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University: Milkshake Learning

In Blended Learning and Sense of Community: A Comparative Analysis with Traditional and Fully Online Graduate Courses in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (August - 2004) we are invited to revisit the notion of blended learning. Since the copyright reads, "All rights reserved. No portion of the contents may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the publisher" I will refrain from quoting since it is apparent that the sense of community described in the article is not open.

Blended Learning is a term I first became aware of through an outside "learning consultant" during my experiences with Connected Intelligence. She was unable to describe the term beyond the vague notion that somehow "online" and "offline" learning environments needed to be used in tandem. This is what I refer to as a blindingly obvious reality. For me, the idea as it was presented represented more of an apology, or perhaps excuse, as to why her previous ventures into e-Learning with very large clients were something less than desirable. A "new" approach was apparent that moved e-Learning to a new and improved variation that was called blended learning. It's an idea, in this case, that has very little to do with learning, but a great deal to do with career survival. In relation to Connected Intelligence, the term blended learning as it was presented to me was both redundant and flimsy - and it still is.

A while ago, I wrote an entry (ok - a mild rant) called Learning: A Maze of Adjectives. I'm now convinced that we should insititute a moratorium on using adjectives with the word learning. We are not playng with language, language is playing with us. It's interesting to note that we do not tend to abuse the words education and training with descriptors like authentic, active, or the like. For example, we read about ideas like authentic learning, but not authentic education or training. We see floods of processes around active learning, but not active education or training. However, using these adjectives may be an effective temporary measure for trying to reclaim what we realize we have lost in learning. In other words, the adjectives applied to learning can be seen as both an apology and desire to reclaim the things we forgot about. At the same time, adjectives are essential to fiction.

The opening sentence of Blended Learning and Sense of Community: A Comparative Analysis with Traditional and Fully Online Graduate Courses captures this desire to reclaim what was always obvious...

Essentially the first sentence, since I am limited to paraphrasing, says that blended learning is a way to balance online learning with face to face contact. One is left wondering under what circumstances we would ever find ourselves trying to reclaim face to face contact in learning. Perhaps blending learning can also apply to balancing the use of pen and paper with face to face contact? What would ever lead us to believe that something called online learning, a term that at best has an illusive and mercurial definition, could constitute 100% of a learning experience? Let's face it, the thing we call online learning was born out of a desire to leverage technology to increase revenue streams as well as build consulting practices, and has little to do, if anything, with embracing a comprehensive approach to learning. At best, it's all training with some fragments of education rolled in. The origins of the mystical entity we refer to as online learning is in commerce, and how notions about learning can be used to facilitate it.

An educational institution is about education. Learning may occur within an educational institution, but the link between the intended educational program and the nature of learning that occurs within it may be tenuous. Learning is a human capacity that is superior, not subservient, to education and/or training. We also continue to read about the need to rethink the "bricks and mortar" aspects of institutions, "breaking down the walls of the classroom" and fostering "communities" of learners. At the same time, the intellectual bricks and mortar that drive the underlying processes (i.e. - curriculum - instruction - assessment) defining both off and online experiences remain entrenched. The inability to question these underlying assumptions about education have spawned the extension of traditional bricks and mortar practices into the online experience. There is as much bricks and mortar in the online experience as there is offline.

If lectures predominate the educational experience, then use less of them. But this is not to say that lectures don't have value. I have experienced many professors who had the ability to lecture in a way that made an hour seem like five minutes. Not only this, the energy of their presentation motivated me. And there were, of course, others that made an hour seem like an eternity although healthy doses of day-dreaming provided a respite. And, while it should not be the norm, if students can't sit for an hour and pay attention to an inspiring lecturer then a more serious problem exists.

Ironically, it may be that changing the physical bricks and mortar may provide a much needed impetus for change. For example, if a university banned the idea of labelling buildings according to their area of expertise and refused to allow departments to co-exist in the same facility, there might be opportunities for more vibrant educational communities to grow. Of course, all of this pre-supposes that the various departments and expertise in a university could function in a unified manner as a community. Yet, in an age that is intensively focused on communities, educational institutions still structure themselves into departments. Multidisciplinary studies, at least the few that I have seen, are often nothing more than loosely connected departments delivering isolated but related content and leave the burden of connection and community on the student. Why should students function as a community when they are immersed in a system that institutes intellectual isolation and bureaucracy?

Blended Learning and Sense of Community: A Comparative Analysis with Traditional and Fully Online Graduate Courses is a logically correct and rationale article. The message is an important one and the directions implied with in it are much needed. At the same time, we need to drill down further and begin challenging some of the assumptions that we build these logical and rationale arguments on. Saying that a learning environment should be more "learner-centred" is valuable, but do we mean "learner-centred" within the exisiting bureaucracy as defined by curriculum, instruction and assessment, or are we willing to challenge this imposed and antiquated system of authority as well? Are the students the only ones that need more community?

We really don't need anymore references to visions of "learning anyplace, anytime, anywhere." Learning is already and always has been all of that - education is not. Nor do we need to talk about "preparing for the future" - the present is more than enough of a challenge. If the notion that the convergence of online and traditional instructional practice is the greatest unrecognized trend in higher education, then what has been happening up until now?

What really is it that needs blending? It isn't learning - I'll stick with milkshakes.

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