Category Archives: Blended Learning

Ducking Responsibility

I’m not compulsively tidy, but I do like a place to put things and things in their place. That has been challenged recently, in a very playful way…

Anyone who has come across a Lego Serious Play® practitioner (the need for a registered trademark symbol speaks volumes) will have a yellow duck. Nearly every introduction to the method starts with a little bag like this.

True adherents (such as Ollie Bray from Lego) attribute a lot to this humble construction act.

Photo taken at a conference. Ollie stands in front of a screen showing lego bricks encircled by four sets of words: self-regulation; symbolic representations; spatial abilities; executive functioning;
Ollie Bray telling us about the mighty duck at ALT-C in Edinburgh this year

Having taken part in a range of Lego Serious Play® sessions, I have a small badling of ducks. Until recently they stood quite happily on the top of my bookshelf. That was all to change.

Lots of lego covering a table. In the foreground is a yellow castle with Lego figures defending the walls.
More lego than you should admit to owning (unless you are still writing to Santa)

I blame the 2019 Playful Learning Conference.
Nothing has ever been quite the same since. I think that fact would really please the organisers. As it should.

It started with someone stealing my ducks and relocating them all round our office – by the kettle, on the stairs, on a window sill. For some reason I took this as a challenge and spent a good 5 or 10 minutes each morning returning my ducks to the safety of the shelf. No-one in the office said anything, or even acknowledged this act.

Three ducks stuck to a Lego baseboard. In front stands a Lego figure holding a sign.
The ducks back on the bookshelf, now safely attached to a baseboard and with a guardian

It was time for action. I couldn’t start every day with a duck hunt! A few ideas came to mind. Make a giant yellow duck – reflected because I didn’t have enough yellow bricks. Use Lego to spell out a message? Again rejected – not enough space on the bookcase for many words. Finally I settled on attaching the ducks to a baseboard and using some of my family Lego to add a small guardian in front to protect them. Job done I thought.

Stuck to the outside of my window is a Lego figure holding a sign "Free the Ducks".
A protestor outside my window

The next day I came in and sure enough the ducks were still stuck to the board, safely on my book case. A few minutes later when I looked out the window I saw another Lego figure. Ignoring the fact that it appeared to be standing on a disassembled duck, I read its banner: Free the Ducks.

Fearing that the white-tack holding it to the window may not be able to resist the unseasonably strong sunshine for long, I opened the window to retrieve it (and look for clues).

Looking down at the grass. A Lego figure lies face down amongst the scattered remains of a duck. The figure is still holding their banner. A message on the back reads "Don't hate - migrate"

Unfortunately, as I opened the window, the duck under the figure crumbled and the whole assembly fell to the ground below. Rushing down the stairs (accompanied by my office-mate Julie) a tragic scene unfolded. The duck was in pieces and the protester was lying face down and not moving or responding to my voice. I could now see the message on the back of their banner: Don’t hate – migrate.

Having no immediate plans to leave the country, I decided not to dwell too much on the latter. I carefully picked up the Lego pieces, carried them inside and back upstairs, before laying them out respectfully on my desk.

One senior management meeting later and when I got back to my desk, the ducks were gone again. My ducks. Gone.

Four Lego ducks stuck to the ceiling of my office.
Do not adjust your set

Looking up the answer dawned. Someone – clearly not an animal lover – had stuck them by the feet to the ceiling. How long before the blood drained from their feet and they fell? This was getting crazier and crazier. That said, I was enjoying coming in to work each day and wondering what would happen next. I was also getting knowing smiles from people as I walked around the building.

Some tweets from the "Free Ducks" account. Thet are seen driving a VW camper van (sporting the Free the Ducks banner). Many of my colleagues are name-checked in the tweet.
The ducks’ plight had made it onto Twitter

Then I saw them on Twitter. It was interesting to be painted as the villain, with people feeling the need to free them. Clearly they didn’t understand the difference between kidnapping and rescue, home and away.

I expect this is not the last chapter in this story, especially as we move to a new office next week. It has caused me to pause and reflect on the impact of play upon my attitude to work.

What started out as a very silly, probably impulsive gesture has snowballed. The list of perpetrators collaborators? liberators? players? continues to grow.

It has made work more fun. How often do you get to write that? It hasn’t stopped me from doing my normal job, but it has added a little spice, an edge of unpredictability. It has given me something to think about on the drive in and talk about at the dinner table.

Assuming at least one of the people involved is from my team – and I am pretty sure they are – it also has made me think about how we interact at work. Should I be annoyed or pleased that someone I manage thinks it appropriate to hide my possessions?

