Blended Learning Essentials

A free online course for the  vocational and training sector, to promote effective practice and pedagogy in blended learning.

Teacher reluctance is often presented as one of the reasons for the slow take-up of technology for learning and teaching. But don't believe the hype. The enthusiastic take-up of the new Blended Learning Essentials MOOC suggests a very different story.

More than 12,000 teachers and work-based trainers signed up for the debut of this MOOC (Massively Open Online Course), a radical approach to continuing professional development (CPD) funded by the UFI Charitable Trust. And those figures continue to climb.

The course focuses on one of teachers’ most wished-for topics for CPD - how to use technology for teaching and learning. It does it one of the most hard-pressed areas of UK education, the vocational and education training sector. And it provides the CPD in the way that teachers say they want it - in convenient bite-sized chunks that have collaboration and feedback built in.

The first half of this two-part course, "Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started", started in October 2015, and the second, "Blended Learning Essentials: Embedding Practice" on February 2, 2016. Each of the courses will be run three times on the UK's FutureLearn courses platform, to enable as many people as possible to participate.

It has been the perfect opportunity for the two project partners who lead the consortium, the University of Leeds and the Institute of Education in London, to take the work they have already pioneered with MOOCs to a higher level.

At the Institute of Education (IoE) there is confidence about MOOCs. Professor Diana Laurillard, co-director of Blended Learning Esssentials has already created one for ICT in primary schools. The IoE's Eileen Kennedy explained that they have run many other MOOCs, often for other University of London Colleges. But the scale and ambition of this new MOOC made it particularly exciting.

The funding meant that the course creators could further professionalise the materials they develop. They could bring in professional video teams to create film clips that transcend the usual 'talking heads' and bring in fresh, innovative approaches. And they could go into locations and colleges that are familiar to the learners.

Innovation was evident in the community building too. Maren Deepwell, chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), explained that there are flexible routes through the courses; learners can dip in and out as they need to. Accreditation is flexible too, including FutureLearn's standard certificate of participation, CPD certification for 20 hours as well as stepping stones to other courses.

To help student engagement and support, Richard Nelson at Bradford College, supported by Maren, led the set up a network of digital champions which quickly grew from a hoped-for 20 to 80. "All the course resources are based on very practical examples from colleges, and the digital champions act as living and breathing examples of people who do this kind of work every day," she said

Sitting in on an online session for them run by Richard Nelson gave a glimpse of the commitment and support the champions offer to participants. They also feed back learners' experiences to the course designers so that the material can be continuously refined and improved. 

The approaches need to be dynamic, creative and innovative because the challenges to effective and wider adoption of technology are entrenched. However, the course's other co-director, Neil Morris, director of digital learning at the University of Leeds, is upbeat.

"The participants have embraced the ideas of blended learning. They have been receptive to the concept and, in a good way, critical of change and the new ways of doing things," he said.

"There has been a lot of reflection on the challenges that it brings to them as teachers. And we have heard about the barriers that you hear about whenever people are asked to look at new practices. Like 'I don't have time', or 'I don't get the support I need', 'My college doesn't believe in this and my colleagues think it's all a waste of time'. These are typical factors that influence adoption of new technology."

 The themes are also echoed by participants. Changing practice can be a lonely place, and it can take time to convince managers that digital technology can enhance learning, and increase engagement and inclusiveness.

"The major positive for me so far has been the community of practice that has emerged," Neil added. "There is a really rich dialogue going on between people who are in very different locations geographically and academically. They are really supporting each other with ideas."

This is something that has also been experienced over at the IoE. Eileen Kennedy said that the natural anxieties experienced when the MOOC went live melted away when they could see how positive and enthusiastic the students were in engaging with the material and each other. "Conversations were of a very high standard", she said.  It has been about "the community making the MOOC for itself".

She concluded: "FE is is going through huge changes that cause lots of anxiety. People are teaching long hours, are under pressure for results and face a potential transformation of their sector. That's why it's really very gratifying to see that people in that sector are so committed to developing themselves as teachers and trainers, that they are engaging with the MOOC."

"That's the thing - there is absolutely no shortage of talent in vocational education and training sector, and commitment to their learners. We showed them that their learners will benefit from this. because that's what these people really care about."