Figure 1: Blended Learning

Boosting blended learning quality

An ongoing European project aims to boost quality of blended learning courses by defining a quality framework for them. Special focus is on the learners needs.

18.12.2014

Introduction

Blended learning (BL) has been recognized as a teaching method of high potential. Contrary to the widely approved eLearning, which is scientifically documented and indicated by certain standards of quality, blended learning describes itself and is subject to a quantity of case studies.

Yet there barely exist precise quality standards so far. This is the main motivation behind “Quality in Blended Learning” –project, a multilateral initiative described in this article. Indeed, the aim of the project is to define and develop such a quality framework for the method. Furthermore, it is our aim to develop tools to measure, prove and subsequently ensure the quality of blended learning courses.

What is blended learning?

Jared Stein and Charles Graham (2014, p. 12) define blended learning as a combination of on-site with online experience to produce effective, efficient as well as flexible learning.

Jenny Greenway (2013) from the Oxford Group describes in the Report Blended Learning—Current Use, Challenges and Best Practices that ‘Blended learning is well-established but not necessarily well blended’.

In a research on approximately 100 big organizations she asked what contributed to the success of blended learning. 21% named speed & cost effectiveness, whereas 13% stated that the learning ensured consistence. A well-structured blend was important for 38%. Further the flexibility in access, scheduling & learning methods for only 13%. The simple fact that learners were engaged was mentioned by as much as 42 %, and last but not least 21% stated the skills of those designing and delivering the learning as highly important.

The mentioned report proves that specialists in the field of learning and development (L&D) have long accepted the need of the learning landscape to encompass a wide range of learning methods. On the other hand the study defines 5 key conclusions why blended learning is not always used to its full potential (Jenny Greenway, 2013 p 3-4).

Our understanding of blended learning

The consortium of the Blended Learning Quality project understands BL as a mixture of on-site and online teaching (supported by a qualified eLearning platform). The aim is to choose a combination that will highly motivate the students, and assist them in successfully mastering the course.

Figure 2: Structure of Blended Learning (Mazohl, 2014)

Identified needs

Valerie Strauss (2012) defines blended learning in her column as

…some mix of traditional classroom instruction (which in itself varies considerably) and instruction mediated by technology. The latter can be one student with a tablet or laptop, or small groups of kids working together on devices.”

The project consortium perceives this aspect as an affirmation for the overall need of the project, because this vague explanation of a way of teaching is a diffuse description missing any concrete context to the quality of teaching. As there are no quality frameworks existing for BL the consortium sees the need to develop the framework and the necessary guidelines in the frame of a European project.

From the consortium’s point of view an extensive analysis of the BL teaching method is necessary to determine how the quality of BL courses can be defined. Based on these results, analysis and measurement tools are going to be developed to evaluate the entire process of teaching. Hence the overall quality can be ensured.

As the process of blended learning courses is more or less standard as made visible in the Figure 2, general guidelines and quality rules are attainable. It’s the aim of the project to define, prove and publish them. All developed methods, tools and guidelines are evaluated to fit the learners’ needs.

The Project Blended Learning Quality

The Project’s Aims and Objectives

The detailed objectives of the project are:

  • Develop and define precise methods to ensure high quality in planning, developing, implementing, executing, and evaluating BL courses. The validation of methods will be an additional feature. The focus of quality is set on teachers’ activities as well as on the trainees’ needs. Tools and guidelines are going to be developed, tested and published
  • Define, test and describe measureable means for quality fields in BL.
  • Define the minimum level of achievable quality criteria and develop the tools to evaluate them.
  • Focus the developed quality framework on the learner. The developed quality fields and criteria will assure the necessary quality in using BL.
  • Define and describe a useable learning and teaching environment for BL including the current research results, practical advices and guidelines.

In their Research Bulletin about Blended Learning (2004), Dziuban, Hartmann and Moskal describe how the lack of a concrete quality management for BL (and especially for BL courses) in the adult education and in VET programs seems to be responsible for negative outcomes in BL courses. They recommend various requirements based on quality.

