In blended course design, the identification of activities is contextualized within the online and face‑to‑face modalities. Instructors not only have to think about the kinds of activities that support course outcomes and unit objectives but also where those activities are best located to facilitate the best outcomes with the smallest investment of time. The following section will guide you through the types of activities to consider along with a design framework to situate those activities. William Horton’s E‑Learning By Design model is very helpful for instructors in the design of activities for a blended environment. The model helps instructors design activities with different levels of complexity and purpose.
TYPES OF LEARNING ACTIVITIES
READ, WATCH, AND LISTEN
“Absorb activities inform and inspire. [They] enable motivated learners to obtain crucial, up‑to‑date information they need to do their jobs or to further their learning. In absorb activities, learners read, listen, and watch. These activities may sound passive, but they can be an active component of learning. Of the three types of activities (absorb, do, and connect), absorb activities are the ones closest to pure information. Absorb activities usually consist of information and the actions learners take to extract and comprehend knowledge from that information.” (Horton 67).
WHEN TO USE ABSORB ACTIVITIES
“Because absorb activities provide information efficiently, they are ideal when learners need a little information. They are especially helpful when [learners are] just updating current knowledge…Absorb activities are also an efficient way to extend current knowledge and skills. Learners who understand the fundamentals of a field can increase their knowledge by absorbing new details that elaborate a theory, concept, or principle…Additionally, absorb activities are good partners to other kinds of activities. Often they are used to prepare learners for…do activit[ies]. The absorb part of the partnership orients the learner, sets the context, establishes vocabulary, introduces principles, and supplies instructions needed before the learner can engage in a highly‑interactive do activity…Absorb activities are best for highly motivated learners. They are not inherently interesting. However, they are highly efficient for individuals who can focus their attention and are motivated enough to expend the effort” (Horton 68).
“If absorb activities are the nouns, then do activities are the verbs of learning. They put people in action. They elevate learning from passive reading and watching to active seeking, selecting, and creating knowledge. Doing begets learning” (Horton 129).
WHEN TO USE DO ACTIVITIES
- “Provide safe, encouraging practice to prepare learners to apply learning in the real world.
- Motivate learners by activating curiosity for material learners might otherwise consider boring.
- Prepare for absorb activities by showing learners how little they know about the subject and making clear the value of information they are to absorb.
- Enable learning by exploration and discovery” (Horton 130).
LINK TO PRIOR LEARNING, WORK, AND LIFE
“Connect activities help learners close the gap between learning and the rest of their lives. They prepare learners to apply learning in situations they encounter at work, in later learning efforts, and in their personal lives. If absorb activities are the nouns and do activities the verbs, then connect activities are the conjunctions of learning” (Horton 163).
WHEN TO USE CONNECT ACTIVITIES
“Connect activities aim squarely at increasing application of learning. So use connect activities when…
- APPLICATION IS CRUCIAL – The success of individuals, organizations, or societies depends on learners applying skills and knowledge…
- APPLICATION IS NOT ADEQUATE – Learning is applied but not in enough depth or by enough people…
- YOU TEACH A GENERAL SUBJECT – Broad principles and concepts can be applied in varied situations. You cannot include enough examples and custom activities to prepare learners to apply the learning in every possible situation they may encounter…
- LEARNERS CANNOT MAKE CONNECTIONS BY THEMSELVES – Sometimes it takes extraordinary efforts to see the connection between abstract subjects and daily life. This in-the-clouds stigma plagues mathematics, science, philosophy, and dozens of other subjects. Many learners lack the experience, motivation, or creativity to make connections on their own” (Horton 165).
TYPES OF LEARNER INTERACTIONS
In the article “Designed Learner Interactions in Blended Course Delivery,” Reba-Anna Lee and Brian Dashew define three types of learner interactions that can be used as guides to help develop online activities that engage students in multiple ways to take advantage of the affordances each type of interactivity provides.
Lee and Dashew’s model “includes two key components in considering learner‑content interaction. The first is the availability of instructor‑generated or instructor‑provided content for students. The second is the possibility of a more constructivist model wherein students would create their own content. In other words, effective instructors are competent in the development of both teacher‑centered and learner‑centered content” (Lee and Dashew 70).
“To facilitate these learning interactions, the instructor must employ the many online communication tools that can bridge the distance and time that separates the instructors from the students…Communication tools might include discussion boards, synchronous chat rooms, course announcements and course messages or course email. A primary job for an online instructor is to select which communications tool to use and then ‘deploy’ it effectively in the course” (Lee and Dashew 72). Note: Lee and Dashew are talking about online courses specifically, but the interaction type applies to blended learning, as well. It is important to remember that unlike online instruction, blended learning provides the instructor the opportunity to meet with and communicate with students in a face‑to‑face environment. The goal and challenge of designing learner/instructor interactions is to know when and how to use each format in ways that support the learning objectives for a unit.
