Collaborative Knowledge Building: Blending In-Class and Online Learning Formats

By Riel, Margaret; Sparks, Paul | Distance Learning, May 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Collaborative Knowledge Building: Blending In-Class and Online Learning Formats


Riel, Margaret, Sparks, Paul, Distance Learning


INTRODUCTION

Programs that promote collaborative knowledge building are smart to exploit all effective formats and methods. Blended learning - a mixture of in-class and online learning - provides an effective combination of interpersonal and intellectual supports for learning (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jose, 2009). It also supports a wide range of learning methods. At one end of the continuum, courses are conducted primarily in-class and extended using online discussions. In this format the in-class learning drives the online learning. At the other end, online programs use in-class time to build the community, enabling more authentic stu- dent sharing. Blended programs appear best able to capitalize on the social infra- structure of learning, incorporating con- ceptual and practical learning outcomes, making good use of the social capital of the students, and maximizing the online learning space. While discussions of online or blended learning tends to focus on technology, the orchestration of the learning community (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; Palloff & Pratt, 2005; Polin, 2003) is most critical for collaborative knowledge building (Berieter, 2002; Bereiter & Scadamalia, 1993).

LECTURING, KNOWLEDGE BUILDING AND ONLINE LEARNING

Lectures are demonstrations of how one person, the professor, builds knowledge from disparate sources. The professor uses his or her theoretical orientation, research experience, personal stories, and connection with the field to demonstrate how he or she builds knowledge. Research, books, articles, and other sources are blended together by the professor into compelling stories of the histories of ideas. It is a process that leaves the students to watch and learn in a passive receptive way. Thoughtful students understand that they need to do more than listen to the content; some see the lecture as a "model" of the process of integrating information from different sources to create new knowledge. They understand the message is in the method. However, most students have only an implicit understanding of this model of learning. For them, the learning is a onedirectional transfer - professors impart their work to their receptive students. The focus is on the content, the story and not the process of storytelling. Many professors first approach teaching online as a way to move lectures online. Recent metaanalyses suggest that even with this limitation, blended learning shows a small to medium effect size advantage over in-class learning (Means et al, 2009). This may, in part, be due to the fact that students in blended programs were found to spend more time on their studies. However if blended learning leads to a greater investment in learning, that, in itself is an important finding.

While there is value in listening to experts, building collaborative knowledge requires action and innovation. To learn how to build knowledge from evidence, experience, and theory, students need to develop the authority of their own ideas (Berieter, 2002; Bruffee, 1999). The online environment is very different from the classroom. Researchers suggest the online environment is better suited for a form of learning called collaborative knowledge bunding (Berieter, 2002; PoHn, 2003). Discussion forums are not limited by time or by the need for one person to speak at time. Students can more efficiently be placed in the role of integrating information from different sources, dealing with contrary evidence, and making sense of the different perspectives. The role of the professor can shift from modeling the sense-making process (lecturing) to providing feedback on the process of knowledge building. With more experience in the online context, professors learn to use resources and activities that challenge students to make sense of ideas collectively. They do this by asking probing questions that stimulate insightful ideas, rather then providing them. While no one student is likely to create knowledge that rivals the professor, the students acting as a form of distributed cognition (Salomon, 1993), may be able to create a narrative that has intellectual merit. …

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