Blended Learning and Online Tutoring: Planning Leaner Support and Activity Design

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  • Blended Learning and Online Tutoring

    Janet Macdonald


    Planning Learner Support and Activity Design

  • Blended Learning and Online Tutoring

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  • Blended Learning and Online Tutoring

    Planning Learner Support and Activity Design

    Second Edition


  • Janet Macdonald 2008

    All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system

    or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording

    or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

    Published by

    Gower Publishing Limited

    Gower House

    Croft Road


    Hampshire GU11 3HR


    Gower Publishing Company

    Suite 420

    101 Cherry Street

    Burlington, VT 05401-4405


    Janet Macdonald has asserted her moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act,

    1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

    British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

    MacDonald, Janet, 1950

    Blended learning and online tutoring : planning learner

    support and activity design. 2nd ed.

    1. Blended learning 2. Distance education

    3. Telecommunication in education

    I. Title


    ISBN-13: 9780566088414

    Library of Congress Control Number can be obtained from the Library of Congress.

    Printed and bound in Great Britain by TJ International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall.

  • List of Figures ix

    List of Tables xi

    Acknowledgements xiii

    Preface to Second Edition xv

    1 Introduction 1

    Distance technologies: potential and pitfalls 1

    Blended learning and blended teaching strategies 2

    What this book contains 4

    Who this book is for 5

    A personal reflection 6


    2 Tutor-Mediated Support: Reflecting on Present Practice 11

    The SOLACE project 11

    Blending support strategies 12

    Supporting the group 15

    Supporting the individual student 16

    Convergence of campus-based and distance contexts 17

    Summarising contact with groups and individuals 18

    In summary 20

    3 Tutors Perceptions of Effective Intervention 21

    What makes for good quality? 21

    Intervention quality and media choice 26

    Which qualities do you value? 28

    In summary 30



    4 Blended Learning and Pragmatism 31

    A survey of current practice 31

    Common components of blended learning 33

    The teaching and learning environment 34

    In summary 43

    5 Blended Learning and Pedagogy 45

    The contribution of asynchronous support 45

    The contribution of face-to-face support 47

    Pedagogy meets pragmatism 51

    In summary 52


    6 Supporting Students Using Asynchronous Tools:

    Forums, Wikis and Blogs 57

    What tools are available? 57

    Models of asynchronous support 58

    Group size 59

    Summarising the options for asynchronous support 75

    Not working well? 75

    In summary 77

    7 Handy Techniques for Moderators:

    Online Asynchronous Groups 79

    General techniques 79

    Techniques for particular tools 83

    8 Supporting Students Using Synchronous Tools:

    Chat, Audio Conferencing and the Rest 89

    What tools are available? 89

    Models of synchronous support 92

    In summary 100

    9 Handy Techniques for Moderators: Online Synchronous

    Groups 103

    General techniques 103

    Techniques for particular tools 105

  • CONTENTS vii



    10 The Experience of Blended Learning 111

    What are the practical implications? 111

    What makes a competent online learner? 114

    Does online learning suit all students? 118

    In summary 120

    11 Course Design for Blended Learning 123

    Keeping students on course and in tune 123

    Constructive alignment and learning design 128

    The roles of assessment 130

    In summary 133

    12 Developing E-Investigators 135

    Advantages of electronic resources 135

    How do students come to be e-investigators? 136

    Deciding on relevance 140

    Searching for information 140

    Using resources appropriately 143

    In summary 147

    13 Developing E-Writers 149

    Writing to understand: note-taking 149

    Writing assignments 153

    Practising for exam writing 158

    Collaborative writing 159

    In summary 160

    14 Developing E-Communicators and Collaborators 161

    What is involved in online communication? 161

    Starting off 162

    Online collaborative learning 164

    In summary 174

    15 Staff Development for Blended Learning 172

    Practical considerations for tutors 177

    Practical considerations for staff developers 178


    Approaches to staff development 180

    In summary 166

    Appendix 1 Blended Learning Case Studies 189

    Bibliography 193

    Index 199


    Figure 4.1 Components of blended learning 34

    Figure 6.1 Use of a wiki for alumni support on an Open University

    course 73

    Figure 8.1 Online synchronous tools for teaching languages 95

    Figure 8.2 Librarians On Call. The library runs a help service for

    enquirers using text chat 99

    Figure 10.1 The learners experience of e-learning 113

    Figure 11.1 Example learning contract 127

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    Table 2.1 SOLACE log showing a weeks activities with tutorial

