The Australian Educational Researcher

, Volume 39, Issue 2, pp 237–257 | Cite as

Blended learning in vocational education: teachers’ conceptions of blended learning and their approaches to teaching and design

  • Ana-Maria Bliuc
  • Grant Casey
  • Agnieszka Bachfischer
  • Peter Goodyear
  • Robert A. Ellis
Article

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Blended learning Blended learning design Conceptions Approaches Vocational education Teacher experiences 

Introduction

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.

Background

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.

The study

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%).

Research site

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).

Method

Teachers’ conceptions and their approaches (to teaching and to design for learning in blended contexts) were explored by asking participants to respond to the following questions:
  • 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)

Analysis

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).

Results

Teachers’ conceptions of blended learning

Teachers’ descriptions of their conceptions of blended learning revealed a significant amount of variation in these conceptions. As Fig. 1 illustrates, five hierarchical categories were identified, ranging from descriptions that focus on the lifelong learning needs of the students (A and B) to categories that describe blended learning as a way to deliver learning materials in a more convenient and practical way by using online tools (C–E). There is a qualitative shift in teachers’ conceptions from category B to C. Specifically, categories A and B describe more cohesive conceptions of blended learning (Prosser and Trigwell 1999). These descriptions place student learning in the centre and are concerned with enriching the student experience in order to make knowledge more usable in the real world. On the other hand, categories C–E describe conceptions that are mostly about alternative modes of delivery. In these descriptions the focus is not so much on student learning but on concerns to meet practical and logistical needs better. These can be described as fragmented conceptions.
Fig. 1

The hierarchy of categories for teachers’ conceptions of blended learning

Category A: blended learning to empower students for lifelong learning

This category describes highly elaborated, cohesive conceptions about blended learning. Blended learning is described as an empowering learning experience for students—one that goes far beyond the classroom experience. Although the relevance of using new technologies in education is acknowledged, the focus is firmly on student learning. Category A is hierarchically higher than the other categories and the most comprehensive (in the sense that higher level categories also include the lower-level conceptions). The following quotes capture well the essence of this category.

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

Category B, although less comprehensive in comparison to category A, is inclusive of conceptions found in categories C to E. There is a qualitative shift in teachers’ conceptions from category B to C. Category B describes cohesive conceptions focused on student learning and meeting student learning needs. The applicability of knowledge to the real world, and benefits of learning for the student are key aspects of this category. The flexibility that a blended learning module can provide is addressed in terms of better meeting learning needs (as illustrated by the quotes below).

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

This category represents the first in a series of categories of conceptions with a focus on delivery and the practical/logistical aspects of education provision, rather than on student learning. In particular, category C describes conceptions of blended learning as a more flexible and convenient way to deliver education compared to face-to-face delivery. Responses in this category reflect a pragmatic perspective and the focus here is on how to use the available resources in ways which would make economic sense:

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

The conceptions described in category D are also predominantly pragmatic, with no mention of student learning. Responses in this category include definitions of blended learning which are strictly at a descriptive level, usually not including any reference to underlying philosophies of teaching and learning. The concept of blended learning is over-simplified, being mostly described as a mix of two different ways of delivery, as reflected in the quotes below:

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

Category E is somewhat similar to category D but it describes a more basic set of conceptions of what blended learning is, reducing blended learning to ‘any type of electronic delivery’. In this case, the face-to-face aspect, as well as more elaborated conceptualisations of educational purpose, is completely overlooked:

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

Teachers’ descriptions of approaches to teaching were classified in five hierarchically inclusive categories, ranging from approaches A and B, with their central focus on improving student learning by providing students with a more holistic learning experience (strategy) to help them cope better with complex workplace demands (intentions), to approaches C–E, which are mostly concerned with the convenient delivery of content (strategy) to help students meet course requirements (intentions). The qualitative variation in complexity of teachers’ intentions and strategies is reflected in the inclusiveness of the hierarchy of categories (see Fig. 2). As in the case of conceptions, there is a qualitative shift between categories B and C (from approaches focused on student learning to approaches focused on delivery).
Fig. 2

The hierarchy of categories for 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

Responses from this category describe approaching teaching in a way which would significantly contribute to improving student understanding and ensure meaningful learning. The underlying intentions emerging from the responses suggest that teachers in this category are concerned to provide students with a wider and more meaningful learning experience. Teaching in blended learning contexts is seen as an opportunity to expand the boundaries of the learning experience for students. In terms of strategies, teachers tend to prefer to use creative and flexible ways of teaching which would better equip students for the demands of the modern workplaces. Teachers who describe their approaches to teaching in this way are usually self-reflective in their practice and concerned about improving student learning:

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

Approaches to teaching in category B focus on student learning needs. Responses in this category describe a more strategic approach compared to category A. That is, in these responses there is a predominance of ideas of negotiation and learning contracts between student and teacher. Here the approaches are still focused on student learning—that is, the intention is to improve the learning experience by making it more meaningful for students, but also adopting strategies towards ensuring successful professional paths for students (also, there is less creativity and experimenting involved, compared to category A).

