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Blended, Online, Flipped? Oh my!

This weekend, I was discussing with a colleague the differences between the slew of terms that are used to describe some of the e-learning options becoming prevalent in higher education.  In our discussion, it was clear that there is a great deal of confusion as to what constitutes a blended course vs. a flipped classroom vs. a hybrid class.  In this week’s post, I thought I’d try to clarify my conceptualizations of these terms and include some of the foundational documents that have formed my understanding of the differences.  Besides adding some clarity to the discussion, my hope is that this post also fosters a bigger conversation about the pedagogical structure of these instructional methods and how they benefit student learning.

Traditional classes:  In my conceptualization, a traditional course is one that meets on a regular basis in a physical classroom environment with all of the instruction occurring through teacher/student, face-to-face interaction.  Some researchers, however, present a little different picture of what constitutes a “traditional course.”  In their recent comprehensive analysis entitled Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States, Allen and Seaman use a very narrow definition of “traditional classes” by describing them as courses “where no online technology is used, the content is delivered in writing or orally.”  I find this definition to be a little limiting.  What if an instructor uploaded her syllabus to a learning management system (LMS)?  Or if another instructor posts copies of an assignment online? To describe these courses, Allen & Seaman introduce another critical term in the e-learning landscape.

Web facilitated:  Allen & Seaman would argue that traditional courses that post syllabi or assignments online should be considered as “web facilitated” because web-based technology is used to deliver 1-29% of the content in a mainly face-to-face course.   In my view, however, the term “web facilitated” should be designated for face-to-face courses that require significant student activity online to support in-class instruction. In a web-facilitated class, for example, students could use discussion forums to discuss topics with their peers or submit assignments through the LMS.  And that’s the major difference as I see it between Allen and Seaman’s conceptualization and my own.  Allen and Seaman focus on where the content delivery happens (online vs. face-to-face).  I choose to focus on student activity and class time.  A course that does not significantly reduce face-to-face class time but requires some significant online student activity, in my mind, should be considered “web-facilitated.”

Blended (or hybrid):  Like Allen and Seaman, I use these terms synonymously.  Allen and Seaman use a range of 30 – 79% of “content delivered online” as the defining factors for blended and hybrid classrooms.  Locally, my institution uses the term “blended” to describe classes that meet no more than 20% in a face-to-face classroom environment.  I view a blended or hybrid class as any course that reduces face-to-face class time significantly (more than 25%) but supports that instruction through thoughtful, student-centered online activities and lessons.  In a blended course, the face-to-face classes and online interactions should be complementary and coherent and should support student learning.

Online:  For online classes, Allen and Seaman defines online classes as those courses where 80+% of the course content is delivered online.  Here, I take a stricter stance.    Students who take an online class have the expectation that there will be NO face-to-face meetings in a physical classroom.  How would a student enrolling in an online course from another country be expected to show up for one or two face-to-face classes on campus?  They shouldn’t be.  I view any class that is delivered and mediated completely through web-based technologies as an online class.  I would also argue that online classes that do not involve significant student/student or student/instructor interaction are more “independent studies” than true online classes, but that may be a distinction better saved for another post.

Flipped:  Flipping creates some confusion since a change in student activity is central to its structure.  With its tradition steeped in K-12 classrooms (see Bermann & Sams, 2012), “flipped classrooms” do not reduce the amount of time that students actually meet face-to-face.  Flipping is about changing the way that classroom time is used.  In a flipped classroom, students learn concepts outside of class by interacting with online videos or texts and then apply the concepts in class through differentiated activities and active learning strategies.  The Flipped Learning Network (FLN) goes one step further and distinguishes between a “flipped classroom” and “flipped learning.”  For “flipped learning” to occur, the FLN argues that the learning environment must be built upon four critical pillars which describe the way that students and teachers interact to form a larger culture of learning.  None of the pillars, however, relate to instruction mediated through web-based technologies or to how much class time is reduced.

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