Blended learning in vocational education: teachers’ conceptions of blended learning and their approaches to teaching and design
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This paper presents research exploring teachers’ experiences of using blended learning in vocational education. Teachers involved in designing and teaching using blended learning from a major Australian vocational education provider participated in the study. They received open-ended questionnaires asking to describe their conceptions of blended learning and their approaches to teaching and design for blended learning environments. Teachers’ responses were content-analysed from a phenomenographic perspective. Their descriptions illustrate a relatively wide spectrum of ideas about the nature of blended learning, suggesting that teachers tend to have qualitatively different conceptions about blended learning, and tend to adopt qualitatively different approaches to both teaching and design for blended learning. Quantitative analyses investigating possible relationships between teachers’ conceptions and approaches were also conducted. Implications of the findings for further research and practice are discussed.
KeywordsBlended learning Blended learning design Conceptions Approaches Vocational education Teacher experiences
Vocational education in Australia is faced with an increasing array of challenges that must be addressed if high standards of education and relevance to students and workplace are to be maintained. Significant amongst these are concerns about understanding the nature and role of technology in learning. Over the last decade, the Australian vocational education sector has expanded the range of learning experiences it provides to students. A key aspect of this evolution is the introduction of innovative learning experiences such as online learning, typically used to complement face-to-face learning. The umbrella term that covers these learning experiences is ‘blended learning’. In the literature, blended learning is often referred to as a combination of multiple delivery media designed to complement each other and promote meaningful learning (Singh 2003). In order to work as an educational tool—that is, to provide students with an enhanced experience that supports deeper understanding—blended learning solutions must be carefully implemented. First, the quality of the elements that make up the blend is crucial, but also how these parts are blended is equally important. That is, it is essential that different elements of the learning experience are integrated in order to provide students with a holistic learning experience—integration having been recognised as a core challenge in the literature (see Bliuc et al. 2007; Draper et al. 1996; Rushby 1979). The definition preferred in the context of this study is blended learning, seen as the systematic integration of learning in face-to-face and online situations within the same course in order to support the development of student understanding.
There are a range of reasons why blended learning works particularly well for vocational education. For example, vocational learning usually requires learners to apply the abstract knowledge gained in formal educational settings in a workplace context (Butler and Brooker 1998). One way of achieving this is by integrating workplace-based activities into the educational design, using online resources to do so. Also, discipline-specific information literacy—provided by online learning—is highly valued by employers. This is reflected in increased expectations placed on recent recruits and experienced employees alike to display expertise in inquiry using the internet and to integrate knowledge from many sources. Well-designed blended learning programs have real potential to help with this (Sharpe et al. 2006; Concannon et al. 2005; National Institute of Adult Continuing Education [NIACE] 2009).
In New South Wales, where the present study is set, the main provider of vocational education is the state system Technical and Further Education (TAFE), one of the largest providers of vocational education in the world (comprising 10 institutes with more than 500,000 students and teachers). The current study explores variations in how TAFE teachers understand the purposes of blended learning, and in the approaches they take when teaching and designing for blended learning contexts. Based on studies conducted in the university sector (see below), we believe that the ways in which teachers conceive of and approach blended learning, are likely to impact on their students’ learning experiences. Also, we argue that a better understanding of teachers’ conceptions and approaches in this area can provide vocational education leaders and managers with a much firmer base on which to build standards, guidelines and policy advice about the effective use of blended learning.
For this study the theoretical perspective that informs both the premises of the research and the methodological approach adopted is phenomenography (Marton and Säljö 1976a, b; Marton and Booth 1997). Phenomenography has been described as a field of inquiry that aims to analyse and understand experiences of phenomena around us (Marton 1981, 1994). The phenomenographic model assumes the existence of structural and referential aspects of any phenomenon (Marton and Booth 1997; Marton and Pong 2005). In this sense, teaching and learning can be experienced in terms of structural aspects (the constituent parts) and referential aspects (those aspects that give meaning to the phenomenon that was experienced). Within a phenomenographic approach to the experience of teaching in blended learning contexts, we focus on teachers’ conceptions of blended learning (the ‘what’ representing the object of experience) and their approaches to teaching and design for blended learning (the ‘how’ representing the ways in which a direct object is experienced). According to this perspective both conceptions and approaches can be understood as made up of structural and referential aspects. For conceptions, what teachers think of their students’ learning can be divided into its parts (structure) and its meaning (reference; see Prosser and Trigwell 1999; Prosser and Millar 1989; Prosser et al. 1994). For approaches to teaching and design, the structural aspects are reflected in strategies used in both teaching and design, while the referential aspects are reflected in the intentions underpinning these strategies (see Trigwell and Prosser 2004).
