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Frances Bell :: Blog :: A blended learning rant

June 20, 2007

I read with interest Nicola’s and George’s posts about ‘e’ learning and blended learning, and this has induced a mild if longish rant.  I am very much with Nicola here, and have to admit that George’s reference to blended learning slightly provoked the rant ;-)  The term blended learning tends to have that effect on me.  Given that it would be pretty difficult to think of learning that isn’t blended, what is the point of the term – to distinguish itself from terms like ‘networked learning’ or ‘elearning’?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Blended Learning literature review is very useful and interesting, it’s just that marking something as different can be suspect, as well as useful.  The concept of ‘networked learning’ being explored along side networked society concepts was and is useful in that there is/was significant opportunity for innovation around networking with the introduction of the Internet and mass information and communications technologies.  Much of the writing also adopted a critical stance.

Why would we want to focus on technology with respect to learning?

“….. the distinction that Heidegger [5] drew between things we think about and things which we use, i.e., between those objects which are vorhanden and those which are zuhanden. In this distinction, vorhanden refers to the theoretical aspects of objects which allow people to contemplate these objects. I suppose if the reader was asked to ‘describe a screwdriver’, it is possible to produce a verbal description containing handle, shaft and head. On the other hand, zuhanden refers to the user’s relationship to objects in use. This notion of zuhanden seems to reflect Butler’s proposal that nothing is a tool unless during use’.”

Cognition and Tool Use; Forms of engagement in human and animal use of tools, Christopher Baber, 2003, ISBN 0–415–27728–0, http://www.eee.bham.ac.uk/baberc/Documents/Baber.pdf

When in the carpenter’s hand, the hammer becomes almost part of her body, fulfilling the hammering action to drive the nail into wood.  Lying in a pile of broken glass in a car window, we can see it differently.

Hammer in windscreen

  So it’s interesting to focus on technology for learning, if it’s new to us or when we are considering a new use for it but what is important is what we are doing, learning or not learning.  Those of us whose subject discipline involves technology and/or who spend quite a lot of time learning to use new technologies can get a bit confused at this point – what are we doing and why?

If we want to think about blending epistemologies and learning styles, why would we start from technology?  What’s new about blended learning?

The tensions between ‘instructional design’ and ‘social constructivism’ are real to educators trying to make improvements in their teaching and students’ learning.  Sometimes we learning technologists make a veiled suggestion that using certain technologies might bring magical benefits in formal learning or even bring ‘freedom’ from formal learning or by informal learning.  Learners and teachers might find such suggestions do not increase their freedom at all.  As a teacher, I have simple goals: that the students I teach will (sometimes) disagree with me and might be able to teach me; and in disagreeing with me and teaching me, they will enjoy constructing clear arguments, supported by evidence.  With varying degrees of success, I work with technology and colleagues to support different activities that help achieve those goals, and then reflect on how things might be different next year.  Sometimes a technology is ‘noticeable’ – that group blog used by students to communicate with a client – and sometimes it’s invisible - students using their mobile phones to keep in contact during project work, what is sometimes called multiplexity. But that’s enough ranting for one day.

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Posted by Frances Bell


  1. Hi Frances

    Did you think I suggested that blending epistemologies would start from technologies? And there is certainly nothing new about blending stuff together. I knew blended learning in the 80s when it meant a mix of DL and face to face tutorials. The two main points were

    1) that an attempt to define any modification of a term: e.g. e-learning, blended learning, m-learning, etc, etc, calls into question the core term. That is blended learning, e-learning, etc are about that core term: learning.

    2) that all such attempts at such definitions are political or, rather, are matters of polity

    Rant on! 

    George Robertsgeorge on Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 22:57 BST # |

  2. This wasn't a rant at you George, it was provoked by the term 'blended learning' that pops up everywhere.  It is a term similar to 'community' ( a 'warm glow' word) whose virtue is that it is so meaningless that it can mean almost anything to anyone (maybe my next rant?)

    Perhaps a better (more political) question is why do people use the term blended learning?

    I think I'd be happier with the statement 'learning is blended' (in the ways you described) and then move on to ask more specific questions about why and how we blend? These can be from the perspective of pedagogic design, evaluation of formal learning, or just understanding why we do and don't learn.

    What grieves me though is the lack of building on what has gone before e.g. why not use the excellent diagram and description on pp44+ of Goodyear et al's guidelines at  http://csalt.lancs.ac.uk/jisc/guidelines_final.doc ?  This diagram (don't know how to include it here) contains many of the elements that may be blended but actually provides a rationale for discussing their blending.

    Frances BellFrances Bell on Thursday, 21 June 2007, 07:47 BST # |

  3. Yes, I also get ranty at warm-glow words that are so ubiquitous and appear to me often to hide either ill-informed or, worse, machiavellian attempts to impose views (dogmas, ideologies) on others. I would argue that sometimes imposition should be justified, sometimes tolerated and sometimes resisted, but we should always try to make or expose such views as explicitly as we can.

    For me "community" is part of a new covert curriculum, a triad of flexibility, community and personalisation that, in malevolent aspect, can hide, respectively, a return to piecework, normalisation and surveillanc. Of course one need not always look for malevolence! I am a happy soul, really

    p.s. I copied Peter's drawing to here

    Learning model 


    George Robertsgeorge on Thursday, 21 June 2007, 09:53 BST # |

  4. Thanks for the diagram George.  As you can see educational technology is in its place - in brackets - lol.  Seriously though, although this diagram is very much focused on 'formal' educational activities, it does give a starting point for discussing what is happening and how it might be different.

    See you in Manchester. 

    Frances BellFrances Bell on Thursday, 21 June 2007, 11:57 BST # |

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