Topic 4: Design for online and blended learning

I could relate to this topic quite a lot as I’ve been experimenting with online and blended learning designs for some years now. As an undergraduate student in Eastern Europe in the late-2000s, most of my courses were lecture and textbook based. Just to get an idea, the majority of professors did not use slides back then and most assignments would be handed in on paper. I think the closest we got to “online learning” was when some of the teaching assistants created Yahoo groups where they would post materials relevant for our course work. Back then, my university did not have an online learning environment and the first time I was exposed to one was when I went on my exchange. A couple of years later, I pursued graduate studies at a university abroad where every course had its own online page, many of the materials were available online and most of the assignments had to be uploaded online. Nevertheless, the “communities of inquiry” were still offline, mostly in informal study groups in the library. While the online learning environment offered an online forum forum, I do not recall anybody using it. As students we rather stuck to face-to-face meetings, email and social media.

Fast forward a couple of years later when I become a teaching assistant and notice that students are moving their meetings more and more online. Coordinating via informal Facebook or WhatsApp groups and Skype meetings that used to be the last resort when people were in different cities, seemed to have become the norm for students living 10 minutes from each other. In parallel to the official online course pages, students were developing their online course repositories where they would collect and share notes, summaries and all sorts of course materials. As a teaching assistant, I use to be very annoyed with the fact that students were “lazy” and preferred to read the summaries others posted on Study Drive rather than read the articles and really “learn” as I used to.

Fast forward a couple more years when I become responsible for coordinating my own courses and I realize that it’s actually quite innovative of the students to develop their own community of inquiry. Furthermore, while some students may inevitably be lazy, the materials they have to read (i.e., academic journal articles) may not be that engaging to warrant their full attention. I also realize that students are much more sophisticated than I used to be when I was in their shoes and they will not simply take everything I put on their plate for granted just because I am the course coordinator. So, for a couple of years now, I’ve tried to put my ego aside and attempt to design truly blended learning courses. In my experience, that has boiled down to balancing the necessary academic literature with real-life examples and assignments on topics that would interest the students. One time, I had students listen to an 8 hour podcast on the history of Netflix and have them write a paper on how they envision the future of the company. Another time, I had students watch an episode of Black Mirror and write an essay in favour or against the depiction of social media in that particular episode. Yet another time, I had students develop a video pitch instead of a final formal presentation. With each experiment I asked for feedback and I learned an important lesson: Yes, students do appreciate all the online creative tasks, but only when they are clearly related to the course content and the assessment criteria.

After watching Martha Cleveland-Innes’ presentation of the community of enquiry framework by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000), I realized that I was mostly focusing on getting my students to engage with the content and engage in regard to the goals and direction. Now, I know that I should also work on getting my students to engage with other participants. Students do so informally anyway so now I know that I need to take that into account when designing assignments. One thing I can think of is supporting students’ discourse (at the intersection of cognitive and social presence in the framework). Maybe instead of writing one big report, each team will have to write a weekly blog in which they would reflect on a relevant topic (e.g., a mind-map of the literature, a practical application etc.). Furthermore, each team would have to provide comments to different blogs each week. While it may seem contrived in the beginning, I am sure it will create a valuable educational experience.

Just as with a fine scotch, achieving the right blend requires experimentation and patience…


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The internet and higher education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Achieving the Right Blend Requires Experimentation