Self-paced Blended Learning: Some Theory Behind The Practice

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While practical experience over several years in a self-paced Blended Learning environment indicates that it suits a large range of personalities and learning styles, recent research also supports this model.

This article provides a brief overview of some of this research.

Motivation

Daniel Pink has explored motivation in our modern society and has compared it to the things that used to provide motivation in the past. His findings are summarised in his book Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

He outlines three stages of motivation:

Motivation 1.0 – This covers the basic biological drives, such as the need for food and shelter. These may have been a primary focus for our early ancestors (and, unfortunately, may still be in some parts of the world), but they are generally taken care of in a modern society.

Motivation 2.0 – This is basically the ‘carrot and stick’ model; reward the behaviour that you want and punish the behaviour that you do not want. This has now been shown to work when tasks are relatively simple, uninteresting and ‘step by step’; straightforward tasks that do not require lateral thinking. It has actually been found to be counterproductive in some situations; usually those that are more creative.

Motivation 3.0 – Work (and hopefully learning) in modern times has largely evolved beyond the ‘humans assembling things at conveyor belts’ model. Work has become more complex, more self-directed and more interesting. Evidence indicates that the old models of motivation can actually hamper success in this changed environment. The things that now lead to improved performance and success have shifted. Motivation is now more internal (intrinsic) than external (extrinsic – e.g. ‘carrot and stick’).

From the evidence encountered, Pink suggests that workers have and need more autonomy with their work, and breaks this autonomy into four categories. The author suggests that these factors also apply to students and learning, particularly in a self-paced Blended Learning ‘classroom’, and observations support this. Thus, the following can occur:

  • Time – Allow students some choice in when they learn. Allowing students to fit the pace of learning to their situation, and providing the choice, when and if, to have a break, provides flexibility and individuality. Time is not at the centre of the learning paradigm; understanding and results are, which provides flexibility. With a well-designed course in some disciplines in some year levels, there may even be flexibility of timing of assessment. A test or assignment can be done when the student is ready rather than at some arbitrarily designated time. Computer-based solutions can make this type of test scenario a reality.
  • Team – Allowing students some choice about who they work with. The self-paced Blended Learning environment is extremely flexible, providing a large range of options concurrently. At any time, students may be working individually, with one other person, with small groups or with larger groups.
  • Technique – Allowing students a choice of how they learn. A good self-paced Blended Learning environment provides a number of parallel learning options; options that teach the same material and concepts in a number of ways. These may be as simple as ePaper-based tutorials, video tutorials, ‘pencasts’ or narrated presentations, or may be more diverse. Experience has shown that students like choice.
  • Task – Allowing a choice of tasks. This may not be possible in some courses due to the curriculum or other constraints. However, flexibility may be possible in some situations. Experience has shown that providing a choice of topics or sub-topics to be studied by students is very effective in improving student engagement and satisfaction with learning.

Some teachers have suggested that younger students do not have the self-control to work this way, yet the author has seen 11- and 12-year-old students who have never been in a self-paced Blended Learning classroom adjust very quickly; in a matter of two to three lessons. Students will often respond according to our level of expectation. The author simply assumed the students were capable of self-management, and treated them accordingly.

Quiet

Collaboration has become a buzzword in education. We have online collaboration, collaborative group work, team-based assignments and tasks, collaborative learning spaces and social media overload. Yet a significant percentage of our population may find this a negative influence on learning.

In her book Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain outlines a number of points that educational organisations should consider. Her talk at www.ted.com is a good summary of the book and an excellent introduction to her ideas. However, the book delves much more deeply into the science behind the concepts and is excellent reading.

Her basic premise is that 30 to 50 per cent of people are introverts. This does not mean that they are shy. It does not mean they do not like to talk or that they do not know how to make friends. It does mean that they need quiet spaces and quiet time to be alone and to think.

Her research indicates that introverts tend to:

  • be creative
  • be careful, reflective thinkers
  • make considered decisions
  • not look for personal glory
  • get better grades and are more knowledgeable.

As Cain states in her book, introverts “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments…a lot of the time”.

Many important people in history were/are considered to be introverts; people such as:

The self-paced Blended Learning environment suits learners who are introverts, while still allowing the collaboration and group work that may suit extroverts. Introverts can work individually, and can ask questions without being the centre of attention as may be the case in a traditional classroom. A hand in the air does not stop the rest of the class; it simply allows the student to get a solution to the current problem in a one-to-one scenario. Questions can also be asked of a peer in a quiet fashion.

Learning can occur in a relatively quiet environment that allows the student to focus on the task at hand rather that the swirl of interactions and conversations that may be occurring around him/her. This also allows time for reflection and careful consideration of information; a process that requires deeper thinking and thus a lack of interruption and intrusion.

Once again, several years of teaching in this type of learning environment has allowed the author to see the benefits for all types of learners.

Mastery, Excellence And ‘Deliberate Practice’

Anders Ericsson has researched excellence in a wide range of endeavours over many years. One of his books, The Road to Excellence, outlines some of his research and ideas

His research indicated that experts, ‘stars’ of the arts, the business world, sport and politics, are created through practice and effort rather than simply innate talent. This was a revolutionary concept in its time, and is still viewed sceptically by those who have not read the research.

He is sometimes recognised by the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. The idea of deliberate practice is one that is worth exploring. Deliberate practice requires quiet, concentration, repetition, lack of distractions and regular, individualised feedback. It does not require collaboration. It does not require group work. These things may be valuable for other reasons, but we also need learning environments that allow students to realise that these things are vital for successful learning to occur.

A self-paced Blended Learning classroom can provide key elements of this type of environment. More importantly, it also provides students with a model for learning; one that says it is alright to work quietly without interruption, with focussed effort and where expert guidance and feedback is available on an individual basis. It also allows students to realise that breaks in study, even during a class, are not only acceptable but are actually vital if concentration is to be maintained.

Recent studies on neuroplasticity, which show that the brain is continually changing and developing, also support these concepts.

The self-paced Blended Learning classroom that has short learning experiences (tutorials, etc.), and then have a task that requires thoughtfulness, concentration and demonstration of mastery, provides many of the requirements for deliberate practice.

Are All Students Ready For This?

Of course, the answer is no, particularly when students are first introduced to this type of environment. It still requires the normal classroom management and discipline. Some students require assistance to develop the self-regulation, motivation and time management required to succeed in an environment where constant effort and thinking are necessary. However, part of our role as a teacher is to help students develop these life skills.

Not Mutually Exclusive

Self-paced Blended Learning environments provide many advantages and can enhance learning. Yet there is a need for a range of learning environments and providing self-paced Learning Environments does not mean that all other options should be removed.

As teachers in the 21st Century, we should be aware of recent research and models of learning to guide practice, rather than relying on traditions that may no longer apply. Self-paced Blended Learning courses may take time and effort to design effectively and to build, but the effort is worth it for both students and teachers.

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Peter West

Peter West

Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen's College
Peter West is Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College on the Gold Coast, Queensland.


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