Blended Learning in a New World

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session Leadership

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Blended learning has been increasingly explored by institutions in response to the recent challenges brought on by COVID-19. This presentation will focus on how blended learning can address the challenges faced by higher education beyond the pandemic. Models of blended instruction that promote student success and retention will be provided.


Dr. Nicole Weber is the Assistant Vice President (AVP) of Learning at the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). In this role she works closely with OLC staff and global partners to advance professional development opportunities, continuous improvement efforts, and research in support of quality digital, blended, and online learning. Before joining OLC, she served as the Director of Learning Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where she led online and blended faculty development efforts, technology training for the digital learning ecosystem, and emerging learning technology exploration and evaluation, collaborating across the institution to support student learning and success. Nicole received her PhD in Urban Education specializing in Social Foundations of Education with an emphasis on designing engaging learning environments in 2012.

Extended Abstract

In Spring 2020, institutions of higher education who offered face-to-face courses were required to rapidly move their courses remotely to meet social distancing recommendations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, colleges and universities have had to develop alternative strategies for offering courses in Fall 2020 due to the uncertainty around the spread of the virus and the need to keep students, instructors, and staff safe. Institutions have explored many possibilities, including shifting or shortening term dates, moving all courses online, and promoting a HyFlex model to give students choice in how they participate in their courses.

Many universities have also become increasingly interested in examining blended learning as a model for addressing the social distancing requirements of face-to-face courses that need classroom space. This approach allows campuses to stagger face-to-face sessions in which only half of students in a class meet at any given time. With the quick pivot to online in Spring 2020, many instructors have also realized that moving their lectures online—an effective practice in blended learning—has tremendous benefits for students; plus, having 300 students packed into a lecture hall for content delivery during these uncertain times seems both dangerous and pedagogically unnecessary. Blended teaching and learning as a proven pedagogical delivery model has afforded many universities with options that address the logistical challenges we face today.

While developing and enacting plans for the 2020-2021 academic year is currently the focus in higher education as institutions address all possibilities, including those outlined in Inside Higher Education’s 15 Scenarios, the COVID-19 pandemic itself will not last forever. What will remain is both the need to prepare for possible future pandemics and the need to address the potential enrollment declines that arise out of both waning student interest in college in response to COVID-19 and the ongoing demographic challenges that we have been facing and will continue to face in the coming years.

In light of these factors, we will focus in this presentation on what blended learning looks like in this new world of higher education. Blended learning, with its inherent flexibility and its focus on using the most effective practices from the online and face-to-face modalities, has the ability to address our current and future challenges in higher education. While we cannot predict the future, we can adopt strategies that will most flexibly adapt to the changing nature of the teaching and learning landscape. In fact, the challenges we face provide a great opportunity to reflect on methods for both enrolling and retaining students while fostering their intellectual growth and opening up employment opportunities for them after graduation. As a mode of delivery, as a set of effective pedagogical practices, and as a recruitment strategy, blended instruction can help to mitigate the financial losses brought to light by the pandemic. Blended instruction, for example, requires thoughtful course development and delivery that brings into focus high quality and a “best of both worlds” approach to learning. Instructors who teach online courses, for example, often report that the principles they learn through faculty development and the course redesign process positively impacts their teaching in all modalities; blended instruction provides an opportunity for faculty and teaching academic staff to reexamine existing models to find new ways of engaging students that lead to their success. Keeping students at the university until graduation through a strong commitment to teaching and learning is the ultimate goal, and blended courses can effectively address this goal.

Kelvin Thompson from the University of Central Florida has suggested that we think about blended courses not so much as face-to-face courses with an online component but instead as online courses with some face-to-face activities. This shift in thinking about blended courses as designed with the online experience in mind can lead to instructors reevaluating their activities to see what can be effectively delivered online. In the event of future catastrophes (viral or otherwise), blended learning reveals to instructors how online modalities can be leveraged in new and pedagogically effective ways. While many instructors with online teaching experience were prepared for a rapid move to online teaching, those without the technical skills or the pedagogical training for online teaching faced significant barriers. When instructors have experience teaching blended courses and grow comfortable with “what works” online and with the technology tools at their disposal, they are more likely to be successful when such situations like COVID-19 arise.

Online learning as a modality does not itself address all of the challenges we face in higher education. Many students still want a residential experience, would prefer to have face-to-face interactions with peers and instructors, and feel that they would have difficulty being successful in fully online courses. Furthermore, while most courses can be taught online, some courses, such as studio and performance courses, need some face-to-face experiences to meet the learning objectives of the course. Students who do not have access to the equipment or materials need studio time to work. Blended courses as the primary way that courses are delivered at institutions addresses student needs and drives effective teaching and learning practices. 

Blended learning can also help institutions ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion issues related to gaps in student success. Because blended learning is an effective pedagogical method and provides maximum flexibility of instruction, students who are underrepresented at the university are less likely to face a “one size fits all” approach that advantages academically prepared students and disadvantages students at greater risk at the university. The combination of strategic course design and personalized instruction that derives from effective blended teaching can lead to the success of all students, including and especially those who come to the university academically disadvantaged.

While takeaways related to effective practices for blended teaching will be embedded in the presentation, the focus will not be on blended learning fundamentals. Instead, we will discuss how blended learning fits into the future landscape of higher education, as discussed above, but we will also share specific examples of blended course design that are adaptable and respond to the challenges we may face in the future. Participants will leave the session with both a high-level overview of the field of blended learning as well as usable models for structuring blended courses.

We will also integrate participant engagement virtually through either the platform’s polling feature or using an external polling tool (e.g., PollEverywhere) and chat to assess understanding and use of blended learning, as well as promote interaction through sharing. Facilitators will also share concrete examples from their support and teaching of blended courses at their campuses. Each of the sections will have at least one opportunity for participants to engage in a poll or in the chat.