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Why Blended Learning, Why Now?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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NOTE: The Tomorrow's Professor eNewsletter will now take its annual December holiday break.  The next posting will appear on January 1, 2018.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Deborah Jessop, who has held different positions in the media industry and teaches at a Canadian college, and Elaine Hawley a retired college librarian (George Mason University) and graduate student mentor.  Both have taken considerable time twice a week over several years to proofread each TP message before posting. While any mistakes that get through are mine, I can assure you that the quality of what you read is improved greatly by their efforts.


On some measures the online- or hybrid-format students did significantly better or worse than the students in the face-to-face format, but on other measures there was no significant difference between the two groups” (p. 11).



The posting below looks at situations where the effectiveness of blended learning varies by types of student populations.  It is from Chapter 1 Fundamentals of Blended Teaching and Learning, in the book, The Blended Course Design Workbook – A Practical Guide, by Kathryn E. Linder. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2017 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis




Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

---------- 2,313 words ----------

Why Blended (Learning), Why Now?


Over the past several decades, a wide range of technologies has emerged that are designed to assist in teaching and learning. Technology has changed every aspect of our lives, and the higher education classroom also feels that impact (Collins & Halverson, 2009). Distance education programs at institutions of higher education, which are often seen as a means to broaden enrollment and increase gross margins (e.g., see Parry, 2011), are continuing to grow (Allen & Seaman, 2014). Blended (also referred to as hybrid) courses, in which face-to-face interaction is combined with technology-enhanced or online activities to aid student learning, have also been posed as a possible solution to the question of how best to engage busy students in a cost-effective and learner-centered way. Major (2015) points out that, for some, blended is seen to be “the best of both worlds” (p. 82) because of the way it allows for both face-to-face interaction and online support structures. For many instructors across disciplines, a form of blended learning, termed flipped classrooms, has also gained popularity as a method to increase in-class active learning time by shifting delivery of content to the online environment.

Since their inception, blended teaching and learning environments have been explored from a range of perspectives. In this workbook, I want to start by offering an overview of the research on blended environments by answering the following key questions:

1.     What is blended teaching and learning?

2.     What do we know about the effectiveness of blended platforms, tools, strategies, and techniques?

3.     How do we know that blended learning is effective?

4.     For whom are blended learning environments effective?

Following this review of the research, the chapter will end with an explanation of how this workbook is organized as well as suggestions for how to best use it. (In addition to this initial research overview, important theories, studies, and principles for blended course design are also referenced in each chapter throughout the workbook.)

What is Blended Teaching and Learning?

Definitions of blended teaching and learning can vary, so it is important to establish what blended environments mean for the purpose of this workbook. Allen and Seaman (2007) offer helpful and concrete definitions for face-to-face versus online components in traditional, web-facilitated, blended, and online courses (see Table 1.1).


Table 1.1. Definitions of Face-to-Face Versus Online Components





0% content delivered online

1%-29% content delivered online

30%-79% content delivered online

80% or more content delivered online

Most definitions of blended environments agree on the following:

-       A combination of face-to-face and online components make up the blended classroom environment (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; Glazer, 2012; Picciano, 2007, 2009; Snart, 2010); and

-       Students in the blended environment experience more self-directed, independent, and autonomous learning (Caulfield, 2011; Glazer, 2012).

Additionally, the following components are often cited for effective blended environments:

-       Instructors intentionally choose technologies that support the course learning objectives (Picciano, 2009);

-       Instructors purposely align face-to-face and online components for effective student learning (Glazer, 2012; Picciano, 2009); and

-       Instructors deliberately embed active learning techniques and methodologies in the blended course (Caulfield, 2011; Glazer, 2012).

Definitions of blended environments can disagree on the following:

-       The ratio of face-to-face versus online time that comprises a blended course; and

-       Whether a blended course must include online components designed to replace face-to-face instruction.

While some might argue that any time substantial technology is added into a course it becomes blended as long as the course is not completely held online, the majority of scholars agree that a course needs to have face-to-face time replaced by online content before it can be considered a truly blended course (Caulfield, 2011; Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; Glazer, 2012; Laster, Otte, Picciano, & Sorg, 2005). For example, a course that traditionally meets twice per week, when transitioned to a blended model with additional online content and components, might meet face-to-face only once per week. In this workbook, I do not specify a percentage of online engagement as part of the blended definition, but I do assume the replacement of face-to-face time a part of what comprises a blended modality. I also agree with Picciano’s (2009) definition of blended learning as “courses that integrate online with traditional face-to-face class activities in a planned, pedagogically valuable manner” (p. 8). In other words, this workbook will demonstrate that a blended course, particularly one that is effective, does not happen by accident. Like any successful course, the blended modality requires intentional design components to ensure a well-structured learning environment.

What Do We Know about the Effectiveness of Blended Platforms, Tools, Strategies, and Techniques?

Several meta-analyses have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of online learning, including in blended environments, however, scholars generally agree that more empirical research on the blended modality is needed (e.g., see Picciano & Dziuban, 2007; Picciano, Dziuban, & Graham, 2014). The U.S. Department of Education (2010) found in an analysis of research from 1996 to 2008 that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction” (p. ix). The same study found that this was particularly true for blended environments, but noted that this may be because blended modalities include “additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control groups” (p. ix). However, a different meta-analysis of blended and online learning research by Lack (2013) found that “most of the studies have mixed results. … On some measures the online- or hybrid-format students did significantly better or worse than the students in the face-to-face format, but on other measures there was no significant difference between the two groups” (p. 11). In other words, the impacts of blended and online learning methods on student learning outcomes are not entirely definitive when measured through rigorous research (see Table 1.2).

Table 1.2. Impacts of Blended and Online Learning Methods on Student Learning Outcomes



Better outcomes in blended learning environment

Du, 2011; Christou, Dinov, & Sanchez, 2007; Riffell & Sibley, 2005

Little to no difference between blended and online learning or face-to-face learning

Chen & Jones, 2007; Odell, Abbitt, Amos, & Davis, 1999; Reasons, Valdares & Slavkin, 2005; Scoville & Buskirk, 2007; McNamara, Swalm, Stearne, & Cowassin, 2008

Additional studies have attempted to measure particular components of the blended environment. For example, Borup, West, and Graham (2013) studied the impacts of asynchronous videos and Hall and Davison (2007) explored the use of blogs in blended environments. The literature on different components of blended teaching and learning continues to grow as instructors experiment with the modality, tools, and techniques. Ongoing research will provide additional evidence of the benefits or drawbacks of blended environments.

How Do We Know That Blended Learning Is Effective?

Because investigations of the effectiveness of blended environments are conducted “for the most part by professors and other instructors who are conducting research using their own courses” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010, p. 49), a range of data is collected and analyzed. Different forms of data might include pre- and post-tests, final course grades, exam scores, quiz scores, paper or project grades, scores on homework assignments, completion rates, pass rates, course participation scores, withdrawal rates, and other measures. Use of a Learning Management System (LMS) allows for the collection of “analytics” regarding student participation in online components such as discussion boards, whether students watch videos, how long students spend on the LMS website, and other pieces of information. Unfortunately, much of analytics data can be quite “noisy” and difficult to interpret. For example, knowing that a student watched a video all the way through does not guarantee that the student was paying attention, taking notes, or thinking critically about the material presented.

Moreover, in their meta-analysis of research on the effectiveness of blended and online learning methods, the U.S. Department of Education (2010) cautions, “the combinations of technology, content, and activities used in different experimental conditions have often been ad hoc rather than theory based. As a result, the field lacks a coherent body of linked studies that systematically test theory-based approaches in different contexts” (p. 49). In her later meta-analysis, Lack (2013) also describes several challenges of conducting “rigorous research on educational outcomes, especially where human subjects and Institutional Review Board requirements are involved” and cites “barriers to randomization” and “implementing proper research protocols” (p. 13) as particular difficulties.

Given the increase in both blended and fully online courses and programs, the landscape of higher education as well as online education research is constantly changing. Blended and online learning are being hailed as part of the “disruptive innovation” (Christensen, 2011) currently being experienced in higher education; indeed, some consider blended courses to have “transformative potential” (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004, p. 95). Scholars have just begun to explore topics such as the institutional adoption and implementation of blended learning in higher education (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; Graham, Woodfield, & Harrison, 2013), best practices for blended course design (Hensley, 2005; McGee & Reis, 2012), and questions of faculty load and the increased time needed for blended course design (Tynan, Ryan, & Lamont-Mills, 2015). As more blended courses and programs are developed, it will be important to expand the literature on course and program evaluation, structures and infrastructures to support blended environments, student persistence and retention in blended courses, cost containment and sustainability, and how to iterate and innovate blended courses to meet the needs of an ever-changing and diverse student population.

For Whom Are Blended Environments Effective?

The range of results in the studies cited previously in this chapter may be indicative of the diverse range of students taking blended online courses in higher education. In relation to blended learning success, questions have been raised about different populations of students: (a) first-year students and first-generation students, (b) students with disabilities (SWD), and (c) students with varying degrees of motivation and engagement. Additional research on each of these populations will contribute to a better understanding of how well they can succeed in blended learning environments.

First-Year Students and First-Generation Students

There has been some concern that blended learning environments may ask too much of first-year students or first-generation students who are just learning how to succeed in a college environment. Because blended environments necessarily involve more self-directed learning, time-management skills, and more autonomy, some have questioned whether blended courses should even be an option for a first-year curriculum. However, initial studies have indicated that blended courses can offer a helpful transition for students (Moore & Gilmartin, 2010), especially for those who may already be using technology for learning in their high-school classrooms. Readiness quizzes, which can help students ascertain if they are prepared to succeed in a blended environment, can educate students about the kinds of additional challenges that are included in the blended environment as well as alert instructors to the range of experiences students have with technology use and autonomous learning environments (descriptions of these assessment tools can be found in Dray et al., 2011; Hung, Chou, Chen, & Own, 2010; and Pillay, Irving, & Tones, 2007). Introducing students to blended learning environments early in their college career may benefit them later on, particularly for institutions where blended courses comprise a large portion of the curriculum.

Students with Disabilities (SWD)

The flexibility available to students in blended environments can make blended courses an ideal place for embedding differentiated instruction that offers custom-designed learning activities for diverse student groups. Based on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), differentiated instruction offers flexibility for instructors as they consider students’ learning preferences, past experiences with the course content, and students’ current interests (Burgstahler, 2008). Given that the application of UDL principles to more traditional learning environments has been tied to increased student engagement (Moore & Fetzner, 2009), persistence (Field, Sarver, & Shaw, 2003; Getzel, 2008), and retention (Field et al., 2003; Getzel, 2008; Moore & Fetzner, 2009), additional research on UDL in blended environments is needed to assess how the blended modality might impact the learning of SWDs. Although preliminary research has found that, for example, deaf or hard-of-hearing students may benefit from the blended environment (Starenko, Vignare, & Humbert 2007), this research is not conclusive.

Students with Varying Degrees of Motivation and Engagement

Because blended learning environments depend on students to be self-directed and independent learners, there has been some concern that students must be especially motivated and engaged to succeed in a blended classroom. The combination of self-directed learning components with the intentional alignment between out-of-class and in-class components in a blended course means that a student can fall behind rather quickly by missing a face-to-face session or skipping homework. This is particularly true for students who enroll in a blended course expecting it to be easier than a traditional face-to-face environment. Given that Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) scholars have pointed to the importance of motivation and engagement, more generally, for the success of all learners (e.g., see Ambrose et al., 2010; Svinicki, 2004), it is not surprising that these factors would also be of significance in the blended environment.

More research is certainly needed to measure whether blended environments more generally, as well as smaller components included in blended classrooms (tools, technologies, techniques), are effective for helping students learn. Until additional research is conducted, rigorously designed research can provide helpful information for instructors looking to develop best practices for blended course design. Moreover, blended course instructors can look to already-existing best practice literature on aspects such as course design, active learning, and student engagement to guide the construction and implementation of a blended course. As Shea (2007) argues, “a key to ensuring the instructional quality of blended learning is to attend to what we know about quality learning environments generally, to keep in mind what we know about adult learners, and to integrate our burgeoning knowledge of online learning processes” (p. 28). This workbook integrates all three of these components to ensure the design of effective blended courses.


Allen, I.E., & Seaman, J. (2014). Grade change: Tracking online education in the United States. Needham, MA: Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group.

