In this series, we explore technology-related themes and topics. The series aims to discuss and demystify what may be new areas for some readers and to consider their relevance for English language teachers. The term ‘blended learning’ has been widely used in English language teaching since at least 2007, when Sharma and Barrett published their eponymous teachers’ resource book. Despite its now widespread use, the term has proved difficult to define, with different interpretations and terminology proposed by researchers and practitioners (see Whittaker (2013) for a detailed discussion). Nevertheless, more than a decade since the term’s first appearance in ELT, a consensus around what the term might mean for English language practitioners has now emerged, which Whittaker summarizes as follows: ‘[I]n ELT “blended learning” is the term most commonly used to refer to any combination of face-to-face teaching with computer technology (online and offline activities/materials)’ (ibid.: 12). To this we might add that the use of ‘computer technology’ as part of blended learning is usually understood to take place in another location to the face-to-face (f2f) teaching, and most likely in the learners’ own time. However, blended learning in primary and secondary school contexts, currently most common in North America, can include learners working individually with educational software on computers in the school building, either in the classroom itself, or in a separate computer lab (see Hockly (2016) for a detailed discussion). Many of the research areas that have been explored regarding fully online language learning (see White 2014) are also relevant to the technology-driven component of blended learning. Nevertheless, the combination of technology and f2f teaching means that blended learning has some fundamental differences to purely online learning, and it is generally considered to be a field worthy of research in its own right. For teachers and researchers, any consideration of blended learning in ELT needs to include not just a shared understanding of the term, but also an understanding of why we would want to provide blended learning opportunities to language learners at all, as well as—crucially—how blended learning might best support and improve learning outcomes. The growth of blended learning in ELT Over the last decade, blended learning has grown significantly in ELT. For example, Tomlinson and Whittaker’s edited volume (2013) comprises 20 case studies of blended learning, including descriptions of teacher development, EAP (English for Academic Purposes), ESP (English for Specific Purposes), business English, and general English blended learning programmes, from an astonishing range of countries: Canada, Russia, China, Australia, Armenia, Nigeria, Colombia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Latvia, Egypt, Germany and the UK. Clearly, although increasing numbers of teachers and institutions are offering blended learning ELT programmes to their learners, there is a need for support in how to do so effectively. Drivers of blended learning The twin drivers of economics (i.e. lower costs) and increasingly accessible and affordable hardware and software have no doubt influenced the spread of blended learning in ELT. To what extent blended learning really does lower costs is a moot point (Horn and Staker 2012); nevertheless, the perceived cost savings of a blended approach have proven attractive to institutions. In addition, large class sizes, a lack of classroom space, and teacher dissatisfaction with the impact of f2f teaching due to the limited exposure to the target language that learners inevitably experience in timetabled classes may be significant factors in choosing to implement a blended learning approach in some contexts (e.g. Aborisade 2013). In other contexts, political instability may increase the need for blended learning when learners experience difficulties in physically attending f2f classes (e.g. Fleet 2013). To these drivers we might add the pedagogical ‘best of both worlds’ view, expressed by Osguthorpe and Graham as follows: Those who use blended approaches base their pedagogy on the assumption that there are inherent benefits in face-to-face interaction (both among learners and between learner and instructor) as well as the understanding that there are some inherent advantages to using online methods in their teaching. Thus the aim of those using blended learning approaches is to find a harmonious balance between online access to knowledge and face-to-face human interaction. (Osguthorpe and Graham 2003: 228). Blended learning research There is a growing body of research into blended language learning (see Mendieta Aguilar (2012) for an overview) that can generally be divided into comparison and non-comparison studies (Grgurovic 2011). Comparison studies attempt to compare the effectiveness of the same course offered in blended versus traditional f2f mode; measuring and comparing the language learning outcomes in each mode, for example via test results, is one common methodological approach in comparison studies. Non-comparison