Research on teaching and learning from a phenomenographic perspective shows that there are qualitative variations in teachers’ conceptions of student learning and teaching (Wood 2000; Åkerlind 2003; 2004), and that they are reflected in the ways in which they approach their teaching (Prosser et al. 1994; Prosser and Trigwell 1999). Other studies also found further associations between teachers’ conceptions and approaches (Kember and Kwan 2002) and their students’ approaches to learning (e.g. Gow and Kember 1993; Kember and Gow 1994; Martin and Balla 1991; Richardson 2005; Samuelowicz and Bain 1992; Prosser and Trigwell 1999) or more generally with the quality of student learning (Kember 1997).
The current research builds on previous studies of associations between teachers’ conceptions of student learning and their approaches to teaching (e.g. Prosser et al. 1994; Prosser and Trigwell 1999; Trigwell et al. 1994) but extends their goals by exploring teachers’ conceptions of blended learning and their approaches to both design and teaching in the context of vocational education. The underlying objective of this exploration was to identify patterns of teaching and design that are more likely to promote effective student learning.
Participants were 81 teachers from TAFE NSW with experience in using blended learning strategies. Open-ended questionnaires asking them to describe their conceptions of blended learning and their approaches to teaching and design for blended learning were administered by email (the response rate was 80%).
The institution where the research took place is the major government-funded provider of vocational training in New South Wales. Its main objectives are to deliver flexible and timely solutions to meet the needs of students, industry, community and an ever-changing economy (NSW Department of Education and Training [NSW DET] 2008). In meeting these objectives, TAFE courses are structured as online, by distance, face-to-face, or combinations of these. The central principle is flexible high quality education for all, so that students with very diverse backgrounds and needs can design their own program of study, depending on their goals and situation (e.g. re-entering the workforce, changing careers, or transition from school).
What do you mean by blended learning? What is blended learning? (Conceptions)
How do you approach teaching in blended contexts? What do you do and why do you do it? (Approaches to teaching)
How do you approach design for learning in blended contexts? What do you do and why do you do it? (Approaches to design)
Teachers’ responses were content-analysed by four researchers following a methodology based on phenomenographic principles. In phenomenography, the analysis involves both discovery (Hasselgren and Beach 1997) and construction of knowledge (Bruce 2003), so the outcomes of the analysis are not predetermined and tested but they emerge in the process of analysis from the available data. The researchers are expected to keep an open mind to changing the categories perhaps several times in the process, as new themes might emerge (Åkerlind 2005), while at the same time maintaining awareness of the variation in the ways respondents might perceive the same phenomenon (Bowden 2005; Marton and Booth 1997). Specifically, in this study, teachers’ descriptions of their conceptions and approaches were analysed in terms of referential and structural aspects consistent with the methodology described in Prosser et al. (1994). Our analysis was aimed at identifying variation in teachers’ conceptions of and approaches to blended learning in the particular context of vocational education, and understanding the relational nature of this variation.
The outcomes of the analysis (hierarchical categories with varying levels of inclusiveness) were discussed and revised with a specialist from vocational education, in order to improve the communicability and the relevance of the categories of description. The qualitative analysis was complemented by quantitative statistical analyses (e.g. distribution of responses across categories, associations between conceptions, approaches to teaching and approaches to design).
