Will blended learning end in tiers?

Regular followers of this blog, or my work in general, will be aware that blended learning is probably my main focus of work at the moment, and has been for the last few years. As I have conversations with people about blended learning both in FE and HE, I am starting to realise that a 2-tier approach to this area of work is forming, as I will try to explain here.

Image of a tiered cakeTier 1:

Within FE in particular, as a consequence of FELTAG, many providers are now starting to do more blended learning, but in most cases this is taking the form of taking existing face to face provision, and introducing bits of online, to create the blend. There is no problem with this approach per se, however quite often we are experiencing a simple replacement mechanism, where a face to face activity is replaced with an online activity.

Tier 2:

In contrast there are some providers across the spectrum, who rather than taking existing courses and replacing bits of it, are designing (or totally redesigning) courses as blended learning courses, to take the full advantages that Blended learning offers. This means that the face to face elements and the online elements are designed to both go hand in hand with the other (rather than one being a subservient bolt on of the other), and we aren’t just replacing face to face activities with electronic equivalents.


This second approach often requires reasonable up front investment, so is currently mainly in the realms of HE, private training, and (interestingly) some voluntary sector provides – but it is clear that the quality of these products is far greater than the tier 1 approach. In FE at the moment the tier 1 approach works best in the short term, as cheaper to develop, and many FE learners don’t have the skills and discipline to cope with the higher quality tier 2 type courses, but the problem that I foresee is it isn’t a case that people can start on tier 1, and then over time they gradually morph into tier 2 – in order to move from tier 1 to tier 2, there has to be a major shake up and redesign of the course, and I don’t think that people are aware of this.

This makes me wonder whether FE organisations (and to a lesser extent HE), as well as (or even instead of) trying to manage the mass migration that is taking place to force all courses to have some online bits in it – should they be prioritising a few key areas or courses, ideally the ones that they are strong in and have a good potential captive audiences for, and trying to get those to go for a tier 2 approach. Yes this requires an upfront investment, that is an issue – but is not doing this a risk that organisations will have a problem down the line that in four or five years, we will end up in a similar place to where we are now, trying to manage a mass migration from tier 1 to tier 2?

Image Source: Source: https://morguefile.com/p/846201


2 Responses

  1. This is a really useful analysis, Dave, but I think we can go one stage further and imagine a Tier 3, which I hope we may see at some point in the not too distant future.

    We could say that your Tier 1 involves merely tinkering with existing courses/programmes (by “introducing bits of online”, as you say) while Tier 2 means rethinking courses/programmes from scratch in the light of what technology now makes possible. (Btw, I like your description of Tier 2 as moving beyond a “subservient bolt-on” approach.)

    But what particularly interests me is (in the language of systems thinking) to examine provision of learning at the institutional level rather than at the course level. So let’s apply the same language to the institution rather than the course: your Tier 2 involves merely tinkering with our assumptions about existing provider institutions, but what really interests me is how technology should be making us rethink from scratch our assumptions about how institutions themselves operate – this is what I mean by Tier 3.

    Let me give an example. I am currently doing two online courses, one run by Trinity College Dublin and the other by Queensland University of Technology, and of course I can do so without setting foot in either Ireland or Australia. These courses are 100% online rather than being blended, but I still think that they come into your Tier 2 as each course has clearly been designed from scratch rather than as an adaptation or bolt-on to an existing F2F course.

    Now it’s fine for me as a superannuated, semi-retired dilettante to buy into course from two different institutions, but that is not how it works – yet – for young people. They nearly always have to attend a single school, a single college or a single university. The institution very much ‘owns’ the student. But why? During the middle years of my career I ran a Saturday morning/weekday evening music school for young people. I think the logic of technology means that we could extend the idea of specialist institutions across the whole curriculum, so that a young person could learn different subjects with a variety of institutions, using a variety of F2F, blended and online approaches. This would permit far more choice about both what they learned and how they learned, thus catering for the very different interests, needs and preferred learning approaches of different individuals. It also puts the individual more in control of their own learning.

    But of course the senior people in schools, colleges and universities will not like this approach as it threatens both their high salaries and their sense of self-importance. They will fight to maintain their power and control, as well as their ‘ownership’ of students. But I believe it will all end in tiers/tears unless we have the courage to imagine and bring into being much more flexible institutional structures. The logic of educational technology surely demands this.

  2. Thanks for the response Terry which as ever is profound, enlightening and a joy to read, and I totally agree with the point you are making. When I was drafting this blog post (and I have been working on this for quite a few weeks now), I did initially start with a 3 tier model (although my third tier was different to yours) – but I realised that my third tier, wasn’t so much a tier but just an advancement of my second tier – and as such not a tier at all, hence I dropped back to a simpler 2 tier model. I also realised with my initial draft, that I am wanting to encourage change within the mindset of influential people, but having a more complete and complex model wouldn’t help with this. but would just scare them off and as such would have less value. your final paragraph made a similar conclusion – although with different wording.

    Maybe in a few months or even years time, we will be in a position to come back to this and introduce a third tier either along your lines, or my original thoughts on this topic.

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