Saturday, 22 January, 2022

Blended Learning: New Normal for Education

Prof Dr Md Aktaruzzaman

Education is basically constituted of three highly interlinked components - teaching, learning and assessment. An approach is considered blended learning if it is reflected in each of these components of education. Since the beginning of the human creation, we are habituated with Face-to-face (onsite) education, which is further enhanced through digital tools or ICTs, for instance, teaching at a classroom with multimedia projector. Online learning is education that takes place over the Internet and across distance, not in a traditional class, for example, conducting classes using Zoom video conferencing with a Learning Management System (LMS). Blended learning implies purposeful combination of face-to-face and online activities, for instance, conducting classes integrating three days face-to-face and two days online. Within our socio-economic context and low speed of Internet, the post-Covid education is expected to be neither fully online nor onsite but rather blended in a smarter way.

Recently the Government of Bangladesh has formed a National Blended Learning Taskforce for formulating strategies from preschool to postgraduate education and the University Grants Commission (UGC), Bangladesh approved the National Blended Learning Policy, which is expected to be considered at the program level (e.g., BSc in CSE) and approximately 33-40% of the total credits of a program could be offered online with prior approval of the relevant bodies.

During the pandemic a particular challenge was the urgent and unexpected request for previously face-to-face university courses to be taught online and vice versa near the end of the pandemic. These shifting were not easy journey for many institutions across the world – a bunch of changes adopted in the institutional policies and practices. Now at the post-Covid stage should we go back to the traditional face-to-face education leaving all these remarkable shifts or changes behind? – certainly not. Then what should be our strategies now to move forward?

Blended learning is widely considered as the New Normal for Education in different parts of the world. Let’s try to explore why it could be a better option for us to consider blended learning in Bangladesh:

Theoretical underpinnings: Blended learning supports flipped classroom pedagogy which implies the traditional lecture component comprising lower order thinking as interactive contents (pdf, podcast or video) to study at home and the problem solving, critical thinking, or discussion of type higher order thinking are brought back into the class with enough time and teachers’ supervision for drill and practice. This pedagogy promotes active learning theory, that is, learning by doing.

Flexibility in time and space: Class or work distribution in blended learning could be 3 days onsite and 2 days online out of 5 working days for students and for teachers it could be 4 days onsite and 1 day online, subject to ensuring quality and accountability. This will save a lot of time and space, particularly in our country where traffic jam and many other issues are our daily companions.

Better teaching-learning: Teaching-learning would be better in case of blended learning as the best parts of onsite and online methods could be integrated in this format. For instance, interaction of onsite class, class recordings of online learning, orderly organization of contents. The LMS is highly useful to the student community as they get all subject related contents, optional assessment and practice options in one place which can be accessed anytime, anywhere.

Authentic assessment: Online education is good for teaching-learning but not for assessment in Bangladesh, particularly summative assessment (e.g., final exam). According to the UGC National Blended Learning Policy for Higher Education, all formative assessments including Mid-Term exam can be taken online but final exam must be onsite in order to prevent unfair means while encouraging educationists to conduct research for innovative online assessment strategies.

Maximum utilization of resources: Every year more than 10 lakh students pass HSC exam, and it is not possible to increase the physical infrastructure overnight. In blended education system, institutions may get ample opportunity to increase student intakes by adopting flexibility in time and space (e.g., class schedule), for instance, University of Melbourne has 52,500 students where one of our big universities having space of almost 7-8 times accommodates only 16,500 students, thus we are failing to ensure proper utilization of country’s resources to many extents.

Better student engagement: The best practices of onsite and online education in terms of interactions, eye-contact, rapport building, reusable class recordings, digital tools and techniques can be merged and applied side-by-side so that students’ engagement would be better. Keeping students active in LMS can provide better learning experience to them, so as their learning outcome.

Option for learning and/or earning: If the class schedule is blended, teachers can utilize this time for research, innovation, industry engagement whereas students can engage themselves in research, study at home or part-time work. This is what happening at the universities in the developed world where education is highly expensive.

Contextual issues: In Bangladesh we do not have physical space for accommodating all aspirant students for education in different levels and at the same time low speed of Internet, lack of device and socio-economic conditions hinder the prospects of online education. Blended education is flexible and could provide the best possible options for the country to continue quality education.

Accountability and compliance: Blended education is flexible in time, space and in so many other parameters, for instance teachers can work 3 or 4 days onsite and 2 or 1 day online from home but we need to ensure accountability of teachers and also compliance requirements of the institutions. For instance, smart education system at Daffodil University records activities of teacher as digital evidence and provides monthly analytics irrespective of their mode of work – online or onsite as well as meets institutional compliance requirement to their regulatory authority transparently.

Preparation for the future: Over the last one and a half years we learned a lot and now we need to focus on blended learning in terms of digital competencies, pedagogical innovation, varied levels of interaction, engagement and assessment strategies, teachers training, support structures, digital monitoring, etc. and gradually adopt those in the institutional policies and practices so that we can prepare ourselves for the future world of digital education worth $375 Billion by 2026. Now it is the right time to rethink our education policy that may enable country’s prominent institutions to meet the local needs and excel in today’s transnational education as a Brand of Education Bangladesh.

The advancement we have made today in blended, online and digital education within such a quick timeframe is quite incredible due to the prompt actions from the Ministry of Education, Bangladesh and relevant bodies at the advent of Covid-19, which could have taken 5-10 years otherwise. Now all walks of people experienced its importance, and we should capitalize on it. If blended education is comprehended appropriately, we won’t have to discontinue education, teachers won’t have to search odd jobs for their survival, and students won’t feel dejected. The world is becoming increasingly digitalised and the educational institutions that can’t embrace digitalization will be gradually excluded. The sooner we realize that, the better.

The writer is Director, Blended

Learning Centre