Blended Learning: A new normal for 21st century learners

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The long awaited National Education Policy-2020, is not merely a document but a commitment on the part of the Union Government for nation building through transformation of extant education system.

Undoubtedly, it is a learner centric doctrine re-affirming that the student is the main stakeholder and it is the bounden duty of teachers to create an ecosystem that responds to the dreams and aspirations of the learners. It is precisely for this reason that NEP promotes multi-modal approaches for learning including face-to-face, online and distance or virtual mode combined with multi-disciplinary, vocational, value added, skill-development courses.

Academic Bank of Credit, Graduate Attributes/Learning Outcome Based Curriculum, evaluation reforms to assess learning outcomes and Multiple Entry and Exit options further consolidate the idea of learners centripetally of NEP. These coupled with on-demand, open book and group examinations complete the wish-list of learner centric trajectory of NEP. Upon implementation, these will ensure enhanced access, flexibility, quality, interests and needs of learners in real worlds of learning.

These will also ensure freedom for learners to choose courses and institutions, pedagogical pathways, mentors, timings, learning through any mode and learning on demand and thus will help democratize learning system of the nation to a great extent.

Successful implementation of these imperatives can become reality only through multiple learning pathways with the use and integration of technology in education.

NEP also emphasises on learner-centred approach in teaching involving them in the process of learning through various individual and group activities. In face-to-face-learning, even if a teacher wishes to reduce one-way tutoring and plans for group-work or individual work, available time for such activities in the classroom is inadequate. As such, face-to-face conventional teaching does not promote, to the desired level, higher order thinking abilities, global competencies and creativity in students resulting into skill-gap and un-employability. The situation compels us to look for the other available alternatives, not as the substitute for face-to-face learning but as a supplementary and complimentary measure. Emergence of newer digital technologies demand for leveraging it for effective teaching-learning processes at all levels of education.

One of the best alternatives to accomplish this is the use of blended models of learning. Blended learning (BL) is an instructional methodology that combines face-to-face and ICT mediated activities alongside integration of synchronous and asynchronous learning tools to transform learning into an enjoyable edu-enterprise.

BL has never been a substitute for face-to-face learning and is also not merely a mixing of face-to-face and online mode, rather it is a well-planned combination of meaningful activities in both the modes. Real BL environment requires that both the students and the teachers are physically located in the same learning space. BL environment ensures increased student engagement in learning and enhanced teacher-student interaction, greater responsibility for learning, more flexible teaching and learning ecosystem, promotes self and continuous learning, offers better opportunities for experiential learning, and improved learning outcomes.

Accordingly, various effective blended learning models can be identified suiting to the needs of different disciplines. The flipped classroom is a similar technique that utilises technology in order to remodel the learning experiences and maximise the effectiveness of traditional face-to-face time in the classroom. Learning resources such as video lectures, podcasts, recordings and articles are provided to the learners in order to create free time for teachers to support students in activities, lead discussions and facilitate engagement for transforming passive class-rooms into active learning spaces. BL and flipped classroom in combination thus eventually help student community to learn the art of learning alongside content learning.

Mentoring and coaching roles of teachers essential in BL are actually addition to the existing roles and this will generate need for more teachers. In BL, teachers are required to have even more profound influence and effect on students’ learning. Traditionally, classroom instruction is monologue forcing learners to become passive receiver of information. BL makes it more student-driven, bottom-up, and customized. Learners in BL environment become active learners generating ideas, engaged in brainstorming exercises, concept/mind mapping, creative presentation, exposure to the real world, case study, cooperative and peer learning, project based learning and assimilating knowledge individually and in teams.

In essence, BL combines the best aspects of online learning with those of direct instruction, helping teachers to easily manage to do much more to meet student needs without adding to the existing workload. BL environment in fact provides diverse learning opportunities for learners to learn the way they are most comfortable with, and greater scope for debates and disputations. Thus, the fear of teachers loosing relevance in the teaching-learning process is untrue. Rather, it can prove to be a win-win situation for both as it will provide greater degree of satisfaction to both equally, the teachers and the taught. Teachers will still remain the master of the class-room albeit with greater sense of responsibility. Moreover, BL in no way will adversely impact the research carried out by the teachers for creation of knowledge.

The argument that in BL laboratory work is not possible is also unfounded as the virtual labs provide 24×7 remote-access to experiments at low cost and provide better access, repeatability, reliability, safety and security. FOSSEE project of Ministry of Education under National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) and e-Yantra promote the use of educational tools in academia and research. Covid-time has witnessed the advent of many tools proctored through Artificial Intelligence. AI technology can help map attention levels of learners, preferred ways of learning, speed of learning, level of learning etc. These inputs become critical in designing suitable pedagogical and evaluation strategies.

Cognitive skills such as higher order logical thinking, analysis and synthesis of concepts, application of knowledge and skills, and creativity demands out-of-box evaluation strategies. BL can promote unconventional thinking pertaining to summative (open book, group, spoken and on-demand examinations) and formative evaluations strategies (e-Portfolio, creative products, classroom/online quizzes) and many more in assessing the learning outcomes.

Recents ICT initiatives of Ministry of Education and UGC will be useful while implementing BL and will ensure availability of e-Learning resources which are Open Educational Resources-OER (NMEICT, NPTEL, e-PG Pathshala, SWAYAM PRABHA, e-Content courseware in UG subjects, CEC-UGC You Tube Channels, Spoken Tutorial NDL, Shodhganga, e-Shodhsindhu, Shodh Shudhhi, Vidwan, etc.), MOOCs and SWAYAM etc. These together with DIKSHA and One-Nation-One Digital Platform project of Ministry of Education shall ensure the availability on-line learning resources.

I am of the strong view therefore, that all fears expressed and suspicions raised recently in the public domain about the feasibility and utility of BL in our learning system are uncalled for and sans merit. In fact, BL is the new normal for the 21st Century learners. What is recommended in the guidelines on BL that UGC has uploaded in its website for soliciting opinion of the stakeholders is: (i) the universities have the freedom to implement BL or otherwise, (ii) the universities/faculty members shall have the freedom to decide the amount of blending of face-to-face and on-line learning depending on the requirement of the discipline, (iii) the universities need to ensure the availability of essential ICT resources before embracing BL, for allaying the fear of digital divide, (iv) the universities should monitor the successful implementation of BL, and (v) BL should be carefully implemented and should not be used as a pretext to forego classroom teaching. Moreover, every higher education institution should prepare itself to implement all new imperatives stipulated in NEP including BL for transforming and democratizing the learning system of the nation and to train the youth to become socially and economically relevant to Reconstruct Bharat.

(Author Prof. Raghavendra P. Tiwari is Vice-Chancellor, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda. Views expressed here are personal.)



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