Literature Review by Tracy Wilson
Blended learning is a student-centered model that incorporates face-to-face instruction with supplemental online activities. The question remains as to whether blended learning impacts learning outcomes. Researchers are striving to answer that question, and in doing so, a common theme is emerging. Collaborative activities, both in the classroom and online, create positive perceptions among students, which contribute to student success. The learners’ upbeat opinion then contributes to the probability of meeting desired learning outcomes. Nevertheless, there are challenges surrounding technology, and there are significant gaps in research. Some of the gaps include understanding the students’ existing content knowledge, the learners’ general awareness, motivation, and, of course, learning outcomes. Additionally, research is skeletal concerning blended learning with a transfer of learning component. Instructional design still requires more study, and institutions need to decide upon best-practice models. Even so, the current research for blended learning and student success presents promising results, paving the way for educators to evaluate learning outcomes, empower students, and prepare graduates for the workforce.
Blended Learning: A Literature Review
Blended learning has become popular in institutions of higher learning (Alammary, Sheard, & Carbone, 2014). Despite the plethora of information available for blended learning designs and implementation practices, learning outcomes and transfer of learning have not been explored adequately. The research surrounding learning activities, technology, and overall student success provides a firm foundation, but further study is required to determine how blended learning contributes to learning outcomes. In fact, the only way to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of blended learning is through examining approaches, deciding upon learning objectives, exploring student satisfaction, investigating retention, and analyzing student achievement (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004).
Instruction Designs, Implementation, and Learning Outcomes
Researchers are working very hard to provide a baseline to determine the effectiveness of blended learning. Without a clear direction, understanding how to set goals for learning outcomes will be difficult. The overall consensus is that blended learning encourages student success. Student-centered learning lies at the heart of the blended learning concept, which is well received among both students and educators.
Blended learning implementation varies across disciplines. Additionally, implementation practices differ among educators. Conversely, in order to support student success and encourage learning outcomes, a model must be chosen, assessed, evaluated, and re-evaluated. The implementation of blended learning should be thoughtful with varying delivery methods, learning principles, and instructional technology (Tseng & Walsh, 2016).
Blended learning allows instructors to choose various instructional strategies and add technologies that compliment the course structure and learning objectives (Tseng & Walsh, 2016). However, with the wide range of definitions and delivery methods, students do not have a clear and reliable understanding of blended learning (Porter, Graham, Spring, & Welch, 2014). In fact, there is a significant relationship between features of blended learning design and the way students perceive learning (McNaught, Lam, & Cheng, 2012). Although blended learning models do not have to be identical, collaboration between instructors, administrators, and students should be the goal for finding the most effective model (Porter et al., 2014).
Collaborative activities used in blended learning have been highly praised by many researchers. McNaught, Lam, and Cheng (2012) found that students who engaged in collaborative activities enjoyed the learning process more. El-Mowafy, Kuhn, and Snow (2013) discovered that collaborative learning through online technologies allowed for students to self-reflect and practice skills. Additionally, collaborative activities were essential for student engagement (Vaughan, 2014). Wanner and Palmer (2015) found that collaborative learning inspired intrinsic motivation and choice.
Collaborative activities in a blended learning classroom range from technological collaboration to face-to-face activities. They also include simulation activities, which can contribute directly to a transfer of learning (El-Mowafy, Kuhn, & Snow, 2013). Collaborative learning applications support assessments as well (Vaughan, 2014). For example, Vaughan (2014) explained that students who completed projects felt more involved with their own learning, encouraging the students to engage with the instructor as well as peers.
Vaughan (2014) also pointed out that activities such as blogging and journaling allowed the students to reflect on what they had learned. The activities enabled the students to apply the knowledge to other courses, and eventually to their careers (Vaughan, 2014). The collaborative activities provided an opportunity for educators to contribute to student success by choosing purposeful exercises to reinforce learning objectives (Vaughan, 2014).
Technology and Blended Learning
Nearly all blended learning models utilize technology. Many studies have examined the effectiveness of technology as a supplement for face-to-face instruction. Technology has propelled blended learning forward by providing flexibility and reinforcing a student-centered approach (Wanner & Palmer, 2015). The teacher becomes a guide and uses technology to complement the in-class content (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, Rodriguez, & Argente-Linares, 2013). According to Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, Rodriguez, and Argente-Linares (2013), “establishing a link between the use of technology and academic achievement is fundamental to investments in technology” (p. 627). In other words, if the institution sees positive results, they will be more likely to invest in technologies that support blended learning.
Online activities help students understand course concepts and allow for an opportunity to test their knowledge (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, Rodriguez, et al., 2013). In the research conducted by Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, Rodriguez, et al. (2013), students were able to learn at their own pace and received meaningful feedback from peers and instructors. The feedback helped the students understand the facts presented in class (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, Rodriguez, et al., 2013). Also, students were able to test their understanding of course content based on the feedback provided (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, Rodriguez, et al., 2013). In general, instructor and peer responses aimed to teach the learner through a strength-based approach, encouraging the student to feel good about strengths while still addressing weaknesses.
Blended learning technologies encourage a transfer of learning and could also help with overall learning outcomes. By incorporating technology into lectures and outside-class activities, the student can solidify their knowledge of theory and transfer the knowledge to practical applications and professional skills (El-Mowafy et al., 2013). Furthermore, completing online activities allow the learner to develop important skills, such as reasoning, problem solving, and decision making (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, Rodriguez, et al., 2013) that can be transferred to other classes and to on-the-job situations.
