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Blended Learning in Adult Education Practice – Lessons Learned from a Questionnaire-Based Survey

23/04/2019
by Christian Geiselmann
Language: EN

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Blended Learning Erasmus+
After a boom of computer-supported learning methods, especially in in-company training, in the recent couple of years the notion of “blended learning” has become more popular.[1] A simple definition for blended learning would be: combine classroom or face-to-face activities in a meaningful way with online activities of all kind. The emphasis is on finding a way to combine presence and distance learning to make learning as effective and as joyful as possible.

In a current Erasmus+ project called “Quality Blended Learning”[2], six educational organisations from Slovenia, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain and Germany are trying to explore the notion of blended learning for themselves and to develop supportive materials for teachers and trainers, especially in adult education, to make first steps into applying blended learning methods in their everyday work. The focus of the project is on “how to do the blending well”, or in other words: how can blending be done in a high-quality way.

The first activity in the project was an exploration of the state of the art in the participant organisations and in their institutional vicinity. In order to understand the current opinions, attitudes and experiences of teachers/trainers/facilitators regarding blended learning, a survey was conducted in spring 2018 using, first, a tickmark questionnaire (online) to collect quantitative data, and second, recording qualitative research interviews (face-to-face) with selected respondents in each country. This article presents some observations from this semi-professional form of research.

Data collection

For the survey, an online questionnaire was created around the topic of blended learning, understanding of terminology, one’s own experience in using blended learning methods, and attitudes towards it. For most topics, Likert-scales were used with values from 1 to 5 representing answers such as “totally not” / “rather not” / “don’t know, or not sure” / “quite so” / “totally so”. The participating organisations then invited their teachers, trainers, managers, pedagogues, etc. as well as colleagues from other institutions in their town or region to answer the questionnaire.[3] An average answering would take about 30-40 minutes. The initial goal was to collect 50 questionnaires per country. Factually,  a total of 117 answers were collected, of which 21 from Ireland, 73 from Germany, 2 from Greece, 28 from Slovenia and 20 from Spain. Results were then aggregated using standard software for the purpose.

For the second step ­– providing more nuanced data – qualitative interviews were recorded with individual adult educators who had participated also in the online survey. Interviews were based on a qualitative questionnaire repeating the topics of the tickmark questionnaire. Respondents were asked to elaborate on their answers, especially where they expressed doubt or insecurity. We also asked them to describe their practical experience with using blended learning methods and to give us their personal interpretation of related terminology. Interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed (or paraphrased), and the transcripts  were transferred into English by the interviewers/researchers so that the entirety of them could be further processed and analyzed. The goal was each partner to provide 15 interviews of about 1 hour length. Factually we collected 15 from Ireland, 2 from Greece, 15 from Slovenia, 15 from Spain, and 15 from Germany (but 8 were available as transcripts at the time of analysis). The analysis of the data was done by the Irish team from Dublin Institute of Technology who were most experienced. 

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Datenauswertung Blended Learning Erasmus+
Regarding the results one should be aware that data collected by this study are in no way representative for the countries, and sometimes not even for the institutions involved. Especially in the larger institutions (Germany, Ireland) with more staff, only a minority of staff could be included, and the selection did not take place in a systematic way to ensure representativeness, rather by snowball principle and mere opportunity.

Still the results are interesting as a snapshot of attitudes and working conditions, as they reflect the respondents’ individual situation as teachers, trainers or managers in an organisation delivering education. In this article we relate a number of interesting aspects we observed and viewpoints we met.

Practical experience with blended learning

For the 117 respondents, the average number of years in current positions was 7.4 (or 8.3 in their organisation). The average number of years of experience in teaching was 9.9, with German participants averaging 16 years. (This reflects the situation of adult education in Germany where currently a cohort of staff enters retirement age who started to be employed in the 1970 and 1980s.) Contrasting to that, in all environments (countries) the number of years of experience in using blended delivery methods was much lower. We registered an average of 3.7 years of experience with blended delivery, with Germany now below average with 2.8 years.[4] For the entire sample the small number of years of experience in general was actually expected, as blended learning is a relatively new concept.

Terminology around blended learning

We then wanted to understand how familiar are workers in adult education with terms associated with blended learning or more broadly with e-learning. We wanted to determine whether there is confusion (even among experienced educators) about these terms. Terms we explicitly asked for were ‘Online Learning’, ‘E-Learning’, ‘M-Learning’, ‘D-Learning’, ‘E-Assessment’, ‘Computer-Aided Teaching’, ‘Flipped Classroom’,  ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ and ‘Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning’.

