Online learning has its drawbacks. One of the main disadvantages is the lack of social interaction which is taken as given in conventional settings. This creates a special need to motivate the less independent student (Salmon, 2002). The need for a compromise between the conventional face-to-face sessions and online learning leads us towards a new approach to teaching and learning, the so called hybrid or blended learning (Rogers, 2001).
The Department for Education and Training (DET) provides a definition of blended learning, “learning which combines online and face to face approaches.” (DET, 2003). Figure 1 visualises blended learning as defined above. There are overlaps between the pure face to face sessions, which use some kind of online activities, and the “pure” online learning, which combines some kind of face-to-face event. The DET has the virtue of simplicity but does not capture the potential richness of it as expressed in the definition from Procter, (2003: 3):
Blended learning is the effective combination of different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning.
In this paper we use theoretical frameworks, and real life data to help our understanding of blended learning in practice and the way it fits the above definition. As a case for our action research we focus on one year of a program on a part time course in the Information Systems Institute. This particular part time course was re-designed in 2003 to reduce the face-to-face contact time in order to accommodate the expansion of the online resources. Our evaluation draws on data from practical experience of staff and students on the course and educational theories such as the E-moderating model (Salmon, 2002) and the Conversational Framework (Laurillard, 2002).
We focus on the conversational framework because one of the main arguments of it is that learning should take the form of an interactive dialogue and no one medium is perfect for it – hence the need for a mixture of media. The e-moderation model is perceived to be valuable as it focuses on the introduction of online media onto the course.
Gilly Salmon’s e-moderating model (Salmon, 2000), (see Figure 2) describes a five-stage process, engaging the student with online communication technology. It is based on a principle that there are certain things that have to exist in order to achieve the effective operation of learning via technology. One underlying issue here is the use of activities, to make students interact with each other and the E-moderator, rather than only accessing information such as handouts and presentation material.
One drawback of the E-moderating model is its prescriptive nature. Lisewski and Joyce (2003) argue that in practice there is a need for flexibility not provided by this model. The application of this model to blended learning is limited as the face-to-face aspect is not incorporated in this framework.