Dear reader,

The topic this week, Design for online and blended learning, relates to a current development project that I am involved in at my institution. This autumn, I have been streamlining and updating a blended course on Academic Writing together with a colleague, as part of a wider collection and network of online learning courses at our University, called Aalto Online Learning. I have taught this blended course a couple of times myself, and am familiar with the student feedback (both positive and negative), as well as the challenges that teachers and students face with it. Therefore, I was looking forward to this topic a lot and very eager to learn more about developing blended courses in particular. I wanted to get some new ideas or some more inspiration as to what my colleague and I could do during the updating process of this particular course. I have once again learned a lot, but once again, not exactly what I was expecting.

During this topic, to my surprise, I have learned or, rather, concretely realised that I actually know quite a lot already about developing and designing blended learning courses. I just did not consistently use these particular terms to describe the work and knowledge for others or myself. I took the Community of Inquiry – survey that Dr Martha Cleveland-Innes asked us to complete, and got quite high results (either agree or strongly agree in all) although I did not expect much from the onset about my own teaching practices in relation to this particular model. I guess I have become blind to my own development, or rather, have not joined the dots between theory and practice from this angle before. I completed my previous pedagogical studies and courses for university teachers at my Alma Mater in a learning environment almost entirely void of online elements or learning management systems whatsoever, and blended learning was not a “thing” back then for any of my peers or colleagues. The university learning infrastructure did not support it, either. This is some time ago, however, and things have developed and changed – without my conscious reflection as to the degree or depth of the change. I am happy to realise that my learning has not ceased during this time – I have not been learning by reading books and pedagogical theories since graduation, but by practicing the profession. I am in a different place and environment now – both offline (in a different country and at a different university) and online (immersed in an extensively developed digital world for the administration of teaching and studying). Gradually, I have since those days at my Alma Mater accumulated more practical knowledge and experience, and learned by doing rather than by reading or studying. This fourth topic has thus been an opportunity for me to let objective theory and theoretical knowledge catch up with subjective practical knowledge in my teaching, cognitive, social and emotional presences (see for instance Vaughan et al, 2013), and this completion of the circle will undoubtedly benefit my future students.

I have taught a wide variety of courses, the majority of which originally designed in collaboration with various constellations and teams of teachers who each have their own experiences and pedagogical expertise. Our team is a veritable community of inquiry (Vaughan et al. 2013) with a lot of diversity built into it, and as the courses that we have on our individual teaching workloads may vary quite substantially from year to year, everyone is therefore also very much invested in the shared commitment of continued course development. We also share tips and interesting insights through the pedagogical inspirations-meetings that we have a few times each academic year. This kind of working method in and of itself is a great breeding ground for designing blended learning courses, as our method of teamwork happens to resonate with many of the central principles behind the learning model of blended learning. Blended learning in and of itself is elusive to define, and several definitions seem to exist (Hrastinski 2019). Perhaps no simple definition exists, but the core functionality can be identified for the benefit of educators and students alike. In her slides shared with us during this topic, Martha Cleveland-Innes summarizes the seven principles of blended learning in the following manner:

  • Design for open communication and trust
  • Design for critical reflection and discourse
  • Create and sustain sense of community
  • Support purposeful inquiry
  • Ensure students sustain collaboration
  • Ensure that inquiry moves to resolution
  • Ensure assessment is congruent with intended learning outcomes

(From Vaughan et al 2013).

As is clear from Cleveland-Innes’ bulleted list above, open communication, critical reflection and work in a community are central for success. In addition to my experiences offline with my local colleagues, sharing the ONL experience this autumn with my ONL PBL-group online also mirrors these practices. The course has enabled more focus on the theoretical framework behind the particular design and format of learning, and I have been happy to find the observations and practical experience that I have confirmed in the literature for this fourth topic. 

Blended learning in practice and in theory will help me in the ongoing development work. Student feedback has been central in our development process this autumn, and to be able to target the main issues, my colleague and I collected a lot of feedback last spring and synchronously while teaching and developing the course during this autumn. Happily, based on the most current feedback, it seems that we have been able to alleviate many of the issues already that students had problems with last spring. For both students and teachers, our Learning Management System has been one obstacle on the way, and during this ONL-course and this particular topic, I have begun to understand some of the reasons behind the students’ problems. This has been great since I have now been able to identify the root causes of certain confusion or apparent lack of effort from the side of the students. Paradoxically, the learning management system is rigid despite a plethora of different types of activities, assignments, quizzes and submission boxes that a teacher can choose to use when designing the workshops and activities for the course. Students meet each other and the teacher face-to-face once a week, and then they have online assignments to complete before the next workshop. Although the core structure of this blended course is designed to support open communication and a sense of community as we meet the students also face to face, the actual online assignments in fact do not achieve that sense of community well enough. I have learned that the format of some of the online assignments does not adequately support this aspect of successful blended learning, and the ONL-experience will help me develop both this course and future courses towards a more effective direction from this viewpoint.

Thank you for reading. Please protect our planet.


Hrastinski, S. TechTrends (2019) 63: 564. What Do We Mean by Blended Learning?

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press. Chapter 1 “The Community of Inquiry Conceptual framework”.

Practice meets theory & presence develops from presence