Blended Learning and the Future of Colleges and Universities

The most substantial leverage of technology in support of learning at Ontario’s colleges and universities is for “blended learning”, this is where some aspects of a course are accessible through online study and others through classroom activities.

Blended learning is not new – in one way or another, instructors have been using experiences, video, audio and other media in classrooms for a very long time – what is new is the extent to which this is now being practiced.  Blended learning is the fastest area of growth for online learning in Ontario.

More specifically, there are some courses which are making use of what is known as the “flipped classroom”. This describes the process by which instruction and the exploration of content takes place online and the classroom is used for project work, discussion and dialogue and other activities which bring the online content to life.  Such courses require less classroom time than would occur in a more conventional class. The “flipped classroom” is an advanced version of blended learning and is used less frequently than more conventional versions of blended learning.

Why Blended Learning is Attractive to Colleges and Universities

Blended learning is attractive to colleges and universities for five basic reasons:

  1. It is relatively inexpensive. All institutions have access to learning management systems (LMS) which can deliver the online content and there is an abundance of audio, video and other materials available online which students can access.
  2. It requires no substantive changes to faculty roles and responsibilities. Faculty have been using web-based resources and materials for a considerable time. Blended learning provides a framework for them to do so.
  3. In some cases, courses use less classroom time since students have access to their learning online, which could lead to increased capacity – more students could be using the same physical space.
  4. It creates flexibility for students – they can study substantial components of their course anywhere, anytime.
  5. If designed well, blended learning can provide a higher level of student engagement. Classroom actiivties are more active, less passive. Students are engaged in projects, teamwork, active discussion rather than listening passively to a lecture.

What is also occurring, albeit by stealth, is enabling faculty to experiment and engage with online learning at their own pace and in their own way: they are each discovering the range of their digital repertoire.

The growth of blended learning is a universal phenomenon. It is taken hold precisely because there is no formulae or prescription: faculty need to adapt the available learning resources freely available online, create their own materials, design powerful in-class learning experience and think-through the learning outcomes they are looking to secure all from a learners perspective. They can share ideas within a discipline or across disciplines and they “own” this work.

From a learners perspective, they can study more of their course at their own pace, engage with instructors in a different way and, assuming classroom experiences are designed to leverage knowledge not just to reinforce, they engage with their peers in new ways.

Technologically, blended learning leverages investments already made in learning management systems, accesses free-to-use materials online, can use any other online resource (simulation, game, online laboratory, statistical solution centres etc) at little or no cost. As new technological developments occur, they can be quickly added to the blend to make the learning more focused, more engaging – a stronger blend of learning.

Challenges in Making Blended Learning Work

There are practical challenges. Looking at the rapidly growing literature, here are the five most common challenges in ensuring positive learning outcomes from blended learning:

  1. Students are unprepared for a shift in the focus of classroom based work and for their own responsibility for their learning.
  2. Instructors overload students with content rather than use principles of instructional design to rethink what and how students learn.
  3. Much of the online learning components are passive and content rich rather than engaging and challenging. A characteristic of student engagement is that they are active and challenged by their learning.
  4. Instructors are sometimes reluctant to change their classroom behaviour significantly, even though blended learning requires this.
  5. Not all learners are as adept with technology and some struggle with its use – hence the need for quality help-desk support.

Too often, faculty are left to their own devices to create effective and mindful blended learning experiences for students. They need the support of instructional designers, librarians and “expert” students to help them design memorable, effective and focused blended learning.

The Strategic Limitations of Blended Learning

The rate of adoption of blended learning permits colleges and universities to demonstrate that they are making good use of their technology investments. It also permits them to avoid dealing with some key strategic issues.

First, blended learning as currently practiced does not significantly increase access to post-secondary education. By and large, given that the extent of classroom time is not unduly affected, only modest gains in access are possible within the current financial constraints and contractual limitations within which colleges and universities operate.

This first observation relates to a second. By focusing on enhancing classroom teaching with technology there is a systematic avoidance of the opportunity to achieve significant gains in access and scale.  Class size is still limited by the ability of a single instructor to teach. A single master online learning course can have several sections, each taught by a part-time instructor enabling hundreds of students to access learning rather than just one.

A third observation is also pertinent here. The time-frame for a blended learning course is usually a semester. What is being avoided is any rethink of the length of a course (shorter courses taking two to three weeks which carry credit for example) or the speed at which students can complete. By avoiding opportunities to rethink time and scale, colleges and university “play safe” while looking to be contemporary in their use of technology enhanced learning.

These first three points lead to a fourth – colleges and universities are missing opportunities to reach new markets for their offerings. Online learning, particularly short courses carrying credit, reach new audiences – learners with limited time to learn, workers in work camps related to oil and gas exploration, overseas learners hoping to come to Canada for employment and so on. Blended learning requires campus attendance. Online learning does not.

Fourth, blended learning adds costs to the operation of a college or university. More time is spent by non-academic staff (technology staff, intellectual property managers) securing appropriate access to online materials, supporting blended learners and paying the license and related costs of LMS systems and other technology.

Finally, there is the issue of avoidance. Many who write about innovation see the current growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), the $700m invested by the private sector in online learning in 2012 and the growth of new online institutions in California and Florida since the beginning of 2013 as signalling a tipping point for post-secondary education. Sir Michael Barber has suggested that “an avalanche” of change is coming to credit granting, teaching and learning in colleges and universities. In particular, he suggests, the new demographics of who learners are and what they are looking for demands a fundamental change of pedagogy.

Whatever else blended learning is, it is not a fundamental change of pedagogy or of credit granting.  Indeed, blended learning has been the habit of instructors for many years – using film, radio, case studies, games, simulation, role-play, project-work, television, online materials has been common practice since each of these “technologies” became widely available. It is precisely because blended learning represents no significant change to pedagogy or the way credit is awarded or funding flows that colleges and universities find it attractive.


For Canada to develop a world-class reputation for innovation in post-secondary education it needs to recognize blended learning for what it is “a happy compromise” between opportunity and pragmatics.

Until Government changes its funding formula and moves away from time based funding and to funding broad outcomes little will change; until colleges and universities decide that the challenge is to develop a new and different form of pedagogy and new approaches to credit granting, little will change; until students demand new flexibility and a stronger level of engagement; until faculty recognize that online learning and getting to scale is a critical part of their future, little will change. Blended learning is an easy resting point on a journey to change.

The real opportunity is to rethink post-secondary education in terms of: (a) how do we want students to learn (pedagogy); (b) how can we massively increase access to learning across the life-span; (c) how do we recognize learning for credit; and (d) how do we award qualifications. Doing what we have always done, adding technology, may not be enough to truly respond to the challenges implied by these questions.

By Janet Tully -