3 reasons why blended learning is higher ed’s future

Adopting a consistent approach to technology-enhanced learning across the entire college or university is critical
Ryan Lufkin
Ryan Lufkin

In her recent University Business op ed, “In defense of online learning,” Nancy Gleason wrote a compelling argument for embracing online learning in higher ed.

Her voice is part of a growing chorus, myself among them, proclaiming that the future of higher ed is blended.

Blended learning—which combines face-to-face teaching and online instruction and is supported by a technology framework that helps organize course content, communication and common workflows—builds on the strengths of both modalities.

After the last year, most of us are quite familiar with some version of this approach. But the true power of blended learning is achieved when it is applied consistently, at scale.

Consistently adopted blended learning will not just ensure schools are prepared for any potential future disruption, it can deliver the flexibility today’s students demand and help to address opportunity gaps with learners.

Adopting a consistent approach to technology-enhanced learning across the entire college or university is critical to addressing the next wave of challenges facing education.

Delivering a consistent, competitive student experience

One of the most consistent pieces of feedback edtech developers receive is related to an area we have the least control over, “make my professors use the technology more…make them use it better.”

What these students are really asking for is a more consistent user experience. In the software world we call that UX. Consistent use of feedback channels, consistent assignment workflows, complete and predictable use of to-do lists.

Educators like John Spencer have done some great work in examining how the UX design approach can be leveraged by educators to build more engaging and impactful courses. The tenets of UX design which include things like: design for your users, not for yourself, solicit feedback, provide clear workflows, and use data, may seem common sense, but when applied with intent have a real impact on user outcomes.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough for individual educators to adopt the UX design mentality. True success in delivering a consistent student user experience requires these academic design principles be applied across all courses, programs and departments.

It’s not an outlandish expectation for a student to have the same experience navigating a general ed course that they would when navigating an upper division course in their major, or even a fully online course they’re taking as part of a non-degree certificate program from the same institution.

This can be accomplished, but it requires a level of planning, instructional design support, leveraging blueprint courses and offering templates, and above all training for less tech experienced educators.

Putting data to work

Having good data is critical for the institutional health of colleges and universities in the 21st century. In the software world, “garbage in, garbage out” is the concept that incomplete or inaccurate data leads to incomplete or inaccurate results.

We know that inconsistently adopted technology can create blind spots that lead to false narratives and the inability to identify trends while they’re still addressable. One of the tangential benefits of successfully adopting a comprehensive blended learning approach is the wealth of good data available to make critical decisions to support students.

Data-driven decision making is already the order of the day in higher ed, and will be increasingly critical to colleges and universities as we address the challenges of declining enrollment and shifting student dynamics.

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But data isn’t just about institutional health, it’s about student success. In another recent University Business op ed, Leveraging data angles to identify pathways to student success,

J.D. White discussed the importance of aggregating student data from across the disparate systems across campus to create a more holistic picture of individual student health. And while I absolutely agree with J.D.’s insights, what he doesn’t address is the garbage in, garbage out aspect of inconsistently collected student data.

The data is only as good as the method in which it’s collected and if data in the classroom—the most impactful and timely data we can collect on our students—isn’t being collected consistently, then it’s of dubious use. A consistent, campus-wide approach to blended learning ensures accurate data to the benefit of your students.

Adapting to the needs of the continuous learner

We’ve now seen a decade of declining enrollment in higher education across North America. This has led to tight budgets, school closures, and ceaseless debate on what higher ed can do to change this ominous trend.

We also know that while the pandemic accelerated some of the trends already taking place in education, it’s created opportunities for us to support learners in new and evolving ways. Up-skilling and reskilling adult learners, providing pathways to help learners develop new skills to shift their career paths when a traditional two or four year degree programs might be too resource- or time-intensive.

It’s still unclear what these varied new approaches to supporting the new ‘continuous learner’ will look like, but what is clear is that by adopting blended learning we’re equipping our faculty with the skills and support they’ll need for the future.

Content in a blended course can more easily be adapted to various modalities to serve different types of learners. Shifted to fully online and packaged with other courses for certificate programs aligned to the skills outlined by corporate partners, as one example.

It’s been said that the best way to predict the future is to create it, and at this momentous point in the history of education we have the opportunity to define what the future looks like. Adopting a consistent application of blended learning as the new baseline at our institutions certainly starts us off on the right foot, whatever lies ahead.

Ryan Lufkin is the senior director of product marketing for higher education at Instructure, the makers of Canvas.

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