideas to enjoy the process and work more effectively.
Change management is difficult, but we’re forced to do it now, so it has also given us an opportunity to try out a lot of ideas we have had over the years that were just waiting for the right time. We have implemented what works and we’ve added our own ideas from different bootcamps. A lot of what we’re doing has been tried before, but we’ve now been able to put all these ideas to work at the same time.
That means that for the new bootcamps we have implemented one on ones with trainers for specialized attention, different groups sizes for teamwork so they’re now experiencing working in groups of 8, 4, and 2 (pair-programming sessions).
We have also shifted the way we do assignments and tracking progress. We’re trying to automate a lot of the tracking too. Everything is now transparent and visible to everyone. We know-how, what and when they have submitted their assignments, it’s all automated now.
The biggest hurdle for teachers used to be the amount of admin work they have to do in terms of assignments. Automating everything allows for teachers to focus on what matters. Which is to give more attention to students and to ensure the learning experience is optimal.
Applications for our next Front-End Web Development Bootcamp in Istanbul are now open. Learn all about the program here.
If you want to try out if coding is for you, you can also sign up for our 2-day workshop on May 10–11 or attend our Q&A session on the bootcamp on May 11.