One problem here is of course language: terminology is different in the various countries with their different official languages. Admittedly blended learning and e-learning, as relatively new phenomena in the world of education, often refer to terms in English, but this does not guarantee identical understanding. We tried to iron out this problem in the translation of the questionnaires to national languages, but this was possible only for terms that are not genuinely English. As an example, the term “D-Learning” was interpreted completely differently by respondents in different countries. We had to quote the term in the questionnaire as it is, i.e. unexplained, nonetheless because any translation would have contaminated the results.

Anyway, here are some of the more interesting findings:

When asked whether the terminology surrounding blended learning was confusing, the average response was in the affirmative, with the more experienced participants reporting less confusion.[5] One interviewee felt the terms were confusing because she was not practicing in the space and only came upon terms by chance. Another considered writing a Master’s thesis on Blended Learning, and in researching the topic realised the huge number of terms involved, all of which require explaining to non-experts.

In summary it seems that interviewees did find the typical blended learning terminology confusing when looked at from the outside, but were more happy with it when they already were experts or experienced practitioners.[6] Also, terms that are longer around in the trade (e.g. e-learning or virtual learning environment) seemed to be recognized better than newer ones such as m-learning and flipped classroom.

Delivery of blended learning

We asked for general opinions on blended learning and its effects on the working environment of adult educators. Throughout all five environments we found: opinions about statements such as “Blended learning means technology takes over the teacher's role and in the future teachers will lose their jobs“ were completely uniform in all countries (here: ‘Rather not true’). Relatively high consent was also expressed for “Blended learning is not about technology but technology enables it” (where the widely shared answer was: ‘Mostly correct’). More diverse were opinions amongst the five environments about a statement „Blended learning makes learning more personalised.“ Here Greece was rather negative, Ireland and Spain rather positive.[7]  

What is typical blended learning

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Sprachentafel_ Blended Learning Erasmus+
We tried to understand what blended learning is for our respondents, or in other words: how would they, at their current level of involvement, define blended learning, and what specific methods would be included. We found all sorts of opinions. In summary, people who had no contact with the area of e-learning and blended learning had various rather questionable opinions (e.g. that a MOOC was typical blended learning). Those with more experience in the areas had –  unsurprisingly – clearer ideas.

When asked about their opinion on language training via smartphone apps, interviewees were divided. Some said it depends on the quality of the app. Others insisted that an app was no replacement for immediate human interaction to successfully learn a language.[8]

Answers were uniform across environments also regarding the effects that  introducing blended learning would have on the teacher: a statement “Teachers need to work harder” was given a middle rating, “Ultimately teachers will be replaced by computers” was given a value between 1 and 2 (expressing ‘totally not’ and ‘not really’). Which indicates however that anyway there are some people who see teachers losing a competition against robots eventually.[9]

Generally, interviewees were of the opinion that there is an initial increase in workload when one wants to offer blended learning methods. This includes understanding how to blend delivery effectively, re-designing parts of a curriculum (or all of it) and coming to terms with new delivery modes. Some interviewees expected the workload to decrease after initial  preparation and getting-used-to-it; but others point out that there will always be a need of updates, and this can be more time-consuming when you have multiple modes to update. One interviewee said that ‘teachers need to work smarter, not harder’ and that staff trainings (CPDs) could help.[10]

Teaching

We asked for the experience of respondents in delivering blended learning to their students. The given set of participant organisations in this survey implicates that this reflects not more than the characteristics of these organisations and their staff. It does not say anything about the situation in the country in general. In our sample, partner organisations from Ireland and Slovenia had staff most experienced in using blended learning methods, Germany and Greece were more to the less experienced or totally abstinent side. But it is important to notice that we found individuals who were high-level experts in e-learning and blended learning in all environments, irrespective of country.

Technology, training and support

In a separate section we tried to find out what level of training and support adult educators feel to be getting in their organisations for being enabled to apply blended learning in their teaching. There were considerably varied responses from environment to environment. Educators from Slovenia and Ireland reported the highest levels of support in terms of training both regarding the pedagogical and the technological side. This might have contributed to participants in these two countries to report the most experience with blended delivery methods.[11]

Availability of technology is another crucial issue. We found throughout all environments that the most used technologies are those that are also used in traditional classrooms: internet access, projectors, PCs, laptops and printers. When it came to tools more strictly associated with blended delivery (e.g., online chat tools, virtual learning environments, e-assessment tools) the number of respondents who reported using them reduced. However, generally technology use is quite high, indicating a good degree of experience and familiarity among participants with different technologies, and possibly pointing to a willingness to learn new skills and bring new and unfamiliar technologies to the blended classroom.[12]

The personal perspective

Finally we tried to to get a glimpse of respondents’ personal views and opinions about blended learning (or e-learning) in general, and especially their preferred methods of teaching.

Overall, participants tended to prefer a mixture between online and face to face teaching, which is exactly where blended learning sits. Only German respondents tended to prefer face-to-face teaching without any e-learning inlays: three out of four German interviewees reported preferring face-to-face teaching, and this was mostly related to what they deemed to be the needs of their students. One interviewee  acknowledged the benefits and appeal of blended learning for those who are comfortable with technology and who are capable of self-directed learning. However the cohorts she generally works with tend to need a lot of support in their learning process, and she feels that this is best provided in a traditional classroom scenario.

Noticeably, in no environment we found preference for fully online delivery.[13] Again this may be due to negative effects some online courses have on student learning experiences through the lack of face-to-face contact and building up of relationships. Some interviewees touched on this when pressed further. One German interviewee hinted at the benefits for students to see each other face to face: “I think it is more motivating for the students to see each other directly especially of course when the group is nice and the teacher is good and nice. I think language learning depends on direct interaction.” This is echoed by the views of an Irish interviewee, who believes that it is important for students to develop relationships with one another to enhance their college experience, and it is also important for educators to gauge student progress and whether the pace of teaching is appropriate.[14]

Conclusion

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Blended Learning Erasmus+
From the results of the online survey and the subsequent interviews it appears that there is a good deal of interest among the educators and related managers in blended learning. Most interviewees could see the appeal and benefits for students and educators alike and were very positive in their attitudes towards adapting to new technologies and learning new skills. There was, however, also a widely shared experience that blended learning (or e-learning in general) is suitable only for specific learning situations, and especially in particular forms of non-formal adult education it might just not be what learners (or customers) are looking for. Some interviewees mentioned that blended deliveries are not appropriate for every cohort and that the needs of the students must be met first and foremost.

Everyone emphasised the importance of the role of the teacher, and how a blended delivery might mean that the role or skills of the educator might change. On the other hand, in their opinion the presence and overall impact of a teacher does not decrease with the inclusion of technologies.

It also became apparent that there are elements of confusion related to the terminology, which can be daunting for someone starting out in the area. Most interviewees expected an initial dramatic increase in workload, as quality blended learning means adapting a curriculum to suit the new delivery, as well as learning new teaching and technology skills. This all takes time, and most educators are ‘time-poor’, which was reported as the biggest barrier to the adoption of blended learning on a wider scale. Others mentioned the lack of dissemination of blended learning practices and methods, as well as a lack of investment and support at a higher level.[15]

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Bibliography

Enys, Cathy (2018): Analysis Of Survey/Interviews Investigating Quality Blended Learning. Project "Quality Blended Learning", Project number 2017-1-SI01-KA204-035545: unpublished

Erpenbeck, John/Sauter, Simon/Sauter, Werner (2015): E-Learning und Blended Learning. Selbstgesteuerte Lernprozesse zum Wissensaufbau und zur Qualifizierung, Springer Gabler: Wiesbaden. 45 pp.


References:

[1] For a chronology of developments see: J. Erpenbeck, S. Sauter and W. Sauter (2015), E-Learning und Blended Learning. Selbstgesteuerte Lernprozesse zum Wissensaufbau und zur Qualifizierung, p. 1.

[2] Project number 2017-1-SI01-KA204-035545, November 2017 to October 2019. Project website www.blenditwell.eu (link is external)

[3] As data collected are neither bound to one organisation per country nor are they representative for the entire country, in what follows we call this results per „environment“ rather than “per organisation” or “per country”.

[4] C. Enys (2018), Analysis Of Survey/Interviews Investigating Quality Blended Learning, p. 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 4

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 6

[9] Ibid. p. 15

[10] Ibid. p. 6

[11] Ibid. p. 9-10

[12] Ibid. p. 12-13

[13] Ibid. p. 13-14

[14] Ibid. p. 14

[15] Ibid. p. 15

Images: Scandinavian Stockphoto / Pixabay

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