W. Brian Whalley
University of Sheffield
Book Review: Blended Learning
Blended Learning: Tools for Teaching and Training. By Barbara Allan, Facet Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-1856046145, 228 pages.
As the author says, 'The overall aim of this book is to provide a practical guide to library and information workers who are involved in education and training, and who are interested in designing and delivering blended learning experiences to their colleagues and customers'. I come from an academic geology background but with an interest in teaching and ICT in teaching. My review is thus coloured by my history but I hope embraces the potential readers of this book for, again from the author, 'the needs and expectations of learners are constantly changing and, increasingly, they expect technology-rich and flexible learning opportunities'. So what does this book offer and how well do the objectives live up to the task? I shall review each chapter after the introduction separately for, within the book's holistic intent, they were designed to be read in any order.
Chapters and Subjects Covered
Chapter 2: Tools and Technologies
This chapter reviews, albeit briefly, a range of technologies from audio to weblogs, some of the uses to which they can be put as well as advantages and disadvantages. With regard to technologies, attention is given to things like video-conferencing and VoIP rather than aspects such as AJAX and Perl so technophobes should not worry about the technological demands. Most Information and Library Science (ILS) staff will have 'tame' developers on hand to help implement tools mentioned here. Unfortunately, this may not be true of others, Further and Higher Education lecturers for example, who are paid up members of the 'Technophobic Luddite Tendency'. In truth, they are probably unlikely to be reading this book anyway; a shame since as it has plenty to offer aside from the technology.
Chapter 3: Models of Teaching and Learning
As Allan states, this is an important topic, not just for blended or e-learning, but in general; 'learning is a complex and messy business'. Although a short chapter it provides a useful overview of student-centred approaches to teaching and learning that Allan thinks will be particularly useful in blended learning approaches. The chapter looks at learning styles as well as inquiry-based and problem-based learning. The main advantages (and some disadvantages) of each are laid out in bullet points, tables and a few diagrams. This makes perusal easy if you don't want (or perhaps need) to get into the nitty-gritty of pedagogy. This chapter would make a good read for new lecturers and tutors about to embark on any new module or course redesign. It is of particular help in exploring the following chapters.
Chapter 4: Planning and Designing Blended Learning Programmes
This chapter is specifically designed to help ILS staff in developing programmes and builds upon pedagogic issues raised in the previous chapter. It covers: the design and development cycle, developing the experience, documentation as well as delivery and evaluation – an important but oft-neglected aspect of module design. Lists and checklists abound in this chapter. A very good thing; far too often learning units are put together from a tutor perspective asking 'what do these students have to learn?' rather than, 'how do we best convey a good learning experience?'. This chapter guides you through the process to provide a rationale for any unit, not just e- or blended, so that it helps produce a logical, student-centred, learning experience. Perhaps this chapter hit me hardest, do I really plan and use this approach in my own modules, even those I have developed and blended over the years? Do I evaluate what I have been doing? I would certainly have behaved differently had this chapter been available from the outset of my teaching career. Anyone developing a course or module would benefit from this chapter.
Chapter 5: Planning and Designing Learning Activities
I suspect many readers will head to this chapter first; for new ideas, to see what the author has to say about particular methods and activities. After a first examination of ten design principles it then looks at ideas from Action Plan to Visits using, unsurprisingly, Gilly Salmon's 'e-tivities' as a starting point. Table 5.1 is a good place to explore a variety of learning activities. Coverage includes samples and examples of practice. Readers will be able to view these and pick and mix according to their own requirements for, as Allan says, they can be adapted for face to face or online use. This chapter should be read by all those who think HE and FE are (or perhaps should be) primarily lecture-based.
Chapter 6: Working with Groups
An important chapter which can be read on its own for, yet again, this is an oft-neglected area and one which employers say they require of students and customers. There is much more to this than allocation of students into groups and letting them get on with a task. I prefer to think of the development of groups into teams. This chapter provides a basis for that transformation with examples, ideas and references to published work on group learning processes. Gilly Salmon's model for e-learning appears in adapted form and the chapter also includes sections on working with large groups and mass lectures. In the latter are a few ideas for a 'mid-lecture break', an unknown construct in many lecture series. I found lots of ideas here and I wonder how many postgraduate teaching courses include some of them.
Chapter 7: Working as a Tutor
More ideas here and this should be a compulsory read for postgraduates doing tutorials as well as official tutors of courses. Teaching and training skills are required in many aspects of education and this chapter provides a valuable student-centred view.
Chapter 8: Communities of Practice
There are a few standard works on communities of practice, a relatively recent term but one which can be well developed in a teaching context. Indeed, as Allan says, ILS staff are often such participants. Here the emphasis is on the practitioners rather than the student or learner body. Of course the ideas and methods discussed in this chapter are useful for enhancing group work and indeed developing group work so that it becomes teamwork. Engendering team skills, motivation and best practice by tutors and instructors is itself important.
Chapter 9: Managing Blended Learning Projects
This final chapter builds upon and extracts from Allan's previous guide in this area . We are back to managing teams as well as individuals for maximum benefit of the project or course. Once again, lots of sensible ideas and checklists and the chapter also includes sections on looking for funding and accreditation. Not necessarily a chapter for everyone but if you are putting in a funding proposal then an informative one.
I am not alone in disliking the name 'blended learning'. It makes for a snappy title but even knowing that it relates to 'e-learning' does not help (Isn't blended teaching what I have been trying to do all these years, use field trips, practicals, tutorials etc as part of a general educational remit?) Where does 'e' help? Barbara Allan shows that it can and does.
The book includes enough references, especially related to 'how to do it' topics, at the end of each chapter. Useful Web sites are also here, although sometimes these are in the main text and even in example 'boxes' so can get a bit lost.
One thing that is not covered in this book is 'assessment' (as opposed to project evaluation), despite this being a very important topic. Without assessment students will often not participate, their rewards having to come as marks rather than learning experiences. Books have been written about assessment so maybe there is scope for a further book on including assessment with 'blended learning'.
Perhaps one problem with 'blended learning' is the impression of throwing perfectly fine ingredients in to an electric blender and ending up with an amorphous mass of 'stuff' which is supposed to be better than the sum of the individual ingredients. So maybe 'mixed ingredient learning' might be better. If we take this then Barbara Allan's book comes out very highly on the star rating. You can leave bits of it out if you wish or concentrate on particular aspects for a particular course if you would rather. All are important flavours. As such, it should be of use to a wide range of teachers, tutors and instructors involved in 21st century education.
Barbara Allan's book does offer, 'a holistic blended learning approach, combining the best of traditional and new approaches to learning and teaching to make optimum use of the advantages of each while minimizing the disadvantages'. I hope I have shown why it is a valuable book. It is not a polemic for the advantages of e- or blended learning but offers experience and examples of how to do things and what you might try. Although the price seems a bit steep at £39.95, it is value for money. Maybe it is not meant for individual purchase; some creative accounting in a project submission should hide it nicely. It certainly should be available in any educational developer's library and, furthermore, as multiple copies in any teaching department's professional library. I hope it obtains a wider readership than the target ILS community.