I am pleased (although if they started doing it with my laptop or coffee mug I might change my opinion). I’m also looking forward to going into work on Monday and seeing what happens next…


New Blackboard, New Labour, Old Rope

The “new” moniker so beloved of Labour in the Tony Blair era has made a reappearance, this time at BbWorld 2015 in Washington DC. It came this time from Jay Bhatt, the latest President and CEO of Blackboard. We are now given “New Blackboard”:

the new blackboard

Not content with that, he’s also giving us NLE – the “New Learning Experience”. (Wisely avoiding the XP option).
So what’s it all about? Well Jay Bhatt has identified five key areas:


Intriguingly, and almost as an afterthought in his keynote he stressed that integrated workflows might be the most important of these. Really? He talked passionately about the work that Blackboard have been doing, re-engineering their entire portfolio from the ground up (though that isn’t news, the same has been said in Vegas, and in Vegas before that).

There was also a strong attempt to show that Blackboard is putting the learner centre stage, with enormous pictures of children dwarfing the presenter on stage:

Handy to be able to use your family for these occasions
Handy to be able to use your family for these occasions

So what was new then? How will all this investment in technology help improve education? Jay is calling for a revolution, claiming that Education is in cris. Re-imagine Education everyone. So let’s see what he’s offering…


vles 2

We were shown Blackboard Learn sporting the new Ultra interface. Again. Yes it is still pretty. Learn finally looks like it is using code that was written after 2010. But does it surface or bury the information learners need? I worry that it is offering content without context in the stream of new items and latest posts. Where has the scaffolding and advice from staff gone? If the underlying data model and database structure hasn’t changed, is it more than lipstick on a (very fat) pig? Time will tell. Oh and they will still host Moodle for you too.


The Ultra interface
The Ultra interface

Not exactly new. This HTML5 video experience has been showcased at the previous two BbWorlds and yet still hasn’t achieved feature parity with the old java version – no recording yet, no integration with Blackboard (ironic given the later claims of integration being the key).

Flexible Deployment
flexible deployment

Again, how is this new? This was basically a repeat of what was said the previous year. In fact this presentation seemed to cause more confusion than light, with many commentators on Twitter wondering just when the much vaunted “Ultra” interface (that is to premier in the SAS offering) will filter down to self-hosted clients, indeed if it will make it at all.

Bb Student


The app discussed last year is now available to some people. New?

Service Capabilities

service capabilities

You want it? Blackboard will provide it for you, at a keen price. Is this news?

Technical Backbone

tech backbone

Essentially joining things up, Blackboard have been threatening to do this for years. One day they might actually manage it, but anyone whose looked at the admin interface of the current Collaborate product will know that there is still some way to go on this. Too many of the products lack parity – no analytics data from Blackboard Mobile being an obvious example. This is an admirable aim. As it was in Las Vegas in 2013. That doesn’t make it news.

Learning Analytics

learning analytics

This was probably his strongest card. Providing integrated analytical data for all staff and students could help us to understand more about the way we learn. Sadly this is likely to be an optional extra, rather than a core offering available to all Blackboard clients.

He looked at the learner’s experience, stressing the life long nature of learning. Most relevant to me was the example of a higher education student:

A day in the life of a HE student
A day in the life of a HE student. Shout if you spot lectures, practicals, tutorials, in fact any significant period of study!

We were then shown the workflows:

HE workflows

and guess what, Blackboard has solutions for all of these:

HE software

News? I don’t think so.

There were a lot of promises and repackaging of things already delivered. Perhaps my initial political analogy wasn’t so far off the mark after all. Come on Blackboard! There are a lot of bright, motivated people in the company, many of whom have spent time in education. You can do better and will need to do better if you are to deliver products that staff and students want to use and institutions are prepared to buy.

Content & Assignments

Week 4 of #BlendKit2014 is looking at ways to facilitate student learning, through student engagement with content items in general and assignments in particular. The reading began with a brief nod towards Didaktik design which at least at one level can be taken to focus on the what, why and how of learning by focussing on the design of learning activities/environments to achieve a particular pedagogical outcome. They also draw our attention to the opportunity and dilemma posed by the ever increasing number of online tools available. They stressed that relevant and integrated activities were the keys to success. Hard to argue against that! They were also advocates of consistency – possibly going one step further, citing this quote from Kaminski & Currie (2008, p205):

Within each Learning activity, uniformity also helps to guide students through the content.