studies focus only on the blended approach, and are typically concerned with issues such as course design and implementation, and/or learners’ and teachers’ attitudes to and experiences of blended learning. Much of the blended learning research in ELT focuses on non-comparison studies, in recognition perhaps of the challenges involved in comparing two different modes of delivery in any meaningful way. Indeed, Blake (2009: 823) refers to attempts to compare f2f and online delivery of the same programmes as ‘the wrong research question’. As a result, a rich body of qualitative blended English language learning research has emerged, from a wide range of contexts. Despite the growing number of blended language learning studies, overall the research findings are mixed. In a literature review of blended language learning research, Mendieta Aguilar notes: Some researchers contend that language learning is enhanced through the exposure learners have to the blended learning model, while others indicate that there is not significant improvement in comparison with more conventional (F2F) means of instruction. In terms of levels of satisfaction, different opinions have also been reported. (Mendieta Aguilar 2012: 173). In addition, cultural considerations can affect the implementation of blended learning. For example, in some contexts, learners may be reluctant to engage in written online forum discussions for fear of making mistakes (Zhu, Valcke, and Schellens, 2009). This finding is replicated by Li and Chiu, who thus suggest that in implementing blended learning ‘[c]ultural adaptation should be intentionally allowed and guided by addressing how different cultural values are embedded in the course design and the teaching’ (Liu and Chiu 2016: 61). The wide range of contexts in which blended learning is implemented, the multitude of factors that can affect language learning, and the different forms that blended language learning can take, make comparisons between studies challenging, and firm conclusions about its effectiveness are difficult to draw. Blended learning course design How to design an effective blended learning course is a question of paramount importance to ELT practitioners and researchers. There is clearly no one ‘right blend’ due to the wide range of contexts in which blended learning can take place, the varying needs of learners, and the different models, content and approaches that can inform course design. Nevertheless, McCarthy (2016) suggests that there is a substantial and robust body of research in the field of ELT that can be drawn on in blended language learning course design. He cites SLA and classroom interaction studies, as well as insights from corpus linguistics, as useful in helping course designers create an optimum balance between f2f classroom work and computer-led out-of-class work. Thornbury (2016) suggests 12 principles based on SLA research that can be applied to the selection of the technology-based component of a blended course. Whatever learning tool is chosen, Thornbury suggests that it should be able to address issues of adaptivity ‘by allowing the users to set their own learning paths and goals’ (ibid.: 31), and of ‘complexity of language, including its multiple interrelated subsystems (e.g. grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse, pragmatics)’ (ibid.). In addition, the chosen learning tool(s) should provide opportunities for input, output, noticing, scaffolding, feedback, interaction, automaticity, the use of chunks and formulaic language, personalization, and flow. In practical terms, Whittaker (2013) suggests a four-step approach to designing a blended learning course. The first step is to ‘carefully consider the teaching and learning context, to identify the reasons for adopting a blended approach and to determine what the limiting factors to the design will be’ (ibid.: 227). The second consists of designing the course by choosing the technology component of the blend, deciding what the lead mode (f2f or technology-led) will be, and deciding how much time learners will spend on each mode, as well as what the pedagogic purpose of each mode will be, and how this fits with the overall methodology of the blend. The second step also includes making detailed decisions about timetabling, such as the number, timing and location of the individual sessions that make up the blended course. The third step includes a consideration of learners and teachers: for example, who will be involved in the course design process, what the teachers’ and learners’ roles will be, and what interaction patterns will be included in both the f2f and technology-led/off-site components of the course. Other important issues to address at this stage include considering how teachers and learners will be supported in the transition to a blended approach, what level of autonomy learners will need, and what ratio of learners to teachers the technology-led component of the course will have. This last point has implications for the demands on teachers’ time, and how and when feedback is provided on learners’ out-of-class work. The fourth and final