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‘Blended Learning’ what does it all even mean?

A guide to all those new and confusing terms in teaching and learning.

From ‘lockdown’ to ‘PPE’ to ‘furlough’, the pandemic has brought with it A LOT of new words, once seen as niche jargon or just completely unknown, now used every day, by everyone, all the time. And the higher education sector has not been immune. Students have been bombarded with strange and technical terms that have become the new normal in communications about our teaching and learning. Yet for many of us, these terms still feel confusing and unclear.

To help students better understand what blended learning is all about, here’s a handy guide explaining the key terminology:

Blended Learning

Starting with the most obvious and probably biggest buzzword in higher education this year – blended learning is an umbrella term for when in-person learning (often referred to as face-to-face or on-campus learning) is integrated with delivery of learning online and digitally. A student experiencing blended learning should experience a combination of in-person timetabled learning activities and digital learning activities which may be timetabled sessions or tasks to work on in their own time. Blended learning is general and varied in that it can be done through a range of different modes of delivery.

This form of learning has been discussed a lot in higher education pre-pandemic, but COVID has massively accelerated the shift to blended learning. As more than an emergency stop-gap in response to the pandemic, blended learning can be something more intentional, purposefully utilising the benefits of both digital and on campus learning. It is a deliberate move to bring the digital world and in-class teaching together to create a richer learning experience.

Synchronous learning

Although seemingly very technical, this is one of the less complex terms. Synchronous learning is essentially live teaching/learning – it is learning that is generally timetabled and delivered in real-time, at the same time as other students and generally with a tutor or lecturer. This could be in person or online, and anything from a lecture to a seminar to a lab.

Asynchronous learning

On the flip-side, asynchronous learning is learning that is not live but where a student engages with the task in a time and place of their choice. Some asynchronous learning will be collaborative activities, such as contributing to a discussion forum, while other activities will be individual such as listening to a podcast or watching a video recorded by the lecturer.

Hybrid teaching

Hybrid teaching has been attributed slightly different meanings in different institutions, occasionally being used interchangeably with blended learning. Within University of Bristol, hybrid teaching is conceptualised as a specific way of delivering teaching, while blended learning is a broader model of how students learn. UoB uses the term to refer to synchronous teaching that is conducted both on campus and online simultaneously, relying on specific technology being set up so that students off-campus can hear and see what is being taught in the room. This could be an on-campus lecture that is also being live streamed, or a mode of hybrid teaching that allows the remote student to interact with the class. For me, hybrid teaching is about designing teaching so that students have more choice over how to engage with the classroom, something which is incredibly important for accessibility, flexibility and feeling safe in your learning environment.

Flipped learning

Blended learning during the pandemic has encouraged a shift to flipped learning or the ‘flipped classroom’. This term is often defined in opposition to ‘traditional’ learning where, for example, the time spent in the classroom will be in the form of a lecturer delivering the course content to you, while independent study is about consolidating and deepening the knowledge learned in the classroom. With flipped learning, this model of learning is essentially inversed or ‘flipped’ – the student engages with material independently, through asynchronous activities, while classroom time provides the student with the opportunity to consolidate what they have learnt, to go more in-depth about the subject, and interact with students and the tutor though discussion and problem-solving. More and more universities are encouraging this model of teaching, with the Russel Group arguing that it ensures that the time spent in the classroom is more active and effective.

Hopefully this guide has helped clarify these terms a bit more!  As much as all this terminology can feel a bit overwhelming and overly technical at times, knowing what it all means can help us better understand how to participate in our learning on a practical level. On a deeper level, by understanding these key terms, we as students can better engage with how we are learning. It enables us to recognise the processes and models underlying how we are being taught, to provide more insightful feedback to the university, and to better our overall learning experiences. I find this really exciting and empowering, and I can’t wait to see what this means for students’ experiences of higher education this year and in the future.

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