We were asked to reflect on these four questions:

  1. In what experiences (direct or vicarious) will you have students participate during your blended learning course? In what ways do you see these experiences as part of the assessment process? Which experiences will result in student work that you score?
  2. How will you present content to students in the blended learning course you are designing? Will students encounter content only in one modality (e.g., face-to-face only), or will you devise an approach in which content is introduced in one modality and elaborated upon in the other? What will this look like?
  3. Will there be a consistent pattern to the presentation of content, introduction of learning activities, student submission of assignments, and instructor feedback (formal and informal) in your blended learning course? How can you ensure that students experience your course as one consistent whole rather than as two loosely connected learning environments?
  4. How can specific technologies help you present content, provide meaningful experiences, and pitch integration to students in your blended course? With your planned technology use, are you stretching yourself, biting off more than you can chew, or just maintaining the status quo?

Each of these is addressed in turn below:

Student Experiences

I am answering this question thinking about a blended course we are planning to run to support school students making the transition to HE. I think the key will be to design activities where students are willing to express their own opinions, test their knowledge and possibly get things wrong the first time. It think that the automated testing systems (e.g. online formative/diagnostic quizzes) might be a good way of encouraging people to engage openly and honestly, supplementing this with online and face to face discussion once individuals have a bit of confidence.

Presenting Content

The course will include both online and face to face components. In part this is to give students a degree of flexibility regarding where and when they will take it. Some of the material can really only be delivered online  – e.g. using the Stanford Teaching Privacy tools to establish how big your digital footprint is, or watching short ‘vox-pox’ videos from former students. Equally, it would be useful to have some face to face sessions, to help establish relationships and a sense of community amingst the learners and get early feedback if things aren’t going as planned.


This is a really important area, too easily overlooked. A lack of consistency in layout/structure is one of the most common complaints we get in student feedback about the online component of blended courses. There is a fine-line to be walked between a common structure and effectively dictating the structure of a course. When I started at University I was firmly in the camp of let staff structure their course as they see fit (railing against any institutional template – think PowerPoint). As time has gone by and I have discussed these issues with students (see a recent Student-Led project I was involved in with) I have changed position and am now in the minimum thresholds camp that seems to be gathering momentum in UK HEI (e.g. this fine example from Newcastle University) – though not everyone agrees (see David Jones’ blog).

Use of Technology

As a practising learning technologist, I hope I can get this bit right! I’d like to offer students and staff the options to embed video directly from their webcam as a form of comment. I think that might be a bit more immediate and engaging than a purely text-based form of discussion.

Blended Assessment

Week 3 of #BlendKit2014 is looking at assessment – how to know that our students are learning something from the course (hopefully linked to the learning outcomes). Kelvin Thompson and his colleagues began with the reasonable claim that ‘it is imperative that assessment is provided to check the depth of students’ learning’. They also stressed the importance of making the learning applicable, or else students adopting a strategic approach may not engage with it. The question is, who is checking the depth of a student’s learning, and why?

We were provided with some thought provoking reading and asked to reflect on these four questions:

  1. How much of the final course grade do you typically allot to testing? How many tests/exams do you usually require? How can you avoid creating a “high stakes” environment that may inadvertently set students up for failure/cheating?
  2. What expectations do you have for online assessments? How do these expectations compare to those you have for face-to-face assessments? Are you harbouring any biases?
  3. What trade-offs do you see between the affordances of auto-scored online quizzes and project-based assessments? How will you strike the right balance in your blended learning course?
  4. How will you implement formal and informal assessments of learning into your blended learning course? Will these all take place face-to-face, online, or in a combination?

Each of these is addressed in turn below:

How much testing to do?

I’m not sure this is the right question! I think the question should be when/why are tests needed in your course? I like diagnostic tests at the start of a course (ideally tied to a Just in Time Teaching model of delivery, tailoring the rest of the course to the knowledge and experience of the students). Students should be free to take these as often as they want. As an online learner, the need for some sort of progress report, a confirmation that you are on-track is possibly even greater when you have less (or possibly none) face to face time with teaching staff. Short tests throughout the course can meet this need. My only real concern is with the final assessment – how best can this be done online?

Quite a few of the participants in the live webinar expressed concern over the potential for cheating. Perhaps this is why there is now a MOOC course on canvas looking at online cheating – which I discovered via this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This saddens me a bit. I’m not a fan of the camera-based remote proctoring solutions, particularly if the student has to purchase them. If I have to choose between spending time devising ways to stop students cheating, or trying to make my courses better, I’d rather the latter. In the end, cheats are only cheating themselves.