Teachers’ conceptions of blended learning
Category A: blended learning to empower students for lifelong learning
When I speak of blended learning I have the concept of lifelong learning in mind, learning that occurs within the workplace and outside the classroom using a variety of concepts that often (but not always) utilize technology. Blended learning in the classroom and or workplace therefore needs to empower students with digital literacy and critical skills to be creative, innovative, and connect with the technology that they use in day to day work and life… to be aware of change at a given point in time, find and act on information, then use this to achieve their own life goals… (Participant 52)
My understanding of blended learning is to offer the participants/learner flexibility and currency within their field of study, encouraging people to pursue life long learning and to enable participants as much as possible. (Participant 33)
Category B: blended learning for students’ needs and learning goals
Blended learning means the opportunity provided to students/learners to have different modes of delivery available to facilitate and enhance their learning. The modes of delivery will depend on the resources and options available to the training organisation and then balancing this with the needs of the learner. (Participant 16)
… Blended learning is more than delivery learning to meet the demands of our living, it is about addressing existing skills of the learner and providing gap training. (Participant 25)
Category C: combination of different ways of delivery to improve students’ access to learning and meet their practical needs
I see it as an alternative way of reaching otherwise unreachable people. A way to assist people to get education whereas they would not be able due to tyranny of distance, life responsibilities and lack of structured time. (Participant 7)
My perspective on blended learning is incorporating many facets of delivery so that learning can occur when dealing with students in remote locations; a huge variance in a cohort of students abilities, maturity, needs and capabilities; as well as trying to fit a worthwhile teaching/learning experience into the constraints of budgets, availability of teachers and resources available. (Participant 2)
Category D: aggregation of face-to-face and (mainly) online but also other types of technologically driven delivery
Blended learning is when students are offered two or more modes of delivery concurrently. For example, if a student is completing an online program there may be face-to-face workshops offered to supplement the on-line material. Further students may also receive additional support through email and phone contact. (Participant 57)
In our situation we use the term to indicate a teaching program that includes more than one delivery form for learning. By this I mean that a single delivery may be classroom delivery or online delivery but if we combine these two teaching forms we then identify this as blended delivery. (Participant 11)
Category E: use of technological teaching tools only
Blended learning can be any mode of teaching other than face-to-face that is delivered to students. (Participant 13)
Use of technology to enhance delivery. (Participant 28)
Teachers’ approaches to teaching in blended learning contexts
Category A: teaching as an opportunity to enrich the learning experience and to provide innovative ways to learn through the blended context
Reflecting on why I teach and where the value is for students, a constant in my day-to-day work is the process of change itself. I am working in a continuous state of change. Each day is a flux of: New information. New technologies. New people within my network. New thoughts… The continual flow of ideas from multiple sources affects the decisions I make and my actions in my workplace. What enables me to cope and adapt to the change is my own creativity and learning from the ingenuity and knowledge of the people in my networks such as TALO. (Participant 52)
Teaching in blended contexts is very much about being prepared to teach and learn in different ways, to take risks, to experiment, to push boundaries and changing from teacher to learner within the learning session. (Participant 58)
Category B: teaching as a way of providing learning tailored to students’ needs based on a plan negotiated between student and teacher through the blended context
The learning and assessment may be negotiated to suit the individual learner. The blended learning environment may lead to small group learning together, or individuals working on their own. The individual needs of the learners is the main concern. In this context, I would work with each learner and work out a learning plan and discuss the assessment requirements in detail. (Participant 39)
I would develop an overview for the student/s of what they should ideally be doing when. I would factor into this a variety of different opportunities that would meet specific needs of the identified learners. This may involve chat sessions, workshops, telephone contact. There is no real one answer fits all—it will greatly depend on the group of learners in front of me. (Participant 66)
Category C: teaching with a focus on student support in relation to the social and psychological aspects of the interaction as well as technical aspects
It is very important to make the learner feel ‘at ease’ and comfortable with you
… Teachers must be available for participants/learner through a variety of mediums (i.e., phone, email, messenger, etc.). The teacher must respond quickly if the participants/learner contact them, as the participants/learner can feel isolated. (Participant 33)
