By Brian Fleming, Analyst
Wrapping up this year’s Sloan-C Blended Conference in Milwaukee, I can’t help but conclude that blended learning really is the future of higher education. Hardly an implausible claim to be sure, and certainly one that should not go unobserved among institutions seeking entry into new and strategic student markets.
Blended learning offers a unique and compelling combination of “high tech and high touch.” It is innovative, adaptable, potentially cost-effective, and certainly in demand among both traditional-age and adult learners.
What are consumers saying about blended learning? Data from Eduventures’ 2013 Consumer Preferences Survey
Eduventures’ 2013 Consumer Preferences survey suggests significant interest in mixed modalities, including primarily online, but with a striking rise this year among both traditional-age and adults in preference for programs of equal balance between online and face-to-face. Hardly surprising, especially reflecting on some of the innovative work many institutions presented at Sloan.
Source: Eduventures Consumer Surveys, 2006 and 2013
A few observations:
- Learner Engagement: Blended offers a more compelling student experience through coalescence of the digital and the personal, and promises of greater accessibility for varying learning styles and age groups.
- Pedagogy: Blended presents a plethora of innovative and effective pedagogical practices capable of infusing humanizing components into digital learning platforms, and fostering a diverse use of tools, exercises, and modes of content-presentation to drive collaboration.
- Outcomes: Blended environments are primed for impressive learning analytics poised to drive learning outcomes. Unlike online, blended also offers a unique opportunity for a more qualitative assessment of data through observation and analysis of student and faculty engagement across both face-to-face and online learning environments.
But what exactly is “blended learning”?
Surprisingly, though, blended is rather difficult to define, which has likely hindered its adoption and sustained appeal in the market to date. Among consumers, we find that despite preference for blended, compared to other more familiar modes, blended lacks definition. Even at a conference of blended learning professionals, we struggled to name what exactly this practice is and how to conceptualize its relationship to other modalities and philosophies of teaching and learning.
Is “blended” hybrid, flipped, synched? Sort of like online education (some call it “blended-online”) or not at all like online education (presumably, hybrid or just “blended”)? An entryway to online, or to more enhanced tertiary forms of education? A digital makeover of face-to-face, or (as some argue) a corrective to the impersonal and sometimes scattershot outcomes of online?
High Tech, High Touch
Eduventures proposes that what makes blended learning so hard to define is also what makes it so strategic for today’s market. For instance, blended is highly adaptable to rapidly changing needs and preferences among both traditional-age and adults learners. It is also more suitable for disciplines ill fitted for fully online, and for those consumers who may balk at fully online but find “hybrid” a better fit.
Unlike solely face-to-face or fully online too, blended offers a more compelling opportunity to increase access without sacrificing some of the more familiar and still sought after components of higher education. This alone is sure to inform the debate about the value of non-traditional forms of higher education and their promise for years to come.
Developing a Blended Learning Strategy
Should blended be the future of higher education, institutions need a blended learning strategy. To this end, Eduventures proposes focusing in on the following:
- Blurred Lines, Hard Choices. Blended will blur familiar distinctions between traditional-age and adult learners. Blended programs, that is, will appeal to both and with varied consistency. As such, the market will become difficult to navigate and potential consumers harder and harder to define. At the same time, programs will need to create “optimal” blends, possibly by age, place in life, residential or distance, by cohort, or for different learner-types. In essence, blended programs will not be able to serve all. Some forms of segmentation and exclusion are inevitable.
- Differentiation, Cannibalization. Blended will offer a unique value proposition for the online market with qualities online still lacks. This could lead to a few scenarios. For one, blended will disrupt online program stability and growth. Blended may also inhibit concurrent entry and expansion into other markets (e.g. online), meaning institutions may not be able to sustain growth across multiple modalities. Presumably, online programs may in turn be cannibalized, as well, with a limited number of students to go around and lesser appeal among traditional and more selective adult students.
- Market Coherence, Market Opportunity. Blended may also limit market opportunity as fewer students will be able to travel long distances or relocate. This will pose challenges to be sure, but a correction for higher education market as a whole. Potentially, for instance, geographic restraints will force programs to focus in more on local and regional markets, thus providing new coherence for a now crowded and mature online and adult learner market of which, to date, consists of hundreds of providers all varying in quality and location competing across boundaries, often with mixed results. While seemingly a market inhibitor, geography may in fact be an enabler of more targeted and sustainable program growth.
Presumably, online programs may in turn be cannibalized, as well, with a limited number of students to go around and, compared to blended, declining appeal among traditional and more selective adult students seeking a more high touch experience.