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

Category C represents a qualitative transition to categories of teaching approaches not focused on student learning but on other aspects of the learning experience. These approaches are concerned with ensuring optimal student interaction to increase a sense of participation, as well as with the technical aspects of the learning experience. Although these are important aspects, these approaches are predominantly focused on these dimensions, while neglecting to consider the development of student understanding in a significant way.

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

Category D includes responses which describe approaches mostly focused on how to meet students’ practical needs. They do not include references to student learning needs and they mirror to a certain degree conceptions of blended learning structured around pragmatic considerations. Again, although it is important to carefully consider all pragmatic aspects of teaching and to effectively make use of all practical benefits that come with blended learning, responses in this category reflect less inclusive approaches, as the underlying intentions are to facilitate the learning process rather than improve the quality of student learning.

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

Category E includes responses which describe approaches only focused on the online delivery of materials; there is no or little concern for student learning and understanding. This category of approaches reflects a tendency to focus exclusively on ‘content and delivery’ almost completely, overlooking student learning. This category is probably the closest to Trigwell and colleagues’ (Trigwell et al. 1994; Trigwell and Prosser 1996) ‘teacher-focused with the intention of transmitting information’ approach.

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

In relation to teachers’ approaches to design, again five hierarchical categories of responses were identified. These ranged from Category A—the most holistic and qualitatively the most elaborated, focusing on designing for enhancing student understanding to Category E—the most simplistic, focusing on designing blended learning in a way which would allow re-using available resources in the most economically sensible way. That is, the categories of approaches to design can be seen as mirroring Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy (Biggs 1999) in terms of student learning outcomes, ranging from approaches focused on student learning to approaches focused on content and resources (see Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

The hierarchy of categories for teachers’ approaches to design for blended learning

Category A: focus on students’ meaningful learning and the applicable aspects of their learning

This category is the most comprehensive, and includes approaches to blended learning design such as finding innovative learning activities and adjusting the existing ones (strategy), with the purpose of helping students achieve meaningful learning that is transferable to workplace situations (intention). This is done by carefully considering students’ needs, interests, and ways in which they can learn best. Responses in this category reflect a constant concern for selecting those learning activities with the most practical relevance for students and which would help them find ways of applying knowledge in their workplace. Student learning is central for the approaches described in this category:

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)

Responses in this category describe approaches consistent with an awareness of learning outcomes, oriented towards empowering students with new, complex skills and knowledge. These approaches reflect concern to design blended learning with the intention to enable students to have a more fulfilling learning experience. In these descriptions, student learning plays a central role. They are similar to approaches in category A but the descriptions are somehow narrower as they do not include references to the transferable aspects of learning:

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

Category C marks a qualitative shift towards approaches focused less on design for student learning and more on design to meet practical requirements. These approaches to design focus on helping students to complete their course and gain the desired qualifications (the underlying intentions are to help students to get qualifications rather than to help them learn).

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)

Category D includes responses that reflect approaches to design in a way that would facilitate access and greater flexibility (in terms of space and time) for both students and teachers. They mirror approaches to teaching motivated by facilitating flexible learning (making learning practically possible) rather than enhancing the actual learning experience for students.

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

Finally, category E includes responses describing approaches to design orientated towards re-using the available resources, mainly for economic and convenience reasons. This category corresponds to the categories of conceptions of blended learning and approaches to teaching centred on pragmatic considerations rather than student learning.

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 teachers’ responses across the five categories for all three questions broadly follows a normal distribution, with the largest number of teachers’ responses falling into categories C and D and the least number of responses in categories A and E (Table 1). In the case of teachers’ approaches to teaching, the distribution pattern is slightly different, with most responses falling into categories B and E.
Table 1

The distribution of responses across categories

Categories

Labels

Number of teachers

Conceptions of blended learning

A. Blended learning to empower students for lifelong learning

6

B. Blended learning for students’ needs and learning goals

19

C. Combination of different ways of delivery to improve students’ access to learning and meet their practical needs

20

D. Aggregation of face-to-face and (mainly) online but also other types of technologically driven delivery

30

E. Use of technological teaching tools only

4

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

9

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

17

C. Teaching with a focus on student support in relation to the social and psychological aspects of the interaction as well as technical aspects