My expectations of online testing

The question ‘Are you harbouring any biases?‘ was unexpected, but on reflection I think it is a fair one. I certainly have changed my stance. When I started, I worked with staff on a medical course and noted to my horror that although many students were starting online assessments, only a few finished the tests. Were they too hard? The fact that these tests were delivered online meant we could ask this question, but to get to the answer I had to talk to the students. It turns out that we had come across an example of impromptu group work. Students went to a computer lab (that dates this anecdote) to start the tests on their own. Part way through a friend came in (or else they spotted them amongst the banks of monitors). Rather than work through the questions alone, they discovered it was more effective to discuss the questions as a group, and try and justify their answers to each other, before one person submitted the result on behalf of the group. That explained the high drop-off rate and taught me to take nothing for granted!

The trade-offs

The trade-offs seem pretty clear. Anything that can be automatically marked, providing students with rapid feedback is constrained by those marking tools. If they use some form of pattern-based scoring then poorly designed questions or distractors (e.g. offering students the choice between two words that are similarly spelled but have very different meanings – conservative and conservation) may seriously misrepresent some student’s learning.   More creative, personal assessment options offer the chance to encourage deeper learning, but  require more skilled interpretation. David Nichol and his colleagues (2013) have shown how peer feedback (N.B. not grading) can help everyone learn from the process, and perhaps that offers one way out.

I was also struck at a recent learning and teaching conference how engaged students were in a project where they were asked to create a short (2 minute) video to explain a key concept in the course. In this, the challenge was to know what to leave out. That’s not something that you can mark automatically, but it could be a great online submission task.


In a true blended course, you have the luxury of both face to face and online. I think I prefer online diagnostic and formative assessments, but keeping the summative work offline. I think that also reduces the stress for both staff and students (no-one really wins when a big online exam goes ‘castors up’ as they say in the world of TV repairs).  That’s probably why I don’t think it’s worth spending money on anti-cheating hardware. Spend it on e-books instead 🙂

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Blended Interactions

This week’s #BlendKit2014 session explored how much support and guidance students should get in an online course and posited four models of educators and learners:

  1. Atelier Learning – akin to an art studio, where students can learn from the work of each other as well as the teacher – John Seely Brown (2013)
  2. Educators as network administratorsClarence Fisher – where learners as well as educators can help construct and plug gaps in our learning/knowledge networks
  3. Educators as conciergeCurtis Bonk (2007) – where the educator provides ‘soft guidance’ directing learners towards resources and ideas that they may not yet be aware of
  4. The educator as curatorGeorge Siemens (2007) – learners are free to explore, but the expert curator helps them to engage with the key concepts of a discipline.

For more information see the full text from which the above references were obtained.

John Seely Brown’s conceptualisation of teachers as artists and architects reminded me of the artisian representations used by Hokanson, Miller and Hooper (2007) in their discreditation of ADDIE.  I didn’t find Fisher’s model very useful, as I find it very hard to really visualise what a learning network would/should look like – even in these days of social network analysis! I was a student on one of Curtis Bonk’s MOOCs and so can claim first hand experience of his concierge approach. A times it felt like a relentless barrage of concepts, where the learner has little time to get to grips with one idea, before they are presented with the next. That may have just been me getting the balance of online and offline wrong, and it was certainly very stimulating. Siemen’s view of the curatorial educator who ‘balances the freedom of individual learners with the thoughtful interpretation of the subject being explored‘ is very seductive, who wouldn’t want to be taught in that way, or indeed to be able to teach in it? I’ve also been on one of his cMOOCs and it had a very different style.

We were asked to reflect on these four questions:

  1. Is there value in student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction in all courses regardless of discipline?
  2. What role does interaction play in courses in which the emphasis is on declarative knowledge (e.g., introductory “survey” courses at the lower-division undergraduate level) or, similarly, in courses that cultivate procedural knowledge (e.g., technical courses requiring the working of problem sets)
  3. As you consider designing a blended learning course, what kinds of interactions can you envision occurring face-to-face, and how might you use the online environment for interactions? What opportunities are there for you to explore different instructional strategies in the blended course than you have in the past?
  4. What factors might limit the feasibility of robust interaction face-to-face or online?

Each of these is addressed in turn below:

The value of interaction

I think interaction should be valued in any disciple, in essence a universality. Student-student interaction can be very different to student-teacher interaction. The former may at times be more likely to achieve learning (particularly of threshold concepts), as it may use a common language – that of the novice, rather than the mismatch between the vocabulary of the novice and the practitioner.

The role of interaction

I don’t think interaction should be omitted from declarative or procedural courses. This would imply that there is nothing more to learn, or no better way in which the subject can be taught. Even if the interaction is limited to explaining concepts to your peer group, I think this has the potential to advance understanding of those involved and listening/reading along.

Planning interactions

Deciding which activities are best online and which face-to-face is tricky and is one of the areas that I hope will become clearer through my participation in this course. It would seems sensible if the face to face activities were either designed to help socialise the group, or relate to tasks which students might find difficult – e.g. it is unclear how to begin, where they would benefit from scaffolding and are likely to seek early confirmation from teaching staff (or their peers). Online activities may provide learners with a greater opportunity to reflect and prepare their argument – e.g. finely hone a video presentation before sharing it with the group.

Limits to interaction

Obvious limits to interaction are a lack of time, engagement/motivation. The ‘atmosphere’ of the course is also important – is it acceptable to try and fail, indeed  have these opportunities been designed as part of the course? If students are presented with a ‘course and a half’ then they may react by adopting a strategic approach and only participating in the activities which result in grades.

Also it is unrealistic to expect that all the interaction will occur within the chosen environment and be visible to the educator. There will be face to face discussions in the pub on blended courses, or on non-institutional systems (such as Facebook) for online courses – of value to the learners because they are out of the gaze of their teachers (see this article in the Independent).

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Understanding Blended Learning

This post is my first as part of the USF BlendKit 2014 Course  on Canvas – see for more details. For this assignment I have been asked to review materials in the first chapter of the toolkit accompanying this course:

Blended Learning Toolkit

by-nc-sa Materials in the toolkit have been shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license


Participants have been asked to reflect on the nature of blended learning and consider four questions:

  1. Is it most helpful to think of blended learning as an online enhancement to a face-to-face learning environment, a face-to-face enhancement to an online learning environment, or as something else entirely?
  2. In what ways can blended learning courses be considered the “best of both worlds” (i.e., face-to-face and online)? What could make blended learning the “worst of both worlds?”
  3. As you consider designing a blended learning course, what course components are you open to implementing differently than you have in the past? How will you decide which components will occur online and which will take place face-to-face? How will you manage the relationship between these two modalities?
  4. How often will you meet with students face-to-face? How many hours per week will students be engaged online, and how many hours per week will students meet face-to-face? Is the amount of student time commitment consistent with the total time commitment of comparable courses taught in other modalities (e.g., face-to-face)?

Each of these is addressed in turn below:

What is Blended Learning?

My first experience of blended learning was from courses that were originally taught face to face and which have gradually been “adapted” for blended delivery.  I think many others may be the same (even in a MOOC, much of the materials may have come from a f2f course). The key I think is the degree of adaption. Simply putting files online (the ‘document dump’ – sensu Horrigan and Clark) isn’t really blended learning in my book. Whilst I am no fan of trying to set a required threshold of online vs. face to face activities, for me, to be truly blended, there must be at least some activities that need to be carried out online. That implies some conscious design of these activities and so aligns with the thinking of McGee & Reis (2012) cited in the paper.

Is it really the best of both worlds?

Face to face is surely the best, but only if the timing works for both parties. That’s not saying it is the most cost-effective, the most scalable  or the most flexible. Done well, blended learning should help address some of these restrictions, particularly as it may allow learners to repeat sections until they achieve that ‘Eureka moment’. That was certainly something that hit home in a presentation I saw by Sal Khan, where it took one man over 50 plays of a video before he finally grasped a particular mathematical concept. His point was that blended learning allowed the lesson to be replayed 50 times with equal patience and in the absence of judgement. That may be true but I couldn’t help wondering if a real teacher couldn’t have changed the instruction and got him there more quickly.

The risk though is that what is delivered in a blend is a confusing pastiche, lacking the consistency of a fully online or face to face course.

Managing the Modalities

One phrase that worried me in the kit was “Context is king”. If that was true then surely MIT’s OpenCourseware project would have been a case of online suicide. It also didn’t fit well with the rest of the discussion, which reassuringly focussed on the activity of the learner, examining course planning approaches on a spectrum from teacher-centred to learner (or learning) centred.

Getting the Timing Right

I think translating learning activities from the classroom to online is one of the hardest things to do (and I admit to occasionally still getting the timings of my lectures wrong). I’m not sure there is a magic formula for getting it right first time, but I think online components should provide teaching staff with a better idea of  just how long students spend on a task – e.g. the number of edits on a blog post.

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