Wednesday, 16 February 2005

The Hybrid Challenge: Activities, Approaches, Pitfalls

E-learning Queen, aka Susan Smith Nash, posted a fairly comprehensive administrative guide for teachers and lecturers to plan and structure a teacher-centred blended learning situation.

Most universities, if not all, have some sort of LMS for teachers and lecturers to use. Some even may mandate that the LMS must be used in their courses. This is a real challenge to really use the face to face and online environment effectively.

Online environment offers so much flexibilities to the students that it is compelling - anytime anywhere. Comparatively, face to face is an expensive meeting and it is very important to make sure that the additional value (paid both by the students and instructors) has good return. In order to understand that, I would start by looking at the things which the online environment cannot provide or is inadequate. I would make use of the rare and expensive face to face opportunities to provide such things.

Take online role play simulation as an example. We run pre-briefing*. During pre-briefing, we aim to achieve two things:

1. The students are introduced to the system, ensure that they can log on, they know how to navigate and generally overcome their technical anxiety. We make sure that each and everyone is able to get onto the simulation, can log in using their own user name and password and can interact via the environment. (Hence there is great value to do this face to face in a computer laboratory environment.)

2. Orientation to the new form of learning. Some students may have anxiety when they are taught in a non-traditional way, especially if this online role play simulation activity is part of their assessment. Proper orientation, telling them in clear terms what is expected of them, which and how activities within the simulation will be assessed and most important of all, give the student a "face" that there is human moderator behind the system who will monitor the simulation as well as give them help.

The simulation is then conducted online. The online simulation leverages on several key advantages of the online environment. Being asynchronous, the students can think through, research, plan and formulate best strategy to tackle problems and issues presented to them in the simulation. They can look at the textbook, they can discuss with their team members (online or face to face). Learning is now happening.

As role play simulation is a mentally intensive. After playing a role for a couple of weeks, it is very important to de-role and de-brief. A lot of emotions may have built up and this is best released in a face to face environment. In most cases, we ask the students to dress up as their role and come to a meeting (which is planned within the online simulation environment). This is kind of the finale of the role play simulation. The last stages are acted out and the emotions released. This also signals an official end of the role play AND the end of the role the student is playing.

Other necessary debriefing steps may be continued online, e.g. writing up a reflective account of what has happened in the simulation, how the player has applied the theory he has learnt, how effective is the strategy and so on. However, these activities no long take place as roles, but as a learner.

Students appreciate our arrangement. We recognised that their time are valuable and meeting face to face is an expensive exercise. The first face to face meeting is obviously full of expectation and anticipation. The last face to face meeting is fun, engaging and rewarding.

I believe it is the way blended learning should be - recognise the extra effort the learners have to put in in order to meet face to face. We should design the face to face meeting around the learning in the online world. Make use of the characteristics of these different situations and do high value activities in face to face meetings.

*See our procedure in conducting online role play simulation at a previous post here.

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