Challenges and Opportunities of a Blended Learning Approach
P. A. Aborisade
The benefits of ICTs in education are now well documented. Several studies have devoted much attention to a plethora of experiences of integration of ICT into college and university programmes with stunning results of student engagement with learning materials and enhanced learning experiences. The impact of technology in teaching and learning is also being reported in Africa in spite of the big digital divide (Aborisade, 2009a; 2009b). But the journey from the chalkboard to websites has been strewn with thorns and shrapnel.
The FUTA experience, therefore, is an exploration of the role social context plays in fostering 2nd language learning in a higher education context. It is based on a study of modules of English language support programme for freshmen cohorts in a university of science and technology in Nigeria. It is built on the premise that L2 acquisition depends more on interaction and collaboration among learners. The paper describes a study of our approach at FUTA to the progression to Blended Learning; the choice of e-learning platforms (LMS) within the blend, resources and tools for learning support: the Wiki, MOODLE, Forums configuration, podcasts.
By the 2005/2006 academic session teachers started experimenting with using the internet to extend students learning experience. At this point due to teachers’ and students’ limited knowledge and skills in supporting learning with technology, arrangements were made with the host of a Non-Government Organisation’s (NGO) website on HIV/Aids for access to their materials for research on the chosen topic for the module’s project work. This approach further raised expectations of how much more could be done by a thorough integration of the module with technology.
In 2008, we started supporting our writing module using the Wiki. Aborisade (2009a; 2009b) elaborated on this, both in relation to the creation of innovative learning spaces and enhancing the learning experience of our students. Buoyed by the limited success of using the Wiki, we have now embarked on configuring and integrating our two modules with the MOODLE Learning Management System (LMS). The critical point in this development is that for both the Wiki and MOODLE the decisions were initiated and made by the team of language teachers with minimal technical support given by software technologists who had little knowledge of educational software. But, there were two intervening workshops attended by a member of the team, first in the UK and at the 2009 e-learning Africa pre-conference workshop.
Configuring the MOODLE commenced on a trial and error basis, but we were clear we wanted a student-centred design that enabled us realise some of the established learning principles to which we were committed, that:
â–ª Learning is enhanced when it takes place in an environment that balances challenge and opportunity
â–ª Learning is an active search for meaning, by the learner actively searching for rather than receiving it passively
â–ª Much learning takes place incidentally and informally rather than when given explicitly in the classroom
â–ª Learning requires frequent feedback if it is to be sustained and reinforced
â–ª Learning involves the ability of the learner to monitor their learning processes
â–ª Learning environments and learning are cooperative, collaborative, and supportive
With about two thousand seven hundred and thirty registered (2730) users the MOODLE (FUTA e-learning Express: futaelearning.com) enables students on the module access their learning materials, texts and podcasts, and allows students join the discussion forums. Students are encouraged to bring up issues for discussion, teachers initiate and contribute; they also give feedback on students’ questions. Evidence from the site indicates that students are using these facilities fairly well.
Initially students are given face-to-face (F2F) orientation on using the internet. They are assigned tasks, such as accessing the net, editing their profiles, uploading their photos with a view to acquainting them with online resources. Students’ messages posted on the site and discussions are so far encouraging as they feel very positive about the developments. Learners are given physical and online technical support by teachers and technical staff who work with us on the project. First an introductory step by step hand out on working on the learning site is provided after the orientation programme. Thereafter, support is given as required online.
Opportunities and Challenges
At the end of every session students are required to sum up their experience of using the MOODLE with the Wiki and communication forums for their learning. In addition there is an end-of-course evaluation that will give a quantitative analysis of students’ experience. This provides empirical evidence of quality assurance. So far we seem to be succeeding in engaging many more students, if not all, in better engagement with their learning materials through the number of hits on the site, the questions being posted and the comments being made. Students also spend more hours on their work in the course than hitherto because of the diversification of the learning spaces afforded them by the learning site and group work. Our major challenges remain with how to deal adequately with assessment issues and the technical problems we still have on account of limited experience of our learning technologists and of course the vastly inadequate bandwidth available to us.
Aborisade, P.A. (2009a). Creating Innovative Learning Spaces: ‘WIKI-ing’ Our Way to eLearning in FUTA. Proceedings of e-learning Africa Conference, Dakar Senegal, 27-29 May.
Aborisade, P. (2009b). “Investigating a Nigerian XXL-Cohort Wiki-Learning Experience: Observation, Feedback and Reflection” Electronic Journal of e-Learning. Volume 7 Issue 3, 191-202, available online at www.ejel.org.
FUTA: a connected university
All over the world trends in teaching and learning are witnessing tremendous strides in supporting practice with modern technologies. The internet and digital technologies have invaded domains originally reserved for modest technologies of the chalk board and later magnetic boards. The new Learning Technologies are affording large numbers of students of various categories, including working class students ‘flexible learning’ opportunities. Teachers are now able to cater to studentswith varying learning styles and habits using multimedia and hypermedia. Nigeria lags behind in this endeavour, but FUTA is beginning to break the ice, and we stand a chance of being the leading light in this regard, becoming a connected university.
The FUTA Blend
The two main ingredients of the FUTA Blended learning programme are the face to face interactions and online interaction. Each teacher (who is responsible for 600 or more students) divides his/her class into two or three more manageable classes and meets with each of these classes two hours a week. As for the online interaction, there is a network of relationships linking teacher with student, teacher with teacher, student with student, and student with teacher. The faculty relate with the student body byproviding course materials, defining and initiating discussion topics, and setting tasks and timelines. Students download course materials, do the set tasks and participate in the discussions. However, as students take charge of their own learning, they also take up new and exciting roles, including that of provider of instructional materials – by uploading useful materials they come across online or providing links to sites where they have found relevant materials.
Students relate with other students by initiating or participating in discussions, utilizing response and rejoinder, agreeing with and appreciating others, and sometimes extending the discussion. Even when students have cause to disagree with opinions expressed in their classmates’ contributions, they tend to emphasize a common ground before noting the area of disagreement or at least, disagree with a colleague in an agreeable way. in this way, students practise important interactional skills.
There is a mobile dimension to the blend. Learner support is sometimes given by sending bulk text messages. Majority of students access the learning site on their GPRS-enabled cell phones, meaning that learning, now more self-directed, takes place anywhere and at any time. The disconnection between classroom and other spaces used by teachers and learners is reduced: teachers keep teaching as long as they can get online, to respond to students’ questions, upload new materials or grade assignments. As connectivity improves (in classrooms, school buildings, halls of residence) even those who use desktops, laptops and netbooks can access the learning platform with greater convenience. Teachers and students are always connected; to one another, to learning materials and the world of learning. This is what is meant by a connected university.
And the students love it. Here are three comments from the frontpage of PBWiki, 2008: