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Blended by us or differentiated by learners: the future of courseware design

Ten years ago, in 2011, I wrote a blog entitled ‘there’s no such things as blended learning’, which essentially suggested that all learning experiences are blended to some extent, making the term irrelevant.

Since then, the boundaries between contexts, technologies and experiences have become even more blurred. Yet rather than discarding the blended terminology, there is simply a profusion of new terms, hybrid and hyflex, being the current vogue. Oh, and ‘flipped’, which is presented to the ill-informed as something new and radical. The problem is these terms are driven by us, as institutions, to define the nature of our course offering, rather than being conceptualised as the learner experiences them.

I am comfortable using the term ‘blend’, alongside ‘mix’, ‘selection’, ‘options’ and many synonyms when talking about courseware designed for a specific delivery context. The context of the learner is key. Any contemporary learner journey is going to involve a ‘smorgasbord’ of learning material, voices to be exposed to, individuals to share reflections with, and physical, social and cultural contexts in which learning is occurring. I can't imagine a context in which a learner only learns through one communication mode, be it a lecture or workshop.

Learning can, and should, be as ‘flexible’ as possible. Informed by the principles of Universal Design for Learning, learning should be malleable enough by the learner to suit their evolving needs and context. Learners should be able to discard elements of the learning journey, take shortcuts rather than revisit existing learning if they choose. Equally, they should be able to explore around the edges of the path designed for them; to go ‘off-piste’ if you like.

Good learning design and good teaching encourage the learner to re-contextualise newly gained knowledge and experience in the light of previous learning. Given that each individual’s context is unique, it is essential that learners should blend their own learning experience. Learners should be enabled to make-meaning for themselves. Good teachers know this.

In practice, the terms blended, hybrid and hyflex, are really being used by institutions to define the nature of their ‘product’, rather than the nature of the learning experience. Institutions choose to package what they sell under different labels, it’s a marketing pitch, “now with added webinars” or “now with extra VLE resources available”. Some senior managers have assumed the opportunities for off-campus communication engagement in the internet era represent a new alternative pedagogy. In reality, the ‘alternative’ pedagogies have always been there. There have always been skilled faculty who reached beyond the lecture or seminar room and engaged learners in their own context. Designing courses that are suitable for open navigation is counter-intuitive for most institutions. The focus has been on designing a learning pathway, not pathways. It’s easier for institutions that way.

What has changed since 2011 is the range of communication technologies available for learners to choose, or not choose, to interact with content, experiences and each other. Courseware in my view can, and should, be designed with open navigation, open pathways, so a learner can choose how they want to arrive at a preconceived set of outcomes. We can provide an optimal route to success for the less adventurous, but choice empowers. Essentially, learners can differentiate their journey from others based on their context and personal needs. Hey, why don’t we use the term ‘differentiated learning’… although that sounds familiar. Wonder if anyone has used that term before? Forgive my sarcasm, but I do wonder whether we need to find new language to describe the aspirations for our courseware as it is experienced by learners.

If we acknowledge that everything is to some extent blended, then what term would encourage courses to be designed to enable learning journeys suitable for personalisation by the learner. Differentiated learning is the best I’ve got.

Photo credit: Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

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