    group A 13

    Table 2.2 SOLACE log showing a weeks activities with tutorial

    group B 14

    Table 2.3 Summarising contact with groups and individuals 18

    Table 3.1 Comparing media and communication 27

    Table 3.2 Your views on quality in intervention 28

    Table 3.3 Choosing appropriate media 30

    Table 4.1 Pragmatic concerns on the adoption of blended learning 41

    Table 6.1 The functions of asynchronous tools 58

    Table 6.2 Small group activities and appropriate tools 61

    Table 6.3 Models of asynchronous support 76

    Table 8.1 The functions of synchronous tools 90

    Table 10.1 Orientations to study 118

    Table 11.1 An example of a study schedule 126

    Table 12.1 Plagiarism. Summary of good practice recommendations 145

    Table 15.1 Categories of online staff forum 185

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  • I would like to thank Peter Syme, Director of the Open University (OU) in

    Scotland, and many other colleagues at the OU, both in Scotland and in other

    parts of the UK, who contributed moral support, and who read parts of the

    script or gave me helpful comments.

    Im indebted to the many OU tutors who supplied the bright ideas which

    feature throughout this book, and who also participated in the SOLACE

    project. Many OU students have also contributed their perspectives on using

    a computer for study.

    I am particularly grateful to Sylvia Warnecke and the Languages, Maths and

    Computing tutors at the Open University in Scotland, who have contributed

    greatly to my understanding of differences in approaches to supporting

    students in their three very different disciplines, and to good practice

    guidelines in using synchronous tools, through a project on synchronous

    tuition in which we were recently engaged.

    I was delighted to hear from so many contributors to the blended learning

    survey, and have learnt much from those who so kindly sent me case studies.

    My particular thanks go to Sonja Cameron for her contribution in working

    with me in the analysis of the data.

    I am grateful to Anne Gaskell and co-authors of the Supporting Students by

    Telephone toolkit, since many of the good practice guidelines for telephone

    tuition which they have collected apply equally well to other synchronous


    I am grateful to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (now the

    Scottish Funding Council), and also to the Centre for Research in Education



    and Educational Technology, Open University UK, for funding two projects

    described in this book.

    Finally, my family, Murdo, Ewan and Kirsten, have patiently put up with my

    book writing and mental absences over the past year, and they have my love

    and thanks.


    Since the first edition was published in 2006, there has been great interest in

    Web 2.0 technologies and their potential for use in an educational environment.

    While I believe the general principles set out in the first edition of my book

    still hold true, there are certainly more tools to choose from now and some

    of the purposes for which universities have traditionally used forums may in

    future devolve to other tools. This second edition has therefore incorporated

    many new examples of good practice, making use of a combination of tried

    and tested tools as well as blogs and wikis for supporting students.

    There has also been a recent rise in the use of activity-based learning and interest

    in its potential for supporting students in distance and online environments. I

    have therefore taken the opportunity to incorporate many new exemplars of

    learning activity design in the third part of this book, to illustrate approaches

    to the development of critical and independent learners.

    In preparing for this edition and in keeping with the importance I attach to

    the perspectives of practitioners, I ran a book wiki in the summer of 2007,

    to canvas for new examples of good practice. My particular thanks to those

    who contributed: their ideas have greatly helped in my writing.

