2. The Continuum of Technology Based Learning

2.1. Faces of Online Learning

Online learning, blended learning, flipped learning, hybrid learning, flexible learning, open learning and distance education are all terms that are often used inter-changeably, but there are significant differences in meaning. More importantly, these forms of education once considered somewhat esoteric and out of the mainstream of conventional education, are increasingly taking on greater significance and in some cases becoming mainstream themselves. As teachers and instructors become more familiar and confident with online learning and new technologies, there will be more innovation in integrating online and face-to-face teaching.

Variations on Blended Learning

At the time of writing though it is possible to identify at least the following modes of delivery:

  • Classroom Teaching with no technology at all (which is very rare these days)
  • Blended Learning, which encompasses a wide variety of designs, including:
    • Technology-Enhanced Learning, or technology used as classroom aids; a typical example would be the use of PowerPoint slides and/or clickers in a lecture
    • The use of a learning management system to support classroom teaching, for storing learning materials, providing a course schedule of topics, for online discussion, and for submitting student assignments, but teaching is still delivered mainly through classroom sessions
    • The use of lecture capture for flipped classrooms, where students watch the lecture via streamed video then come to class for discussion or other work; see for instance a calculus course offered at Queen’s University, Canada
    • One semester face-to-face on campus and two semesters online (one model at Royal Roads University)
    • Hybrid or flexible learning requiring the redesign of teaching so that students can do the majority of their learning online, coming to campus only for very specific face-to-face teaching, such as a lab or hands-on practical work, that cannot be done satisfactorily.
  • Fully Online Learning with no classroom or on-campus teaching, which is one form of distance education, including:
    • Courses for credit, which will usually cover the same content, skills, and assessment as a campus-based version, but are available only to students admitted to a program
    • Non-credit courses offered only online, such as courses for continuing professional education
    • Fully open courses, such as MOOCs

More than one third of higher education students in the USA now take at least one fully online course and about 15 percent of students are taking only online courses. While overall enrolments in the US higher education system have slowly declined (by almost 4 percent between 2012 to 2016), online enrolments have grown by about 5 percent over the same period (Seaman et al., 2018). In Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2017, approximately 8 percent of all credit course registrations were fully online (Donovan et. al., 2018).

Hybrid Learning

There is an important development within blended learning that deserves special mention and that is the total re-design of campus-based classes that takes greater advantage of the potential of technology, which I call hybrid learning, with online learning combined with focused small group face-to-face interactions or mixing online and physical lab experiences. In such designs, the amount of face-to-face contact time is usually reduced, for instance from three classes a week to one, to allow more time for students to study online.

In hybrid learning the whole learning experience is re-designed, with a transformation of teaching on campus built around the use of technology. For instance:

  • Carol Twigg at the National Center for Academic Transformation has for many years worked with universities and colleges to redesign usually, large lecture class programs to improve learning and reduce costs through the use of technology. This program ran very successfully between 1999 and 2018.
  • Virginia Tech many years ago created a successful program for first and second year math teaching built around 24 x 7 computer-assisted learning supported by ‘roving’ instructors and teaching assistants (Robinson and Moore, 2006).
  • The University of British Columbia launched in 2013 what it calls a flexible learning initiative focused on developing, delivering, and evaluating learning experiences that promote effective and dramatic improvements in student achievement. Flexible learning enables pedagogical and logistical flexibility so that students have more choice in their learning opportunities, including when, where, and what they want to learn.

Thus, ‘blended learning’ can mean minimal rethinking or redesign of classroom teaching, such as the use of classroom aids, or complete redesign as in flexibly designed courses, which aim to identify the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching, with online learning providing flexible access for the rest of the learning.

Instructors in more than three-quarters of Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2017 were integrating online with classroom teaching, but no more than one in five institutions had a significant number of courses in this format. However, most institutions are predicting a rapid increase in such courses over the next few years (Donovan et al., 2019).