14

D. Teaching with a focus on meeting students’ practical needs for convenience in a blended context

15

E. Teaching with a focus on the process of providing accurate and detailed online content which can be easily accessed by students

20

Approaches to design for blended learning contexts

A. Focus on students’ meaningful learning and the applicable aspects of their learning

8

B. Focus on achieving individualised learning outcomes and versatility (developing complex skills, competencies, knowledge)

17

C. Focus on meeting course requirements so that students can complete the course

22

D. Focus on flexibility and convenience for students (meeting practical needs)

19

E. Focus on re-usability of resources

11

Conceptions of blended learning and approaches to teaching

Our findings suggest that in the case of vocational education teachers, their conceptions of blended learning are associated with their approaches to teaching for blended learning. This is consistent with findings from phenomenographic research on students’ conceptions and approaches to learning (e.g. Marton and Säljö 1984) and also from higher education research on teachers’ conceptions and approaches (e.g. Trigwell and Prosser 1996). Contingency tables (see Table 2) show that teachers who reported conceptions of blended learning as being primarily about delivery issues (fragmented), tended to report approaches to teaching which focused on practical needs (n = 35). Teachers who tended to report conceptions of blended learning which focused on student needs and lifelong goals (cohesive), and tended to report approaches to teaching which focused on improving student learning through tailored strategies (n = 10).
Table 2

Conceptions of blended learning and approaches to teaching in blended learning contexts

 

Conceptions

Total

Cohesive

Fragmented

Approaches to teaching BL

 Student focus

10

16

26

 Teacher focus

14

35

49

Total

24

51

75

Chi square = 16.40; phi = .45, p < .005; n = 75

Approaches to teaching and approaches to design for learning in blended contexts

There are clear associations between teachers’ approaches to teaching and their approaches to design for blended learning. Table 3 shows that the group of teachers reporting student-centred approaches to teaching also tended to report approaches to design for blended learning focused on student learning by building complex knowledge and workplace transferable skills (n = 19). In contrast, teachers who reported teacher-focused approaches to teaching oriented towards meeting practical needs also tended to report approaches to design oriented towards meeting unit requirements, convenience and re-usability of resources (n = 42).
Table 3

Approaches to teaching and approaches to design of blended learning

 

Approaches to Teaching BL

Total

Student focus

Teacher focus

Approaches to designing BL

 Learning outcomes focus

19

5

24

 Resources focus

6

42

48

Total

25

47

75

Chi square = 35.98; phi = .67, p < .001; n = 75

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.

In addition, the association between teachers’ approaches to teaching and their approaches to design, suggests that improving the quality of one of these aspects could trigger an improvement in the quality of the other. One way of understanding the relationships between the conceptions of blended learning, approaches to teaching and design for blended learning, is shown in Fig. 4.
Fig. 4

Associations amongst key aspects of the experience of teaching

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.

One of the success factors for blended learning identified by Sharpe et al. (2006) in the UK higher education system was the “use of blended learning as a driver for transformative course redesign” (p. 26). This underscores the importance of supporting teachers in adopting a reflective and student-focused approach, in which analysis and evaluation of practice incorporating student learning needs and reflection, are central. A key insight arising from the teacher’s experience is the balance, as Fig. 5 illustrates, between meaningful learning and tailored activities, and time constraints and the re-use of resources. If the balance achieved by the teacher is tipped towards the left, the best interests of students are prioritised.
Fig. 5

Balancing key aspects in the teacher experience of design

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.

Notes

Acknowledgements

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.