“The development of a strong learning environment is essential to a successful learning experience for the learner. A key part of this environment is the learner’s interactions with other learners which helps to build a strong learning community. The more effectively a learning environment is created, the better the experience is for the learner and the instructor. The learner puts a large value on the interactions they have with their fellow classmates. In order to benefit from the expectations of their students, the instructor needs to move the course from being teacher-centered to student-centered learning as they move from the face to face mode to the hybrid model” (Lee and Dashew 73).
OTHER ELEMENTS OF ACTIVITY DESIGN
The following are other elements to consider in designing an activity in support of course outcomes and/or unit objectives.
STUDENT TIME ON TASK
When considering an activity, estimate the amount of time it will take a student to complete it. This includes the knowledge they will need, as well as the mastery of the content upon which the activity is based. It is equally important to consider the total time a student spends on all activities in a given day. The following resources can provide guidance on requirements and ways of estimating workload.
VIEW FEDERAL CREDIT HOUR DEFINITION – https://blendedtoolkit.wisc.edu/what/policies/federal-credit-hour-definition/
VIEW COURSE WORKLOAD ESTIMATOR – http://cte.rice.edu/workload/ (Links to an external site.)
INSTRUCTOR TIME TO FACILITATE
Another important element to consider when thinking about an activity is the time it will take you to facilitate it. This includes the time to interact with students to facilitate the desired outcomes in an activity, as well as the time it may take to process the results of an activity and provide feedback on student performance. Factor the role support staff and/or teaching assistants may play in facilitating these tasks.
LEVEL OF INSTRUCTOR PRESENCE
Instructor presence involves students seeing you in their learning. In teaching a blended course, your ability to remain present has a direct impact on your students’ satisfaction and performance. In the article “Creating a Sense of Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom,” Rob Kelly identifies three components of instructor presence to consider:
- PERSONA — This consists of the instructor’s personality, teaching style, and interests — all the characteristics that go into the students’ impression of the instructor.
- SOCIAL — This refers to the connections instructors make with the student and those that students make with each other to build a learning community.
- INSTRUCTIONAL — This is the role the instructor plays in guiding students through the learning process (Kelly 2014).
In the book Creating Significant Learning Experiences, L. Dee Fink defines three components of passive and active learning that can help us see how blended design can facilitate deeper student engagement. Fink identifies three components of active learning: Receiving Information and Ideas, Experiences (Doing and Observing), and Reflection and Making of Meaning (Fink 116-118).
RECEIVING INFORMATION & IDEAS
“Passive learning refers to what happens for students when they listen to a lecture or read a book; they receive information and ideas. This is an important part of learning, but by itself, it is very limited and limiting” (Fink 116). When students are given materials to read or when they listen to a lecture, they are getting new information and ideas presented to them which have already been analyzed and processed by others in ways that the instructor hopes will facilitate learning. These approaches are, mostly, passive and indirect. More direct approaches might have students read original content and examine original data that has yet to be analyzed and interpreted by others.
EXPERIENCING (DOING AND OBSERVING)
Students engage in real action in an authentic setting. It is not always possible to provide students with direct experience, however, so instructors create indirect doing experiences, such as case studies, gaming, simulations, and role-playing. These activities are done without risk of consequence and can provide valuable formative assessment opportunities.
Observing experiences occur “whenever a learner watches or listens to someone else doing something related to what they are learning. This [could include an instructor demonstrating] something…listening to other professionals perform…or observing the phenomena being studied. Observing gives [students] a chance to experience the reality of the phenomena they are studying” (Fink 117).
REFLECTING AND MAKING OF MEANING
“People are meaning‑making beings. We make meaning based on our experiences and on the information and ideas we encounter. Whenever someone has a new experience or encounters a new idea, those events automatically have an initial meaning. But this initial meaning may remain buried at the unconscious or subconscious level. When this happens, the meaning may be limited, distorted,…destructive [or incorrect]. As humans, we have the capacity to change the meaning of our ideas and experiences — but only when we pull our original meanings up to the conscious level and reflect on what new meaning we want those ideas or experiences to have” (Fink 117‑118). “After students have encountered new information and ideas and have new doing or observing experiences, they need time to reflect in order to decide what meaning to give these other learning activities. Without this reflection, they have learned something but they have not made that learning fully meaningful to themselves” (Fink 122).