Abundant research is available to indicate that blended learning has a direct impact on student success rates. An article written by Lim and Morris (2009) explained that students were more satisfied in blended learning environments. Additionally, students showed increases in learning when given opportunities to participate in classroom activities and then supplement those activities with online materials (Lim & Morris, 2009). Moreover, the students could transfer their learning to jobs and professional situations, creating a much more meaningful learning experience. Based on all of the current research, when learners feel that in-class content can be applied to the real world, they are more likely to be successful.
There are many other factors regarding student success and blended learning. One of those factors is instructor quality (Lim & Morris, 2009). If the students feel that their contact with the instructor is meaningful, student success increases (Lim & Morris, 2009). Therefore, instructors must take time to prepare for class as well as the online activities. They must encourage in-class interaction and examine what the students have learned (Eryilmaz, 2015).
Simulations activities and online exercises help students avoid feeling as if they are taking meaningless tests. Assessments can be made without high-stakes testing (McNaught et al., 2012; Vaughan, 2014), which can lessen anxiety (Wanner & Palmer, 2015). A student’s comfort level with blended learning can play a direct role in achievement.
Blended learning environments help students become successful by allowing for reflective practice (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, & Rodriguez-Ariza, 2011). Self-reflection is meant to promote positive perceptions and to clarify goals (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, & Rodriguez-Ariza, 2011). Success is imminent when a student can set goals. They will feel encouraged by the control they have over their own learning.
Conclusion: Gaps in Knowledge
The information already provided in this literature review shows many areas of agreement among researchers on the subject of blended learning and student success. Nevertheless, there are gaps with learning outcomes and transfer of learning. There are also problem-areas that need to be addressed.
In order for administrators to agree that blended learning offers significant benefits, an institutional definition must be established. Strategy, structure, support for educators, and technological assistance should be integrated into the design and implementation of blended learning (Porter et al., 2014). Smaller colleges have not been researched (Porter et al., 2014), therefore it is not possible to assess implementation and learning outcomes for that sector. In addition, more research is required to investigate design specifications and implementation, especially specific course components (Tseng & Walsh, 2016).
Students come to the classroom with pre-existing skill sets. They also come with pre-conceived notions about a blended learning course. Assessing their knowledge-base and current understanding of the course content will provide a roadmap for course design (McNaught et al., 2012), allowing the instructor to focus heavily on learning outcomes. Therefore, student performance and student characteristics must be studied. For example, knowing whether or not the student is a high-achiever or low-achiever would be helpful for setting learning objectives. In addition, pre-tests and post-tests may help assess skills and existing content knowledge.
According to Wanner and Palmer (2015), some students believe that blended learning courses require less work and fewer responsibilities. However, the opposite is true. Blended learning often involves in-class lectures, dialogue, small group assignments, large group activities, and discussions with the addition of supplemental material delivered online. Also, quizzes, high-stakes tests, presentations, and essays fit into the mix. The increased workload can often inhibit achievement (Vaughan, 2014). Blended learning is more intensive than traditional learning, but if educators provide precise directions for all of the activities, lend support through each phase of the course, and provide beneficial feedback to encourage students who might become overwhelmed, learners can flourish in the blended learning classroom and learning goals can be achieved.
The use of technology in a blended learning course creates many hurdles. Some students do not have adequate knowledge of technology, which can adversely impact their ability to accomplish course requirements (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, Rodriguez, et al, 2013). Although online activities present limitless learning possibilities, the students who cannot navigate through the technical world can feel defeated. Training would assist the students who are not comfortable with online activities. Technology should be used to personalize learning, not to complicate it.
For learners who crave face-to-face interaction, the use of online technology can cause a rift between the instructor and the student (Lim & Morris, 2009). For that reason, consistent communication is essential to heighten incentive. When the students posts in a blog, it is vitally important for the instructor to provide a meaningful response and encourage interaction. The effort will support motivation for future assignments.
It is very important that instructors and administrators understand the principles of motivation as well as how those principles influence learning (Tseng & Walsh, 2016). Study habits, class attendance, and individual learning differences will help instructors understand how to motivate students (Lim & Morris, 2009). Furthermore, implementation practices may suffer without a holistic understanding of motivation (Tseng & Walsh, 2016). Many administrators fear that they are wasting their time with blended learning due to the lack of research (Tseng & Walsh, 2016). Evaluative tools and a deeper look at motivational factors in relation to blended learning could dispel fears.
Learning outcomes have not been researched thoroughly (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez, Rodriguez-Ariza, 2011). Without this research, it is not possible to encourage the use of blended learning. If learning outcomes cannot be documented and tracked, the use of blended learning becomes futile. Student perceptions will be useful for understanding how to conduct research concerning learning outcomes. Additionally, monitoring the learners’ grades throughout the course as well as final grades can provide educators with a link to blended learning implementation and learning outcomes.
Students who sign up for required general education courses often enter the class begrudgingly, especially if they have no interest in the course content. However, engagement can be achieved if the learners can clearly see that the content and assignments can be transferred to daily experiences and their careers. Ultimately, the transfer of learning component provides purpose (Vaughan, 2014), which encourages the student to thrive in the class.
The purposeful nature of the transfer of learning component acts as a motivational tool. The educators can also use the transfer of learning component to design the class with specific learning goals in mind. The students and educators can then reach the desired learning outcomes. Blended learning provides an ideal situation for a transfer of learning using face-to-face interactions, online activities, collaborative work, and peer and instructor feedback. Still, the research is deficient regarding blended learning with a transfer of learning component and how that may contribute to learning outcomes.
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