The consortium is going to solve these issues by defining the necessary quality fields (e.g. the technical support, communication, teaching methods and technology, transfer of information and knowledge, didactical background, combination of the different phases of classroom teaching and distance learning). These fields will be discussed, (re)defined, amended and evaluated (in a first conference); based on the results of this conference, the solutions covering the mentioned quality fields are going to be developed and tested in a special course in order to be finalized.

Activities

The activities within the project include two conferences (in Wiener Neustadt, Austria and in Málaga, Spain), two studies about the learners’ satisfaction and a single pilot course. At that course, developed by the University of Helsinki, the developed quality fields and criteria are tested and – if necessary – amended.

The second big activity is the pilot course in Finland. The course is held as a blended learning course for teachers within further education with two onsite teaching phases and an online learning phase. The course will cover the presentation of the developed quality fields and criteria. The students will then implement these in practical courses, and in a final onsite teaching the results will be discussed and evaluated.

The course serves as a prototype for further courses planned and organized by the consortium members. That is why the pilot course is a crucial activity for the sustainability of the project.

Utilizing the results

The results of the project are going to summarize the current research results and present trainers and teachers with a practicable, well-defined and tested package for blended learning. This will consist of a handbook presenting the quality framework and several document portfolios.

The long term aim of the project is that BL courses will become comparable: learners can estimate the success of attending the courses.

The basis for BL quality: Five quality fields

The first conference in Wiener Neustadt enabled an initial overview of the current research results and an extensive knowledge exchange between the various consortium members. In several workshops the presented proposals of quality fields were discussed, enhanced, and summarized.

The outcome was a definition for five quality fields which enhance the current existing ISO/IEC 19796 and can be used as a quality framework focusing on the learners’ needs.

 

 

The five quality fields are: Institution quality, the enrollment in a course, the course development (structure, description …), the learning environment and finally the assessment/self-evaluation.

The framework is structured in quality fields, which include several quality criteria.

Figure 4: Quality framework structure

It is important to acknowledge that quality of a learning process cannot be delivered to a learner by a course provider but rather constitutes a process of co-production between the learner and the learning environment. Therefore the learner always plays an important part for ensuring the quality of the entire learning process. The organizational aspects are mainly researched and the currently used norms (like ISO) cover the quality fields of the course environment.

Furthermore, the learners’ needs should be an issue as well.

Five quality fields in detail

The institution’s quality

The learner has to trust the institution, but furthermore feel sure that the teaching institution will undertake everything to satisfy the learner’s needs. That includes the fact that the organization works following some European standards for organizations (for example the ISO 9001). Additional, there are other issues that are way more important from the learners’ view and should be defined as quality criteria to satisfy the learners’ needs. Here is a list of different aspects which are important for the learner:

• Administration (Technical Administration, Program Administration)
• Documentation (Documentation Control, Course documentation, Materials, Reports …)
• Resources of the institution / Course provider (Technical resources such as equipment, server, eLearning platform, teaching rooms, human resources such as teachers and trainers, people responsible for tutorial support, financial resources)
• Teachers/Trainers (ICT Skills, Didactical Skills)
• Instructional Design

The enrollment

The enrollment contains two different items that are crucial for learners: information about the course and the practical handling of the enrollment.

The course information must provide:

  • A definition of the necessary pre-knowledge of the learners;
  • The requested ICT skills of the learners (This is necessary because of the use of computers in the on-site training as well as in the distance learning.);
  • Structure of the course (That information must include basic information like the timetable, the estimated workload, the intermediate and final assessment rules …)

Enrollment procedure:

  • Registration: The future learners must receive adequate information on how and where the registration is done. The frame conditions for the registration must be described. Hence the future learner has to know whether to register online or in person, which documents are needed, how students or learners are identified etc.
  • The handling of the registration
  • Is the registration accepted and what timeframe can be expected for the answer to return.
  • The description and information about the access to software (is it free or paid-access), how and when do the students get which materials.

The course itself

The course quality can be seen from the course organizer’s viewpoint as well as from the learner’s. Jung and Latchem (2007) found that most institutions apply the same quality criteria for eLearning (and Blended Learning) as for the other modes of delivery. These criteria will satisfy the learner’s needs only partially.

