Blended learning is the future

It is only natural that we strive for progress and advancement, such that we endeavour to search always for innovative ways to simplify our lives.

Similarly, in the higher education sector, teaching and learning practices consistently require redress. In a time of the millennials, the age of digital communication technologies has created digital footprints that have become so integrated into our daily lives that we struggle to function without them.

Over the past 20 years, South Africa’s digital footprint in higher education institutions has progressed insofar as pedagogical practices growing through the use of information and communication technologies.

There have been four phases of technology-enhanced teaching and learning practices. Phase one (1996-2000) dealt with bridging the digital divide in the lecture theatre, for example, the transition from blackboards and overhead projectors to PowerPoint presentations and the use of animations and voice recordings.

Phase two (2001-2005) focused more on building the policies linked to the growing technology available for teaching and learning while determining the infrastructure needed to execute such a plan.

Phase three (2006-2010) championed professional development of higher education staff to improve their technical skills and the development of pedagogical strategies using these acquired skills.

Phase four (2011 to now) continues with professional development but extends this to adapting learning strategies for students that includes textbooks and a digital and flexible learning medium, such as mobile learning.

Blended learning still stands as a concept that lacks a firm definition. But many agree that it is a combination of direct contact between lecturer and student and online instruction via various digital platforms.

Last year saw a substantial rise in information and communication technologies as higher education institutions faced the chaos and uncertainty that emerged during the #FeesMustFall campaign. The sudden closure of many institutions’ doors meant that direct contact institutions had to suddenly change the teaching and learning platforms to a much more digital framework.

Blended learning thus enabled higher education institutions to maintain some level of contact with their students. It further addressed the issue of curriculum completion for various courses by making use of e-learning tools such as Blackboard. Such tools allow students to gain access to information, presentations, assignments and videos to ensure that they do not fall behind.

The success of digital e-learning platforms highlighted the possibility of shifting aspects of traditional teaching practices to a more online platform. What this implies is that basic concepts and theory can be relayed to students via digital platforms with links to alternate online resources. This creates room in a classroom setting to engage with the student in greater depth, through discussions surrounding a topic, and more time becomes available to showcase applications of a concept, theory or calculation.

Furthermore, the increasing number of students entering higher education institutions every year poses a practical challenge for many departments. For example, life sciences departments utilise “wet pracs” to showcase certain concepts and theories. Issues such as insufficient manpower, space constraints and the increased cost of running such experiments make it difficult to provide this service to students, especially at a first-year level when student intake is at its highest.

Online tools such as virtual labs enable students to gain understanding and knowledge through virtual training. Companies specialising in education innovation technologies such as McGraw Hill have created a space for students to utilise online tools such as LearnSmart and LearnSmart labs, which can be used as training material in molecular and cellular biology.

Higher education institutions have succeeded in creating an environment that allows students to access online content via local area networks and widespread wi-fi access across the institution.

E-learning technology, albeit useful, does face challenges. The first is teaching staff development; individuals who prefer traditional methods of knowledge dissemination may resist e-learning.

Second, e-learning technology faces the possibility of being abandoned if it is not user friendly.

The third challenge relates to the logistics of students’ access to the technology. Vast numbers of students from different faculties and departments need access to computers or mobile devices with an internet connection and data to obtain lecture notes and videos, as well as complete assignments and access virtual labs.

For one student registered for four to five modules in a semester, this might be slightly overwhelming.

It is also likely to cause a bottleneck at local area network facilities.

Tied into this is the compatibility of e-learning technologies across electronic devices. Smartphones and small tablets might be increasingly used by students during lectures and to manage small tasks while on institutional grounds, but are not a suitable mode of learning for completing assignments or participating in a virtual lab scenario.

Finally, blended learning needs to be balanced with direct contact sessions with students with regards to the number of credit-bearing notional hours a module is worth.

Overall, the blended learning approach has been readily taken up by higher education institutions as a means to improve teaching and learning practices. Its implementation is to encourage staff and students to use various methods of teaching and learning while maintaining a steady hand on the ever evolving information and communication technologies.

Kishen Mahesh is a medical scientist and academic co-ordinator in the department of genetics at the University of Pretoria  

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