In my previous post, in which I focused on my IATEFL 2013 talk, I described my process of learning about blended learning and MOODLE and transforming a traditional writing course for teachers into a blended one. Using a unit on Narrative Essays as an example, I explained the choices made regarding what to do online and what to do in class so that both types of teaching modes would be logically interconnected and form a coherent unity.
Now it’s time to focus my attention on how students reacted to the blended version and the feedback given. In the two semesters that I piloted the program, I had 15 students, none of whom had ever taken an online or a blended course, so they had to learn how to navigate the MOODLE platform and acquire a new type of autonomy and self-direction in order to do the asynchronous online activities required for each week. Of the 15 students, two had serious difficulties performing the online work on time; one managed to complete the program because she was given an extension, while the other one dropped out at the end, saying she would like to take the course again, and perform all the activities.
Feedback from the students about the blended course was provided in two different ways. The first one was by way of their final assignment – an argumentative essay in favor or against implementing the blended course in the Teacher Development Course. This assignment was preceded by a heated debate in which students were given a viewpoint and had to think about arguments to defend it. Then they were asked to choose the point of view they would really like to support and write an argumentative essay. Of the 14 students who completed the course and, thus, wrote this final essay, 12 defended the blended format for various reasons, as the excerpts below taken from their essays show:
- Society is constantly changing as technology keeps evolving every day. The learning environment should follow this process and take the best aspects of it without ignoring the more traditional methodologies. The blended format takes the best of both face-to-face and online formats to offer a complete, contemporary course.
- Since learning is a lifelong process, a blended approach respects individual differences and helps students become more independent as they make these adjustments gradually.
- As part of the vision of Casa Thomas Jefferson is to empower students to fully develop their linguistic skills, this course can offer these future teachers the opportunity of exploring new pathways of learning by experimenting the traditional face-to-face classes and becoming familiar with the innovations available in the online environment.
- In a face-to-face class, many students are not comfortable voicing their opinions because of shyness. However, this issue can be easily resolved by the use of online media like forums, written tasks and portfolios, where students can post their ideas. Conversely for those students who have a better performance by interacting with teacher and colleagues in person, face-to-face classes will meet their needs of socializing and engaging through hands-on exercises and group activities performed in the classroom.
- In a blended writing course, the student can improve his/her writing skill because there is more time to reflect about what was taught in class. Having a face-to-face class only once a week instead of twice is great because it allows the student more time to assimilate better the content given in class. Besides, the student will have more time to reflect and to research before doing his/her homework.
- The students who shared this newly divided module were able to do certain activities following their own pace instead of being pressured to write in an unnatural speed. Most of these students also managed to interact online almost as much as they would in class through the use of comments and spontaneous student-created discussions instead of only keeping to what they were formally instructed to do.
- Many (if not all) of the students in this course are already employed, and job obligations often get in the way of class attendance. The possibility of transferring activities from one day to the next, or simply doing them during the night, is excellent for the students to participate more and better. As a result, very few students miss class, since the face-to-face activity only takes place once a week.
- Online classes develop knowledge of the Internet and the ability with computer tools which will aid students in their lives. Furthermore, a blended learning environment brings a sense of commitment on each one’s part to learning and this builds self-confidence and encourages students to take responsibility for their learning.
Two students, however, had mixed feelings about the blended format and argued that it really depended on the learner’s profile, as the excerpts below show:
- The last difference is the concentration needed when trying to learn through these methods. A student inside a classroom is already inside his studying environment, a place that is expected to be learning-friendly. Nevertheless, if a student is seated in front of his or her own computer, there is a universe of possible distractors around him or her. People are ready to learn inside a classroom, but not in front of a computer. No matter how much they are used to using this tool, many people can’t find the concentration necessary to forget about all the different possibilities around them and just focus on what is necessary.
- Another aspect a student may want to consider is the workload involved in an online class versus that of a face-to-face class. Since a face-to-face teacher has to budget time for students who may be slower, or for students who may have questions, they end up developing activities that take those factors into consideration. On the other hand, teachers in an e-learning environment can assign more work since students have a longer time period in between grading periods or classes.
As shown above, the greatest advantages pointed out were flexibility, self-regulated learning, attending to different learning styles, opportunity for deeper learning and better writing production, and student-teachers’ need to become familiarized with new technologies and online learning environments. Students also rebutted the argument that there is no interaction online. On the other hand, two students argued that blended or online learning wasn’t a good fit for every learner, only for the more disciplined and autonomous ones. One of them went on to argue that teachers may create more demanding and time-consuming online activities than face-to-face ones, resulting in more work for the students.
Students also completed a survey about the course which contained specific questions about the online activities. Here are the responses of the 13 students who completed the survey.
All in all, the piloting experience was shown to be successful, but there is still a lot to work on, especially regarding facilitating students’ navigation on the MOODLE platform, providing clear instructions for the online work, and balancing even better the face-to-face and online activities.
When is there NOT a lot of room for improvement in our courses and our teaching, right? That’s what keeps us going!