The approach is more about providing a ‘comfortable/safe’ learning environment wherein clear, frequent, caring communication effectively engages the student and encourages the online student to ask questions of content, assignment or just about the learning environment regardless of how trivial they may perceive the question to be. This removes some of the barb of feeling remote and disconnected. (Participant 56)
Category D: teaching with a focus on meeting students’ practical needs for convenience in a blended context
We use these approaches and tools because it provides students the flexibility to engage with programs in ways that are suited to their individual circumstances. If students miss in-class sessions then there is also (in some instances) the opportunity for them to review work they might have missed through one of our online sessions. (Participant 38)
We provide Quality education and training so people can access the training in rural and remote locations or at a time that is convenient to them as a learner. (Participant 42)
Category E: teaching with a focus on the process of providing accurate and detailed online content which can be easily accessed by students
Class time would be used for the areas that have grey or non linear material e.g. systems theory with completed interconnectedness. (Participant 72)
I have been using a blended style for 2-3 years and approach it as an enormous amount of work, planning and focus on my part. It means that I must also stay totally engaged in what I am doing with the learners (both while preparing and during the various sessions as well as in between). (Participant 14)
Teachers’ approaches to design for blended learning
Category A: focus on students’ meaningful learning and the applicable aspects of their learning
Project work is made as practical and applicable as possible so that students can see the relevance of learning immediately. Design activities, case-studies so that they are relevant, current and adaptable to many contexts in the blended learning environment. Allow hands on learning for participants. (Participant 23)
There are a number of factors in design approach for blended learning: Learning styles of student body. For each class the student body may differ in their learning style so therefore a different blended approach may need to be taken… Delivery content to match learning outcomes… Why do we do blended learning?… We believe in making the student workplace aware and workplace ready. Blended delivery gives us this. (Participant 11)
Category B: focus on achieving individualised learning outcomes and versatility (developing complex skills, competencies, knowledge)
I try my best to ensure that the student has the best chance of achieving the learning outcomes in the course, whilst enjoying and growing in their learning experience. (Participant 22)
We keep our eyes and ears open to what new resources become available… as not all resources suit all learning styles and circumstances. It’s the ability of the teacher to adapt the resources to the student while having the complete picture of integrated training and assessment… that is the hard part. It’s a multi faceted and integrated process that needs to be adapted to each individual student and situation. Not easy.
Our initial impetus for using blended delivery came from evaluation and feedback from our students who indicated that the more traditional modes were not meeting their needs. They wanted the opportunity to make choices, and to customise their study…. (Participant 24)
Category C: focus on meeting course requirements so that students can complete the course
The ultimate goal is to design a program that allows the student to learn and achieve their qualifications in a manner that best suits them. (Participant 30)
However, the teacher also has to ensure that the learners, having taken these individual pathways, can all reach a similar destination i.e. that they are deemed competent in the Elements and Units of Competency. (Participant 45)
Category D: focus on flexibility and convenience for students (meeting practical needs)
I don’t see the blended classroom as being that different from the traditional classroom. It does give more opportunity for material to be used to keep students involved in their work and the facility for students to work at their own pace. (Participant 60)
One course I am involved in is delivered entirely on-line. This enables students from all over the state to participate. Asking them to attend face-to-face workshops/classes may be quite beneficial (educationally), but there are some significant cost factors for students. (…) Whilst this delivery method is not blended, the reason for using this method (on-line), is because it suits the students—they enrolled in it because of the delivery method, flexibility, etc. (Participant 76)
Category E: focus on re-usability of resources
I rely on resources that are already available to a large degree and as much as possible…. I tend to use what is available within the organisation. Though I know of other options I tend to wait until they are made available to me. (Participant 23)
I have become ‘relaxed’ due to being time poor as I run a number of groups. I use a large range of resources that are available and rely on whatever ones that I have issued (and pre-planned)… With the large number of groups, ‘design’ has become a little random. (Participant 14)
Relationships between conceptions of blended learning, and approaches to teaching and design of blended learning
The distribution of responses across categories
Number of teachers
Conceptions of blended learning
A. Blended learning to empower students for lifelong learning
B. Blended learning for students’ needs and learning goals
C. Combination of different ways of delivery to improve students’ access to learning and meet their practical needs
