To Blend or Not to Blend: Online and Blended Learning Environments in Undergraduate Teacher Education

Article excerpt

Increasing curricular demands and the desire to provide meaningful, engaging instruction have pressed teacher educators to review and revise their programs. Many have viewed the assets of online learning as a potential solution to meet the seemingly ever increasing state- and accreditation-mandated course content and competencies. Universities have explored the inclusion of Web based courses for students for several decades. According to Martyn (2003), over 90% of higher education institutions use some type of electronically enhanced learning or "e-learning" option. These options vary between courses that are offered completely "online" to those that include a blend of differing amounts of face-to-face and online contact time.

Research comparing student experiences with online-only and blended delivery has often concentrated on graduate students and nontraditional programs. However, the effectiveness of online and blended delivery depends on audience and subject matter (Saunders & Werner, 2002), suggesting that findings based on data from graduate and nontraditional programs may not hold true for undergraduate students in traditional teacher education programs. This study attempted to address this need in the literature by examining the work of undergraduate teacher candidates who participated in modules delivered in an online environment. Specifically, this study addresses students' comfort and perceived competence while working in online and blended learning environments, as well as the function of teamwork in an online space.

Review of Literature

The online environment experience brings benefits and challenges. Research has begun to identify and investigate the work and experiences of students in an online environment. This review of literature examines the research across three themes. First, the potential impact on student learning in a virtual environment is examined. Second, the students' level of comfort in the online experience is addressed. Third, knowing that social experiences nurture powerful learning opportunities, the nature of incorporation of teamwork in an online environment is explored. Finally, this review of literature looks at potential applications for blended student experiences that utilize time in an online environment as well as traditional face-to-face time to fully maximize student learning.

Impact on Student Learning

Multiple studies have documented that content understanding can be the same in the online environment as in the face-to-face environment (Aragon, Johnson, & Shaik, 2002; Meyer, 2003). Research, though predominately reported from data gathered from graduate students, has illustrated that students are able to understand and apply content studied in either environment. Students in an online space can engage with the content anywhere, anytime, and any place. This flexibility provides students the personalized time they need to read, think, process, and respond. In addition, Caverly and MacDonald (1999) found that "threaded discussion groups foster higher-level thinking and independence as students collect, evaluate, and create their own learning spaces" (p. 36).

Importance of Student Comfort

Many students who are uncomfortable speaking publicly in class find the online format favorable as it creates an environment in which they can "talk" in a lower pressure environment (Russell, 1999). Research documents that many students value the time provided through online classes to reflect and develop a response before responding over a faceto- face context with limited time to reflect and respond (Beeghly, 2005; Harasim, 1990; Larson, 2002). However, other studies have documented that students may not feel as comfortable responding in the online context (Arnold, 2006; Staarman, 2003). Some do not like knowing that their thoughts are "out there" for anyone to find and read. Others do not feel their learning is supported by the delayed response and would rather have the direct and quick response of class members. …