References

  1. Åkerlind, G. S. (2003). Growing and developing as a university teacher—variation in meaning. Studies in Higher Education, 28, 376–390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Åkerlind, G. S. (2004). A new dimension to understanding university teaching. Teaching in Higher Education, 9, 363–376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Åkerlind, G. (2005). Variation and commonality in phenomenographic research methods. Higher Education Research and Development, 24, 321–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Biggs, J. B. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bliuc, A., Goodyear, P., & Ellis, R. A. (2007). Research focus and methodological choices in studies into students’ experiences of blended learning in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 15, 231–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bowden, J. A. (2005). Reflections on the phenomenographic research process. In J. A. Bowden & P. Green (Eds.), Doing Developmental Phenomenography (pp. 11–31). Melbourne: RMIT University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bruce C. S. (2003). Frameworks guiding the analysis: Applied to or derived from the data? In Proceedings of the EARLI Experience and Understanding SIG (SIG10) Meeting. Canberra: Australia National University.Google Scholar
  8. Butler, J., & Brooker, R. (1998). The learning context within technical and further education colleges as perceived by apprentices and their workplace supervisors. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 50, 79–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Concannon, F., Flynn, A., & Campbell, M. (2005). What campus-based students think about the quality and benefits of e-learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36, 501–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Draper, S. W., Brown, M. I., Henderson, F. P., & McAteer, E. (1996). Integrative evaluation: An emerging role for classroom studies of CAL. Computers and Education, 26, 17–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ellis, R. A., Steed, A. F., & Applebee, A. C. (2006). Teacher conceptions of blended learning, blended teaching and associations with approaches to design. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 22, 312–335.Google Scholar
  12. Gow, L., & Kember, D. (1993). Conceptions of teaching and their relationship to student learning. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, 20–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hasselgren, B., & Beach, D. (1997). Phenomenography: A ‘good for nothing brother’ of phenomenology? Outline of an analysis. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(2), 191–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kember, D. (1997). A reconcepualisation of the research into university academics’ conceptions of teaching. Learning and Instruction, 7(3), 255–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kember, D., & Gow, L. (1994). Orientations to teaching and their effect on the quality of student learning. Journal of Higher Education, 65, 58–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kember, D., & Kwan, K. (2002). Lecturers’ approaches to teaching and their relationship to conceptions of good teaching. In N. Hativa & P. Goodyear (Eds.), Teacher thinking, beliefs and knowledge in higher education (pp. 219–240). Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Martin, E., & Balla, M. (1991). Conceptions of teaching and implications for learning. Research and Development in Higher Education, 13, 298–304.Google Scholar
  18. Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography—describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional Science, 10, 177–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Marton, F. (1994). Phenomenography. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of education (Vol. 8). New York: Pergamon.Google Scholar
  20. Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.Google Scholar
  21. Marton, F., & Pong, W. Y. (2005). On the unit of description in phenomenography. Higher Education Research and Development, 24, 335–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976a). On qualitative differences in learning. I. Outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976b). On qualitative differences in learning. II. Outcome as a function of the learner’s conception of the task. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 115–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1984). Approaches to learning. In F. Marton, et al. (Eds.), The experience of learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.Google Scholar
  25. National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. (2009). Inquiry into the future for lifelong learning: Technological change. Leicester: NIACE.Google Scholar
  26. NSW Department of Education and Training. (2008). TAFE NSW: Doing Business in the 21st Century. Consultation Outcomes and Development of Proposals. Report Prepared by the NSW Department of Education and Training.Google Scholar
  27. Prosser, M., & Millar, R. (1989). The ‘how’ and ‘what’ of learning physics. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 4, 513–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1997). Using phenomenography in the design of programs for teachers in higher education. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(1), 41–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Prosser, M., Trigwell, K., & Taylor, P. (1994). A phenomenographic study of academics’ conceptions of science teaching and learning. Learning and Instruction, 4, 217–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Richardson, J. T. E. (2005). Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in higher education. Educational Psychology, 25, 673–680.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Rushby, N. (1979). An introduction to educational computing. Beckenham: Croom Helm.Google Scholar
  33. Samuelowicz, K., & Bain, J. D. (1992). Conceptions of teaching held by teachers. Higher Education, 24, 93–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sharpe, R., Benfield, G., Roberts, G., & Francis, R. (2006). The undergraduate experience of blended e-learning: A review of UK literature and practice. The Higher Education Academy. http://oxfordbrookes.academia.edu/GregBenfield/Papers/106036/The_undergraduate_experience_of_blended_e-learning_a_review_of_UK_literature_and_practice_undertaken_for_the_Higher_Education_Academy.
  35. Singh, H. (2003). Building effective blended learning programs. Educational Technology, 43, 51–54.Google Scholar
  36. Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (1996). Changing approaches to teaching: A relational perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 21, 275–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (2004). Development and use of the approaches to teaching inventory. Educational Psychology Review, 16, 409–424.Google Scholar
  38. Trigwell, K., Prosser, M., & Taylor, P. (1994). Qualitative differences in approaches to teaching first year university science. Higher Education, 27, 75–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wood, K. (2000). The experience of learning to teach: Changing student teachers’ ways of understanding teaching. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 32, 75–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Australian Association for Research in Education, Inc. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ana-Maria Bliuc
    • 1
  • Grant Casey
    • 2
  • Agnieszka Bachfischer
    • 3
  • Peter Goodyear
    • 3
  • Robert A. Ellis
    • 4
  1. 1.School of Political and Social InquiryMonash UniversityCaulfield EastAustralia
  2. 2.NSW Department of Education and TrainingSydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Centre for Research on Computer supported Learning and Cognition (CoCo)University of SydneySydneyAustralia
  4. 4.Institute for Teaching and LearningUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations