Breaking the digital barriers: How ready are learners for blended learning?

Sam Shepherd, an ESOL tutor at Kirklees College in West Yorkshire, tells us about his research into blended learning.

When it comes to technology use, and especially in blended learning, there is a tendency towards a somewhat polarised discourse around, between those who enthuse – evangelise almost – about the benefits of technology use, arguing that students are more confident and digitally literate, and that they need and want technology in their learning; and those who worry that technology is not appropriate, that students lack the skills or indeed the access to the technology.

The reality is likely somewhere in the middle, but what was really striking was the absence of any data or even a sense of consultation with learners in the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG) report and beyond. However, the FELTAG report recommendation that 10% of learning should take place online was supported by the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and by the Skills Funding Agency, and, in 2014, Kirklees College implemented a blended learning model of 10% online learning on all full-time courses at Level 2 or above. For the time being, the drive for online learning as a proportion of the whole has yet to affect part-time adult learners, but I did find myself wondering how ready adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students would be, should these parameters change.

I was lucky enough, then, to receive support through the Education and Training Foundation, as part of the Practitioner Led Research project, which allowed me to do this. The support was partly financial, of course, but also included support in research and methods from emCETT, which helped me to focus my research into four key questions:

  • What is meant by blended learning both generally and in terms of practices at Kirklees College?
  • What are the perceived benefits of blended learning?
  • What are the barriers for learners?
  • How can any barriers be overcome?

The practical research took two forms. The first of these was a questionnaire sent to managers across the college asking for responses to the following questions:

  • What are the benefits of blended learning?
  • What are the drawbacks?
  • What barriers are there for students?
  • How can we best support students?

The second task was to engage ESOL students in the research, I “borrowed” several classes and split each class into groups of 3-4. They then discussed and wrote down their answers to the following questions:

  • What do we like about online learning?
  • What don’t we like about online learning?
  • What stops us from doing online learning?
  • What could help us with online learning?

The classes I visited were all Entry 3 or above so that I could be sure of a clear understanding of the questions, but also because they were more likely to experience online learning if they progressed onto mainstream provision. In total I gathered opinions from around 38 students.

Generally, feedback from students was positive, and the observations from both the managers and the students involved were fairly consistent, with both groups recognising similar barriers and benefits.

Students liked the idea of being able to study as and when they wanted to, and the idea of continuing at their own pace, something also identified by the managerial staff as being a specific benefit. Both groups also regarded an ability to develop study and ICT skills as a benefit as well, although in this area support would be necessary for some learners.

Learner independence should not be considered as a given. Learners are concerned about the lack of their own ICT skills and access to the necessary technology, even where there are measures in place to support this. An effective induction and continuing support is necessary to enable all students to succeed.

It was widely noted that effective infrastructure is needed, with college supplied hardware and software being up to the job, and being freely available to students on demand where possible, with an emphasis on ease and flexibility of access. As is currently the case at Kirklees, this can be enabled through timetabled access within the college. This would also help learners to better manage their own time, and “escape” from the distractions of home.

Both learners and managers recognise the need for quality resources, but in order to achieve a quality blend of effective face to face and online learning, teacher development needs to occur – this will not be achieved through simply expecting all teachers to upskill effectively. It is this latter point which presents one of the bigger challenges – training and development is expensive, and one of the major strategic drivers recognised in the online survey was that blended learning better enabled cost effectiveness, or, in essence, cost cutting.

Certainly, many of these ideas may not come as much of a surprise to anyone, but the problem in the first place was always that there was little or no genuine consideration of the learners and their needs in the development and proposals of blended learning as suggested by the FELTAG report and subsequently. It was taken as a given that learners would come digitally enabled, and enthusiastic for online learning, using their own devices, with an expectation that online learning would form part of their learning.

Based on this study at least this is clearly not the case, with ESOL learners representing a range of readiness for blended learning – from digitally competent learners already making use of online learning to enhance their face-to-face learning to those learners who would be severely disadvantaged by the mandatory introduction of an online/face-to-face blend. Whether this profile of learners is representative is impossible to say, but it would seem likely.

So far, blended learning is something that has been done to the students, and for the students. To be truly effective, blended learning should be done with the students – from planning to execution and beyond.

Read the findings from the full project

Sam Shepherd is an ESOL tutor and advanced practitioner working at Kirklees College in West Yorkshire. He is interested in technology and resources design, particularly in learning and content driven use of resources and materials light teaching and learning. He has carried out research into teacher CPD, student motivation and barriers to learning, and most recently into the application of FELTAG to the ESOL learner group.