The Challenges of Blended Learning During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Oskar Rożewicz is an EFL & history teacher at a secondary school in Gdańsk. He is interested in applying e-learning and blended learning in modern education. He has written the detailed course syllabi for “My Perspectives” EFL textbooks (Nowa Era, 2019 and 2020) and given both talks and webinars on interpersonal relations in education and using technology at schools. Current professional interests involve creating EFL worksheets that he publishes on his website www.o-rozewicz.pl
The coronavirus pandemic, which has started in 2020 and has taken a lot of lives, has also resulted in a need for a sudden change of the approach to learning and teaching. Since the early days of it, teachers all over the world have needed to move their work to online ‘rooms’, using a plethora of different video conferencing and e-learning platforms. The same happened in the school the author has the pleasure to work in, and since he has been responsible at the facility to manage the e-learning that was becoming more and more prominent there, he also had a perfect opportunity to introduce a lot of his ideas … and see how they perform in the real-life scenario of intermittent in-class education, with shorter & longer periods of online classes.
This paper focuses on analysing a few of the ideas that were introduced at the school, with suggestions on the “do’s” and “don’ts” in regard to the blended learning occurring at the current stage of the coronavirus pandemic.
Learning, which according to many means “(…) acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities” (Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014) is one of a few parts of working and studying at a modern school. Teaching professionals agree that schools serve more functions than just providing a space for learning, thus moving to online classes may have been hard for many. During the early e-classes the needs for implementing all other aspects of schooling became prominent and thus from the current school year a lot of facilities decided to try to adapt their e-learning to the new era of education. The next stage of the pandemic brought phases of more traditional, face to face, teaching & learning, but with returning to the school premises the idea of implementing at least some of the e-learning techniques at schools was introduced – in the form of blended learning.
To explain the change thoroughly it is essential to explain the idea of ‘blended learning’ more precisely. Nowadays one can define 6 models of blended learning:
- Face-to-Face Driver Model, which is focused mostly on helping some students revise or extend the material, as, according to the definition, “with this approach, the introduction of online instruction is decided on a case-by-case basis, meaning only certain students in a given class will participate in any form of blended learning” (6 Models of Blended Learning, 2013),
- Rotation Model, which is a concept focused on the idea that “(…) students rotate between different stations on a fixed schedule – either working online or spending face-to-face time with the teacher” (6 Models of Blended Learning, 2013),
- Flex model, which is focused mostly on independent learning by students and the teachers’ sole role is to provide the material and guidance online,
- Online Lab Model, where “students learn entirely online but travel to a dedicated computer lab to complete their coursework. Adults supervise the lab, but they are not trained teachers.” (6 Models of Blended Learning, 2013),
- Self-Blend Model, which is primarily focused on extending, with online resources, the material taught in the class. In this form the pupils “(…) will attend a traditional school environment, they also opt to supplement their learning through online courses offered remotely. In order for this method of blended learning to be successful, students must be highly self-motivated” (6 Models of Blended Learning, 2013),
- Online Driver Model, which is focused on providing remote learning to students with the material delivered online and the possibility of traditional, individual, meetings to clarify the course content to the students.
Based on the definitions provided above one can safely assume that schools deciding to implement blended learning in the current stage of the coronavirus pandemic have opted for the Rotation Model, as it fits the ever-present possibility of changing the schooling environment.
The challenges of blended learning
Having explained the blended learning approach present at some schools nowadays it is vital to examine the challenges of implementing it first, as seen from the perspective of the author’s school.
The first of these is arguably also the most crucial one, as while moving to blended learning it is important to choose the appropriate Learning Management System (LMS) for the students and teachers to work. There are a lot of such possibilities on the market, and they are tailored for very specific target audiences, but the one which is recommended and used by a lot of educational institutions around the world is Moodle. It seems to be a perfect tool for the job – adaptable and with a long history of development it allows the teachers and students to take part in the courses according to their specific needs. Moodle, as an LMS, provides the teachers with options of conducting classes both remotely and face-to-face, with a significant number of options available to choose and add to the course. It is also the tool that the author’s school has chosen and has been using ever since with moderate success, as it is free to use and implement at any given institution. It can be agreed that the platform has an extensive number of features, but it might also become very difficult to navigate because of the said number of options. In the case of such advanced LMS it is crucial for the administrator to switch off a lot of functions at the beginning as they may be perceived as overwhelming for people who are less familiar with technology. What is more, there is a need for a server administrator to be employed at the school, as updating the Moodle software is quite an arduous process, prone to failures or errors.
The next step, namely choosing the video-conferencing tool for the online classes, is also very important. There are a lot of different options available, with Zoom, Teams, Clickmeeting or Google Meet, to name a few. Many schools choose different options, based on their requirements or financial possibilities. From the blended learning experience, it is vital to have the option of creating separate (‘breakout’) rooms during the meeting, as it allows the students to work in smaller groups on a given assignment. What is more, the possibility of sharing audio is crucial, especially in the language classes; equally important is the feature of optimizing screen sharing for not only audio, but also video projection, as sometimes they are used in the classes. Having these two options ready might be crucial to conducting an interesting and engaging lesson.
But learning, as stated in the introduction, is only one part of schooling. It is crucial for schools utilising the Rotation Model in blended learning to allow the students to express their needs and views as well, by adding (or not removing) in the timetable form periods which are equally important online and offline. Students’ voices need to be heard, so having a fixed time for discussions and not abandoning it for the time of remote schooling is, in the author’s opinion, an important step.
With the periods of online and offline learning also comes the problem of class length. Based on the experience it might be a good idea to shorten the online classes with promoting among the students the need of having breaks from the screen. It is said that “taking regular breaks away from your computer or smartphone screen can also help to prevent computer vision syndrome, which commonly manifests as eye strain and headaches. Medical professionals recommend looking away from your screen every 20 minutes and looking at something around 20 feet away for 20 seconds” (Chignell, n.d.). It might be an interesting concept to ask the pupils to use the longer breaks during the online classes for small periods of physical exercise as well, so that they stay fit and healthy.
Online classes during blended learning are also a perfect opportunity for giving different challenges to students, compared to the time of face-to-face learning. It might be a good idea to allow students to perform some research online, or to write an essay, without the need of meeting the teacher. It might be an essential period for helping the students to learn managing their own workflow, which, in turn, might help them in their future careers.
Choosing the appropriate LMS for blended learning (with Moodle being the primary example), opting for a video conferencing software enabling work in smaller rooms and the option of audio & video sharing, having fixed form periods in the timetable, shortening the online class length and changing the challenges given to students during the remote learning period are just a small glimpse into what might be some good practices for the time of utilising blended learning during the coronavirus pandemic. With more challenges around the corner, it is important to face them with an open mind, remembering that the possibilities appearing during the blended learning can, and possibly should, be utilised in education in the years to come.
6 Models of Blended Learning. (2013). Retrieved March 13, 2022, from Dreambox Learning: https://www.dreambox.com/resources/blogs/6-models-blended-learning
Brown, P., Roediger III, H., & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick: The science of Succesful Learning. Harvard University Press.
Chignell, B. (n.d.). Five benefits of taking regular breaks at work. Retrieved March 13, 2022, from CIPHR All About People: https://www.ciphr.com/advice/taking-breaks/
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