Back/What About the Students? Research Project Unearths Students’ Blended Learning Experiences and Perceptions

What About the Students? Research Project Unearths Students’ Blended Learning Experiences and Perceptions

by Kah Yin Cheong, Ya-Ru Chiu, Poom Chotikavan, Brandon Gaylord, Rujia Liu, Jingyu Lu on December 20 2017

We are a team of graduate students at Harvard University Graduate School of Education and recently had the opportunity to partner with The Learning Accelerator (TLA) on a project focused on investigating students’ perceptions of and experiences with blended learning. Blended learning has been discussed and explored to a great extent both in theory and in terms of how it is put into practice in classrooms. However, the information about students’ feelings toward blended learning is less well-known. Therefore, the aim of our project was to understand students’ perceptions and their experiences in blended learning, and use the feedback from students to further improve blended learning models.

Methodology

For this research project, we utilized two main data collection methods: online questionnaires and focus group discussions. For the online surveys, we used Google Forms. Each survey consisted of twenty-seven questions in total, grouped into five separate topics based on the TLA Blended Learning framework. We formatted each question as a five-point Likert scale, asking students to indicate their level of agreement to the statements provided. We collected a total of 201 student responses.

We held focus group discussions virtually through Zoom, an online video conferencing platform. They were formatted as semi-structured interviews, allowing follow-up questions. The focus group protocol consisted of nine open-ended questions. Our six-person team divided into three pairs, and ach pair co-facilitated the focus groups with one person acting as a moderator and the other as the observer and note-taker.

Key Findings of the Survey

The survey yielded results which, if synthesized to a phrase, would be: blended learning is an effective tool for students but requires student self-advocacy.

The schools we surveyed, by and large, consisted of students who felt their schools provided them with the technological tools they needed to be successful. This is corroborated in that almost 80% of respondents said that they felt comfortable using technology in the classroom.

Survey questions which produced the most variation in answers dealt with student autonomy. While more than half of respondents disagreed that technology can be distracting to their learning, 47% were either indifferent or agreed that it can be. While 61% agreed (to a degree) that they felt encouraged to raise questions in a blended learning class, 39% were indifferent or disagreed. These findings suggest that blended learning can be a tool for students but assumes a great deal of student autonomy and self-advocacy.

Key Findings of the Focus Group Discussion

As for the focus group discussions, we collected and analyzed the interviewees’ feedback based on key aspects of TLA’s framework, including students’ impressions and evaluations of their overall blended learning experiences, in-person learning, real-time data use, competency-based learning, personalization, and suggestions for future students.

In terms of blended learning experiences, the participants provided both positive and constructive comments. They found it “helpful” and “exciting” to learn individually with devices, but also felt “challenged” and “confused” when studying without sufficient guidance. Overall, they believe that blended learning allowed for more flexibility around content and pace, better organization, more communication between classmates, and various technology use. Meanwhile, students reported occasionally feeling stressed with video-watching, multitasking, and more demanding projects. Additionally, students emphasized the necessity of face-to-face communication. They believe that online teaching cannot replace student-teacher interaction, and stressed that more organic feedback can be obtained in face-to-face situations.

One common piece of feedback we received concerned real-time data use. Students appreciated the immediate feedback. Specifically, they thought it enabled teachers to provide targeted responses and suggestions. Also, students gave positive remarks about the transparency that data-use enabled. They expressed how it helped them to identify mistakes and areas of difficulty. Furthermore, students felt it was easier to adopt a growth mindset, as they were more motivated to address their mistakes and advance at their own pace. Taken together, students believed that blended learning fostered more autonomy and improved time management.

Suggestions for Future Students Embarking on Blended Learning

Based on our research project, we developed some suggestions to prepare students who are embarking on blended learning in the future:

First, it is important that students are instructed in how to use technology and devices. Based on our focus groups, one common theme is that students find it challenging to navigate the devices and the different platforms they are told to use.

Second, it is crucial to adopt an open mindset as to what the class should be like. Students may be used to a traditional, teacher-led instructional setting, and it will be useful to have an open mindset - acknowledging that classes in a blended learning environment may mean the student takes greater ownership over learning.

Third, it is important for the students to be able to manage distractions. Because much of the learning may take place in an online space, students will need to be able to stay focused to prevent them from wasting time online.

Finally, because students are given choice to pursue what they want to learn, it is easy for students to just focus on subjects they are interested in and neglect those that are important, but perhaps, that students are weaker in.

Conclusion

In conclusion, our findings show positive results that the majority of students find blended learning environments exciting and conducive to their learning.

Many students reported that they have more freedom in deciding the pathways they want to take to reach their learning goals, more flexibility to advance at their own pace, more understanding of the progress of their learning based on real-time data, and more immediate feedback from their teachers. In addition, the autonomy they gained over their learning also boosted their motivations to monitor their own progress, which increased their level of confidence both in their academic competencies and time management skills.

Nevertheless, a number of students also reported that blended learning is challenging because it takes time to learn how to make the best use of technology for learning. Technical problems may occur from time to time, and working alone with a device without sufficient instructions can be confusing. Moreover, demonstrating mastery of knowledge through projects also escalated the challenge of blended learning, because a student may have to work on several different projects at the same time, and projects are often harder to score full marks in comparison to taking traditional exams.

As a result, our team’s suggestions for future practices of blended learning include:

  1. for blended learning to be effective, teachers must provide explicit guidance to students on how to leverage technology to accomplish their learning goals;
  2. schools must invest in infrastructure to eliminate technical problems; and
  3. professional development is needed to equip teachers with sufficient knowledge and skills to carry out blended learning so that they can provide immediate support both face-to-face and online to meet the individual needs of students.

About the Author

Kah Yin Cheong, Ya-Ru Chiu, Poom Chotikavan, Brandon Gaylord, Rujia Liu, and Jingyu Lu are graduate students at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.