The origins of blended learning


In essence, blended learning is a learning and teaching approach that combines face-to-face, online and mobile learning, with the aim of making each mode mutually reinforcing.

Because the approach has become so central to education strategies of all types, a trend intensified since the Covid pandemic, there is a varied array of definitions of blended learning in circulation. Many L&D experts would perhaps agree that there is a widespread tendency to make blended learning mean what we would like it to mean, and to use it as an umbrella term for a broad range of desirable modern learning and teaching practices.

This tendency is the result of the speed of developments in digital technology outpacing the evolution and developing practice of teaching and learning theories. There is therefore some uncertainty and confusion both for organisations and for the learners themselves as to exactly what blended learning is in practice and how they might implement it and benefit from it. This blog article series aims to unpack the term and provide historical context, a theoretical framework and some indications for effective application, development and refinement of the concept, fit for the future of work and learning in the digital age.

Contextual factors and origins

To quote Diana Laurillard (2019), “the context in which the student finds themselves matters as much in how they learn as the cognitive demands of the task you give them”. Blended learning or digital technology-enhanced learning has opened up a plethora of different contexts for learning. And we are still learning about how best to manage, accommodate, alternate and optimise these for an edifying, effective, joined-up and rewarding learning experience. Learning has always been technology-enhanced in some way (examples below), so while we maximise the opportunities afforded by digital technology, we must make sure we don’t lose sight of the core principles and pleasure in learning.

Digital transformation represents both an enormous opportunity and an irresistible force for organisations today. Historically, the process started around the 1970s, when computing power and “the information age” began to take off, though obviously there were significant advances in information management and access well before that date.

From approximately 2007, the transition from analogue to digital as the primary mode of storage was for the most part already complete, at least in the global north and the higher income countries. It is in this digital context that blended learning has become a powerful and ever more essential part of modern teaching and learning practice.

However, as a method, blended learning has far older origins. We can trace the roots of blended and hybrid learning (slightly different methods, as we shall discuss later) back to distance education, which has a long and rich heritage. Given that traditional face-to-face teaching and learning models have been established for millennia, the online part of blended learning is where the innovation was needed.

As Anderson and Simpson from the University of Otago described in their 2012 paper, distance learning is not new: “People have always learned through open and flexible means. We think of preachers, early itinerant storytellers, wandering minstrels, and groups of performers as early teachers. Great thinkers also gathered around them people who were keen to listen, to debate, and to share ideas.”

Across the globe from ancient India to China to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and far west, methods of distance learning have been used to inform, educate and influence, whether for religious or secular purposes. From cuneiform clay tablets in Mesopotamia to whistled languages which are still used across the globe and can be heard over distances as far as 5 miles, to the distance teaching from elders or religious leaders in cultures such as Aboriginal and native Indian, human ingenuity in distance learning and teaching has always been evident.

Heritage and enabling technologies

Correspondence courses

The accelerated rate of technological change, from the invention of the printing press to the widespread use of postal correspondence to television and radio has since enabled the planned and organised delivery of distance learning. Indeed, in 1840s England, the advent of standard postal rates enabled the first correspondence courses, such as those of Isaac Pitman teaching shorthand to students via postcards sent in the postal system.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, a correspondence School in the US, was founded by Anna Eliot Ticknor and Wolsey Hall, Oxford was established as a distance learning college, while the University of London established its External Programme in 1858. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Charles Toussaint and Gustav Langenscheidt launched a correspondence learning based language course in 1856, and in 1877 the correspondence school Fondation d’Eyrolles was established in France. Many of the early correspondence courses had limited success, however, as they were constrained by postal delays and, compared to modern methods, the one-way nature of the teaching and learning dynamic.

Radio and television-based learning

Radio and television accelerated the diffusion of distance learning and provided more flexibility in terms of delivery, presentation and control, as well as allowing for the tailoring of content to different learners. The 20th century is characterised by exponential advances via these media of learning, and from about 1970, by the rapid development of computing media, including mainframe computers, CD-ROMs, floppy discs, microfiches and, finally, the internet and mobile phones.

In the late 1930s and 40s radio broadcast distance learning programmes were initiated in several US cities including Chicago (school-level) and Louisville (university/college level). In the case of Chicago, there is a very striking parallel with the change in learning modes we are grappling with today. The idea of radio broadcasts for elementary schools was a response to a polio outbreak the city was suffering, just as the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the digital transformation of university education; innovation often occurs in challenging times!

Meanwhile in Australia, Adelaide Miethke launched the School of the Air, which used the radio network to broadcast school lessons to children in the remote Australian outback; a real challenge for achieving engagement in distance learning! This model has evolved enormously with the internet, since the isolation of remote communities can be broken down through genuine two-way interaction. In fact, Martin Dougieamas, the founder of Moodle, one of the earliest Learning Management Systems, grew up as a child of School of the Air in the 1970s, so he developed a deep insight into distance learning.

By the early to mid-1950s, television was being used as a medium for college-level distance learning, especially in the US, in Chicago, Iowa and Houston, with mixed success. It is noteworthy that those who pioneered these early attempts to harness the power of television for learners saw the television not as a standalone source of learning, but rather as an extension of the classroom. Enhanced accessibility was seen as a significant benefit. These are the beginnings of the vision for blended learning, many features of which were then greatly advanced by the Open Universities from the 1970s, with their emphasis on flexibility, remote learning, learner choice, part-time study, work-based learning and continuing education.

Open Universities

The Open University in the UK was planned in the 1960s, and originally the vision of Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy” (as a warning). The vision of this “University of the Air” was one of self-empowerment through widely accessible high-quality learning, open to all, that enriches society. In a rare and inspired example of joined-up government policymaking that actually went so far as to deliver innovative change and improvement, the Open University was founded in 1969, and has since revolutionised the world of adult learning, paving the way for many of the digital learning innovations we see today, such as MOOCs.

From the early days of pioneering high quality educational broadcasts in collaboration with the BBC, the OU has evolved into a global player, focussed on inclusive, flexible, and above all, open education. The model of the open university was also implemented with great success in a wide range of countries, notably in the 1970s in Canada, Germany, Spain and since then has proliferated all over the world.

The motivating factor for many of these more modern distance education initiatives was a desire for more social equality, i.e., to make learning available to those who could not afford it, had disabilities or other impediments to accessing traditional education or could not afford to travel to the centres of learning. This principle lives on today in the form of free/low-cost Massive Online Open Courses, which offer a vast range of new and topical virtual courses that can be accessed from anywhere, though we need to be realistic and acknowledge that MOOCs are not necessarily free and are rarely massive.

Providers of the early learning opportunities described above were also motivated by the fact that the knowledge-empowered citizens could contribute more constructively to society, just as today workers empowered by learning, and crucially the ability to learn with agility, can contribute more effectively to the changing world of work.

Computer-based and multimedia learning

The third phase of development in distance and blended learning, from the 1980s, was characterised by the use of multimedia, such a CD-ROMs, floppy discs, microfiches, audio and video cassettes, and computer-assisted learning. The learner experience was centred around a computer terminal or an audio-visual device but was vastly improved in terms of the range of learning resources available and their multimedia delivery, providing sound and video and could be controlled by the teacher or the learner on the device. These developments not only allowed for wider circulation, access and tailoring of training and learning materials, but also the monitoring of course completion; the beginnings of a more rounded virtual learning experience. This multimedia phase proved to be a boom time for training, especially in the work context, and in it, we can recognise the model of tailored content delivery to learner-controlled device that we see today.

Internet-enabled learning

The final phase of distance education and blended learning development was the advent of widespread use of the internet, since the 1990s, which has revolutionised both the learning delivery possibilities and the learning experience. The key advancement enabled by the internet and digital technologies is the possibility of an interactive learning experience, and the immense potential that this opens up. In fact one definition of blended learning focuses precisely on this potential: [blended learning]“…designates the range of possibilities presented by combining Internet and digital media with established classroom forms…..” (Friesen 2012).

The late 1990s also saw the first Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). In 1999, Blackboard was launched and rapidly achieved remarkable success, with Moodle hot on its heels, launching in 2002. Since then, there has been a rapid growth of LMSs and VLE providers, though the former, such as Docebo and Cornerstone, tend to be geared to the workplace, while the latter are designed for formal education, as in the case of Blackboard and Moodle.

Methods of achieving interaction and engagement online have become increasingly sophisticated, with Learning Experience Platforms emerging for greater personalisation, online social learning and interaction between learners. At the vanguard are mobile learning solutions or learning journeys via a smartphone, in which a cohort of learners (for example, a group of sales professionals or financial advisors in an organisation) is fed tailored and engaging content at an appropriate pace with integrated quizzes, games and contests, to optimise the impact of learning in the flow of work.

Another significant advantage is that interactive learning via the internet can be synchronous or asynchronous, so the learner can have direct engagement not only with the teacher/facilitator but also with the other students, if the learning process is optimised, in effect simulating the classroom setting, but adding opportunities for feedback, integration of multimedia materials and linking to a wide range of resources. Blended and hybrid learning models would not be possible without the remarkable power and flexibility digital technology affords.

In the next blog post on blended learning, we’ll look at the differences between blended and hybrid learning, explore models of blended learning and consider how these relate to evolving theories of learning.

written by: Simon Whittemore , 27 June 2023

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