D. Aggregation of face-to-face and (mainly) online but also other types of technologically driven delivery
E. Use of technological teaching tools only
Approaches to teaching for blended learning
A. Teaching as an opportunity to enrich the learning experience and to provide innovative ways to learn through the blended context
B. Teaching as a way of providing learning tailored to students’ needs based on a plan negotiated between student and teacher through the blended context
C. Teaching with a focus on student support in relation to the social and psychological aspects of the interaction as well as technical aspects
D. Teaching with a focus on meeting students’ practical needs for convenience in a blended context
E. Teaching with a focus on the process of providing accurate and detailed online content which can be easily accessed by students
Approaches to design for blended learning contexts
A. Focus on students’ meaningful learning and the applicable aspects of their learning
B. Focus on achieving individualised learning outcomes and versatility (developing complex skills, competencies, knowledge)
C. Focus on meeting course requirements so that students can complete the course
D. Focus on flexibility and convenience for students (meeting practical needs)
E. Focus on re-usability of resources
Conceptions of blended learning and approaches to teaching
Conceptions of blended learning and approaches to teaching in blended learning contexts
Approaches to teaching BL
Approaches to teaching and approaches to design for learning in blended contexts
Approaches to teaching and approaches to design of blended learning
Approaches to Teaching BL
Approaches to designing BL
Learning outcomes focus
Discussion and conclusion
A key finding of this study is that in the context of vocational education, teachers develop qualitatively different conceptions of blended learning, as well as qualitatively different approaches to both teaching and design for blended learning. This complements similar findings from the university sector (e.g. Ellis et al. 2006) and from studies exploring face-to-face teaching experiences (e.g. Prosser et al. 1994; Trigwell et al. 1994; Prosser and Trigwell 1997). The qualitative variation identified in the conceptions of blended learning in this study suggests that some teachers tend to structure their understanding of what blended learning is, around student learning, while others tend to view meeting students’ practical needs and course requirements as the central focus and main benefit of using blended learning.
This pattern is reproduced in the case of approaches to teaching and design for blended learning. Those descriptions of approaches which are more inclusive and elaborated suggest a clear focus on using blended learning with the intention of improving the quality of student learning. Less elaborated descriptions evoke concerns with more practical aspects, which although necessary are adjuncts to the learning process. In terms of approaches to teaching, our categorisation in terms of student learning versus delivery/content is consistent with previous research that found approaches grouped around a student-focused versus teacher-focused continuum (see Trigwell et al. 1994). Our quantitative analyses reveal that the close relationships among teachers’ conceptions and approaches in higher education (Trigwell and Prosser 1996) are reproduced in vocational education when blended learning is involved.
The finding that teachers’ conceptions tend to be related to their approaches to teaching, suggests that teachers who see student learning as central when implementing and using blended learning are more likely to employ strategies (in both their teaching and design) that would ensure that deep and meaningful student learning is supported. This outcome has practical implications as it suggests that it is possible to achieve improvements in the quality of students’ learning experience by challenging teachers’ conceptions of student learning in blended contexts. Specifically, teachers’ approaches to both teaching and design can be improved by addressing their understanding of what blended learning is.
Figure 4 offers a visual representation of our findings, where lower categories tend to be less reflective than higher categories. It is the higher categories that are more likely to provide students with experiences of learning which would enable them to cope better with the complexity of contemporary workplace demands.
To conclude, the one most important implication of this research is that its findings can be translated into tangible measures to improve teaching and, subsequently, student learning. This type of analysis can be used to reconceptualise how effective support can be provided to teachers engaged in blended learning. By providing support for teachers to help them reconceptualise the idea of blended learning—towards the more reflective dimensions of student learning and quality learning outcomes, rather than predominantly towards practical dimensions—a stronger focus on teaching and designing programs to enhance the quality of student learning can be achieved. Our findings suggest that there is a need for teacher guidance that takes a learner-centred focus, rather than a focus on the technicalities and practicalities of blended learning.
We are pleased to acknowledge the assistance for this project received from the Australian Research Council in the form of a Linkage Grant: ‘Blended learning in schools, TAFE and universities: experience, principles, patterns and practice’. The authors would also like to thank all the NSW TAFE teachers who participated in the research.
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