step consists of deciding how to evaluate and develop the blend, as part of an ongoing iterative course design process. In conclusion, based on the research to date, areas to consider in the design of blended learning courses might include: Interaction: include provision for online interaction with other learners, the teacher, and possibly with individuals in the wider world. SLA research: the blend should reflect the 12 SLA principles described by Thornbury (see above). Task design and tools: task design and the choice of technology tool(s) need to match. Materials: rather than only providing content/input, technology-based tasks and materials can also facilitate process (see Mishan 2016). Integration: there needs to be a clear link and integration between f2f and technology-driven components of the course, with each complementing, supporting and developing the other. Evaluation: technology-based work (including speaking and/or written work) needs to be integrated into overall learner evaluation. Context: the blended learning design must take into account the local context, including the needs, skills, expectations, and beliefs of learners and teachers. Teacher training: training is key for the successful implementation of a blended approach, to ensure that teachers understand the underlying principles, and are able to implement the blend effectively. Learner training: if learners find working autonomously a challenge, the blend may require some initial learner training. It is hoped that a consideration of these issues might support curricula developers, materials writers and ELT practitioners in creating robust, pedagogically sound and context-sensitive blended learning courses based on sound research principles and evidence-based practice. It is by no means an exhaustive list of issues, but it may also provide a starting point for a critical assessment of the ready-made blended products increasingly available in the field of English language learning and teaching. Nicky Hockly is the Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants E (www.theconsultants-e.com), an online training and development organization. She has been involved in EFL teaching and teacher training since 1987, and is co-author of How to Teach English with Technology, Learning English as a Foreign Language for Dummies, Teaching Online, Digital Literacies, and Going Mobile, and sole author of Focus on Learning Technologies (2016) and ETpedia Technology (2017). References Aborisade, P. A. 2013. ‘ Blended learning in English for academic purposes courses: a Nigerian case study’ in Tomlinson B. and Whittaker C. (eds.). Blended Learning in English Language Teaching: Course Design and Implementation . London: British Council (pp. 35– 42). Blake, R. 2009. ‘ The use of technology for second language distance learning’. Modern Language Journal 93, SI: 822– 35. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Fleet, L. 2013. ‘ A blended learning approach to soft skills training at Al Azhar University, Cairo’ in Tomlinson B. and Whittaker C. (eds.) (pp. 201– 06). Grgurovic, M. 2011. ‘ Blended learning in an ESL class: a case study’. CALICO Journal 29/ 1: 100– 17. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Hockly, N. 2016. Focus on Learning Technologies . Oxford: Oxford University Press. Horn, M. and H. Staker. 2012. ‘How much does blended learning cost?’ Available at https://thejournal.com/articles/2012/04/05/how-much-does-blended-learning-cost.aspx ( accessed 31 August 2017). McCarthy, M. 2016. ‘ Issues in second language acquisition in relation to blended learning’ in McCarthy M. (ed.). The Cambridge Guide to Blended Learning for Language Teaching . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (pp. 7– 24). Mendieta Aguilar, J. A. 2012. Blended learning and the language teacher: a literature review’. Colombia Applied Linguistics Journal 14/ 2: 163– 80. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Mishan, F. 2016. ‘ Reconceptualising materials for the blended language learning environment’ in McCarthy M. (ed.) (pp. 123– 38). Osguthorpe, R.T. and C. R. Graham. 2003. ‘ Blended learning environments: definitions and directions’. Quarterly Review of Distance Education 4/ 3: 227– 33. Sharma, P. and B. Barrett. 2007. Blended Learning . Oxford: Macmillan. Thornbury, S. 2016. Educational technology: assessing its fitness for purpose. In McCarthy M. (ed.) (pp. 25– 35). Tomlinson, B. and C. Whittaker(eds.). Blended Learning in English Language Teaching: Course Design and Implementation . London: British Council White, C. 2014. ‘ The distance learning of foreign languages: a research agenda’. Language Teaching 47: 538– 53. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Whittaker, C. 2013. ‘ Introduction’ in Tomlinson B. and Whittaker C. (eds.) (pp. 11– 23). Zhu, C., M. Valcke, and T. Schellens. 2009. A cross-cultural study of online collaborative learning. Multicultural Education and Technology Journal 3/ 1: 33– 46. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
ELT Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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