Blended Learning as Activity-based Working

There are currently two conversations going on that ought to be brought together. The first is about activity-based working in which workers choose the right setting for the work to be done rather than assume that their desk can always meet all their needs. For instance, you might work from home one morning to concentrate on finishing up a report and then use a variety of different places within the office in the afternoon to connect with colleagues in person or virtually. Other days you might find yourself working in cafes, lounges, hotels, coworking sites or elsewhere. This way of working  mixes individual and collaborative activities, virtual and face-to-face interaction, and synchronous and asynchronous communication and is fast becoming the norm (recent FastCompany article).

The second conversation is about blended learning, a pedagogical model that mixes face-to-face learning with technology-enabled, online/virtual interaction among students and faculty. Like activity-based working, blended learning is about choosing the right way of interacting (and the right tools) to learn a concept or skill.  For example, content that might have otherwise been delivered one way, teacher to student, in a lecture hall might instead be available for students to view online, on their own time, enabling them to play it back and review with others while also freeing up time in class for discussion and more engaging activities. As with more mobile and distributed work, once there is a choice in where and how students and faculty can interact (beyond the classroom as the default), it opens up new possibilities but also unearths questions – with choice comes complexity. (Introductory Educause article on Blended Learning)

Interestingly, these questions are often being answered in the very places that could bring these two conversations together: in MBA programs for executives and working professionals. There are a variety of schools (Businessweek listing) offering these programs which often use blended learning to cater to the schedules of their students, to make the most of the time spent on campus (typically, once or twice a month), and either capitalize on or improve upon students’ existing abilities to work in distributed teams. These programs will mix group projects (often developed both in person and remotely), intensive presentations and discussions, and online tutorials, lectures, exercises, and readings. Students involved are thus combining activity-based working (using a variety of settings to get their school work done) and blended learning (mixing face to face and virtual interactions).

Given that work is becoming more distributed, collaborative, project-based, and technology-rich, doesn’t it make sense for blended learning to become to norm? These PT /Executive MBA programs point the way forward. They emphasize project-based, collaborative work. They let the content determine the mode of interaction. They enable students to apply what they’ve learned in a concrete way and draw upon their real-world experiences as learning opportunities. They offer convenience by mixing synchronous and asynchronous work. Finally, they make the most of face-to-face time together (instead of taking it for granted) while also offering practical experience in working in distributed teams.  These are all attributes that could be much more broadly applied and better connect what students do on campus and online with what they’ll find as they enter the workforce.

In applying the blended, activity-based model of working and learning to other programs and levels, there are some important implications to be considered, these include:

  • Evaluation: How will work be assessed, being mindful that grading doesn’t scale the same way delivery does (e.g.: in streaming a lecture)?
  • Interaction model:  How should participants interact and what’s the right mix of one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many etc? How do face-to-face and online conversations join?
  • Schedule:  What activities should be synchronous and which asynchronous?
  • Protocols: How can the protocols and etiquette for the participants be established and recalled, (e.g.:  when and what to share)?
  • Awareness: How can an awareness of other students / faculty members be cultivated online? How can each participant’s  presence be established and serendipity be fostered?
  • Persistence: How can material and conversations persist so they can be accessed and referenced later?

The answers to these questions may differ based on the institution, program, or content, but the sooner we start asking them, the sooner we can start capitalizing on a blended, activity-based model of working and learning, one that accepts the classroom and physical workplace as but two places in a much larger system of information, tools, services, and spaces.