    Janet Macdonald

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    The word blended is not particularly scientific, or even academic. In fact,

    you might feel that it sounds rather more like an entry from a recipe book. At

    the same time, it is currently widely in use by practitioners in both academic

    and commercial sectors, and I believe it has some good common-sense value

    in bringing to the fore the wide variety and richness of situations in which

    learning takes place. It can encourage us to stop and think about the whole

    context of teaching and learning, so that we remember the human element

    in tutorials, or perhaps incidents such as chance meetings in the corridor, as

    critical parts of the package alongside any technology-mediated intervention

    with a group.

    With changes in student demography, increasingly large classes, and a growth

    in part-time study, many course developers and tutors are turning to online

    media for teaching and learning. However, challenges and tensions arise

    where institutions are also concerned with widening access and retention.

    Very often tutors find that online approaches do not work quite as the books

    say they should. There are questions to address. Is online learning appropriate

    for all my students; does it represent a cost-effective use of the tutors time;

    are we supporting our students, or abandoning them? In this chapter I set

    out some of the issues, then outline what the book contains and who I think

    might be interested in reading it.


    Distance technologies have opened up new potential in higher education, and

    the literature is full of enthusiastic predictions. For example, networks offer

    scope for new ways to access and combine information using the limitless

    resources of the Web. Students at a distance, or separated from their peers


    for other reasons, no longer need to work in isolation but can join other

    learners in an electronically supported community. These developments

    offer the possibilities to develop greater self-direction in learners and to

    move away from teacher-directed approaches to teaching and learning.

    Instead of receiving information or knowledge from the teacher, students can

    be encouraged to seek out information for themselves and to develop their

    understanding by reflecting on course concepts with their peers. In these new

    approaches, there is a greater importance attached to understanding, rather

    than simply memorising and reproducing facts.

    These are optimistic horizons, and conjure up a halcyon view of networked

    study. At the same time, we know that not all students like learning exclusively

    online, or perhaps the experience was not quite what they expected. They

    may not participate fully and can even vote with their feet. There are

    serious health warnings in terms of student retention on some courses which

    wholeheartedly embrace online learning.

    It is time we looked at good practice in online tutoring in the context of

    what we know about our students, what else we do with them, how we

    support them, and what other opportunities they have for learning from

    each other. It makes sense: after all, the experience of studying online

    while sitting in a computer lab, with the possibility of exchanging ideas

    or the odd joke with fellow students sitting next to you will be very

    different to that of students who are studying at home, with only a computer

    for company.


    Blended learning is something of a hot topic nowadays, but like the term

    e-learning, everyone has a different understanding of what it means.

    Early references to blended learning come from industry and workplace

    learning, although recently it has become more widely adopted in higher

    education (HE) institutions. The term is commonly associated with the

    introduction of online media into a course or programme, while at the

    same time recognising that there is merit in retaining face-to-face contact

    and other traditional approaches to supporting students. It is also used

    where asynchronous media such as email, forums, blogs or wikis are

    deployed in conjunction with synchronous technologies, commonly text

    chat or audio.


    Blended learning seems to have arisen from a general sense of disillusionment

    with the stand-alone adoption of online media. Many people felt that the

    promise of online media was somehow unfulfilled. In fact, Mason (2002)

    comments: ... the earlier e-learning adopters have come full circle in rejecting

    an either or view of learning online versus face-to-face ... so called blended

    solutions often offer the most satisfactory outcomes. Laurillard (2002)

    suggests that a balance of media is essential to make learning and teaching

    effective, and the information and communications technology (ICT) element

    is unlikely to contribute to more than 50 per cent of the total strategy.

    In this book, I discuss the effective support of student learning by focusing first

    on the academic purpose of intervention, which will be influenced in turn by

    course learning objectives and student needs. The adoption of communication

    tools or of activity in a classroom follows from this understanding of what

    the course designer is trying to achieve. That choice will also be influenced

    by the institutional environment and the alternatives available: attendance for

    classroom activity is far easier to achieve for a partially campus-based course

    than it might be for a course which is exclusively for distance students. In this

    way I describe blended learning as the principled adoption of strategies and

    media to support course objectives and enhance responsiveness to student


    I intend to develop a more detailed description of the characteristics of

    blended learning later in this book, but I should point out that there has...


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