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K., & Mayer, R.E. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Borup, J., West, R.E., & Graham, C.R. (2013). The influence of asynchronous video communication on learning social presence: A narrative analysis of four cases. Distance Education, 34(1), 48-63.

Burgstahler, S.E. (2008). Universal design of instruction: From principles to practice. In S.E. Burgstahler & R.C. Cory (Eds.), Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice (pp. 23-43). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Caulfield, J. (2011). How to design and teach a hybrid course. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Christensen, C.M. (2011). The innovative university: Changing the DNA of higher education from the inside out. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Dray, B.J., Lowenthal, P.R., Miszkiewicz, M.J., Ruiz-Primo, M.A., & Marczynski, K. (2011). Developing an instrument to assess student readiness for online learning: A validation study. Distance Education, 32(1), 29-47.

Field, S., Sarver, M.D., & Shaw, S.F. (2003). Self-determination: A key to success in postsecondary education for students with learning disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 24(6), 339-349.

Garrison, D.R., & Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended learning: Uncovering the transformative potential in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 7(2), 95-105.

Garrison, D.R., & Vaughan, N.D. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Getzel, E.E. (2008). Addressing the persistence and retention of students with disabilities in higher education: Incorporating key strategies and supports on campus. Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal, 16(4), 207-219.

Glazer, F.S. (Ed.). (2012). Blended learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Graham, C.R., Woodfield, W., & Harrison, J.B. (2013). A framework for institutional adoption and implementation of blended learning in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 18, 4-14.

Hall, H., & Davidson, B. (2007). Social software as support in hybrid learning environments: The value of the blog as a tool for reflective learning and peer support. Library and Information Science Research, 29, 163-187.

Hensley, G. (2005). Creating a hybrid college course: Instructional design notes and recommendations for beginners. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 1(2), 1-7.

Hung, M., Chou, C., Chen, C., & Own, Z. (2010). Learner readiness for online learning: Scale development and student perceptions. Computers & Education, 55(3), 1080-1090.

Lack, K.A. (2013, March 21). Current state of research on online learning in postsecondary education. Retrieved from

Laster, S., Otte, G., Picciano, A.G., & Sorg, S. (2005, April). Redefining blended learning. Presented at the 2005 Sloan-C Workshop on Blended Learning, Chicago, IL.

Major, C.H. (2015). Teaching online: A guide to theory, research, and practice. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

McGee, P., & Reis, A. (2012). Blended course design: A synthesis of best practices. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(4), 7-22.

Moore, J.C., & Fetzner, M.J. (2009). The road to retention: A closer look at institutions that achieve high course completion rates. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 3(3), 3-22.

Moore, N., & Gilmartin, M. (2010). Teaching for better learning: A blended learning pilot project with first-year geography undergraduates. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 34(3), 327-244.

Patry, M. (2011, August 28). Online venture energizes vulnerable college. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Picciano, A.G. (2008). Introduction. In A.G. Picciano & C.D. Dziuban (Eds.), Blended learning, research perspectives (pp. 5-18). Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium.

Picciano, A.G. (2009). Blending with purpose: The multimodal model. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(1), 7-18.

Picciano, A.G., & Dziuban, C.D. (Eds.). (2007). Blended learning, research perspectives. Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium.

Picciano, A.G., Dziuban, C.D., & Graham, C.R. (Eds.). (2014). Blended learning, research perspectives (Vol. 2). New York, Routledge.

Pillay, H., Irving, K., & Tones, M. (2007). Validation of the diagnostic tool for assessing tertiary students’ readiness for online learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 26(2), 217-234.

Shea, P. (2007). Towards a conceptual framework for learning in blended environments. In A.G. Picciano & C.D. Dziuban (Eds.), Blended learning, research perspectives (pp. 19-35). Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium.

Snart, J. (2010). Hybrid learning: The perils and promise of blending online and face-to-face instruction in higher education. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Starenko, M., Vignare, K., & Humbert, J. (2007). Enhancing student interaction and sustaining faculty instructional innovations through blended learning. In A.G. Picciano & C.D. Dziuban (Eds.), Blended learning, research perspectives (pp. 161-176). Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium.

Svinicki, M.D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Tynan, B., Ryan, Y., & Lamont-Mills, A. (2015). Examining workload models in online and blended teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(1), 5-15.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.