The workshop results defined the quality criteria for the course itself as follows:

  • Documentation (Documentation Control, Course, Materials, Reports);
  • Get to know the tutor(s)/teacher(s) and the other learners;
  • Well known course structure.

An important item identified by the consortium is the clear definition of competence oriented learning outcomes. The consortium defines competences according to the current interpretation in the European countries as a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes.

The learning environment

The learning environment contains the available setting for on-site teaching in the institution as well as the eLearning equipment provided from the teaching institution for the distance learning.
The consortium is currently developing recommendations for an optimized learning platform. The on-site environment should enable mixed teaching activities – mainly open learning environments and group learning. As a matter of course, well-equipped labs should be available (if that is an issue of the course).

Assessment and evaluation

The project group is using the ideas from the GINCO network summarized from Jaap van Lakerveld (2011) developed for the self-evaluation of In-Service trainings in Grundtvig Courses.
Self-evaluation should be understood as an individual as well as a group method. The consortium is working on the transfer from the proposals for In-Service trainings to blended learning courses.

The assessment itself is a kind of final presentation or summarizing of the acquainted competences.

Conclusion

The project is going to define a versatile quality framework for Blended Learning with a focus on the learner. This framework contains five quality fields. Furthermore, each quality field is defined in various quality criteria. The described framework continues with a focus on the learner where the ISO/IEC 19796 with the fitting PAS (Public Available Specification) ends.

The summary of the project outcomes offers an easy access to quality assurance for BL courses. An individual adaption fitting to the course topics and special course environments is necessary for the course providing institution.

People interested to use the new developed quality framework can download a final description of the quality framework from the project’s webpage.

Another possibility to come closer to the results of the project is to attend the conference in Málaga in August 2015. (see project information box below) Additionally the University of Rome “La Sapienza” is going to offer special BL courses in cooperation with the newly founded “European Foundation for Quality in Blended Learning”. These courses will start after the end of the project, in Rome.

The project does not end – it is a starting point for new research work. To develop a quality framework is one issue – but to prove the practical implementation, to create pilot environments in the frame of a scientific study to proof the usability and relevance of the framework is another issue. That must be done in further projects and developed to a higher level to be used in Europe’s teaching landscape.


Project: Blended Learning Quality

Our project started in October 1, 2013 and is going to end in September, 2015. It is a Grundtvig Multilateral Project (so-called centralized project) funded by the European Commission.

The consortium consists of seven different institutions that build a complementary project group.

Map of the consortium members

The members are

  • The University of Technology Vienna (Austria);
  • Universitá “La Sapienza” DigiLab Rome (Italy);
  • University Helsinki Viikki Teacher School (Finland);
  • Cultural Association – F.C. “Europaclub” Rome (Italy);
  • Safa Vocational schools Málaga (ES);
  • EDRASE Athens (GR);
  • Europäische Bildungsinitiative Wiener Neustadt (AT)

A new association was founded during the project by consortium members. It is called EFQBL (European Foundation for Quality in Blended Learning) and works as a dissemination tool of the project’s results in the closer future. The association is going to provide a platform for all Blended Learning issues in context with quality, provide conferences, contribute to conferences and is going to offer the course about Blended Learning Quality (developed by the University of Helsinki).

References

Dziuban, C.D. Hartman, J.L.; Moskal, P.D. Blended Learning.

Greenway, J.(2013). Blended Learning—Current Use, Challenges and Best Practices. Report 2013. PDF.

Jung, I., Latchem, C. (2007). Assuring quality in Asian open and distance learning. Open Learning, 22(3), 235–250.

Mazohl, P. (2014). Quality in Blended Learning. Wiener Neustadt: Peter Mazohl Eigenverlag.

Stein, J., Graham, C. R. (2014). Essentials for blended learning. A standards-based guide. New York: Routledge (Essentials of online learning series).

Strauss, Valerie (1012): Three fears about blended learning. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/three-fears-about-blended-learning/2012/09/22/56af57cc-035d-11e2-91e7-2962c74e7738_blog.html.

van Lakerveld, J., Zoete, J. de (2011). GINCO: Quality in courses. Quality features in the pre course phase; the development phase; the implementation phase, and the follow up phase of Grundtvig courses. PLATO.