Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Revisiting the Blended Learning Literature: Using a Complex Adaptive Systems Framework

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Revisiting the Blended Learning Literature: Using a Complex Adaptive Systems Framework

Article excerpt


Because the term "blended learning" has been commonly used in tertiary education for well over a decade, it is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that it has become part of the vernacular. Blended learning has been gaining in importance, especially during the last five years, with the development of online learning and the recent rise of MOOCs and flipped teaching. Our literature review indicates that its effectiveness and validity as a new form of learning has been established in practice. At the same time, our review also reveals that the great majority of the empirical studies into blended learning are research interventions of short duration conducted at either the course or task level, focusing on just one or a few aspects of blended learning. As a result, investigations into blended learning continue to be fragmented and many important issues remain unexplored. This is highlighted by Owston (2013, p. 1), who stated: "There is a need for research investigating why blended learning, despite its many inherent advantages, has not been scaled up successfully in very many institutions."

The term "blended learning" has been used interchangeably with "mixed mode learning," "hybrid instruction," and "technology-mediated/enhanced learning." It has been defined and redefined by various studies, but none has provided us with a complete view of what constitutes blended learning and how different components of blended learning work together over time to achieve an integrated whole. Perhaps the most widely held understanding of blended learning is that it is a combination of "face-to-face instruction and computer-mediated instruction" (Graham, 2006, p. 5). This current study aims to promote a deeper understanding of blended learning research and practice, first using a different perspective--the complex adaptive systems perspective--and secondly, through a review of the recent literature on blended learning.

To achieve this aim, this article first assesses the strengths and limitations of existing blended learning models then discusses the theories of complex adaptive systems in an effort to develop a framework that effectively captures the nature and dynamics of blended learning. This discussion then leads to the proposal of a framework for complex adaptive blended learning systems, called the CABLS framework. We then apply this framework to a review of the recent blended learning literature to identify gaps in current blended learning research and practice. We hope that this research will promote a more comprehensive understanding of what has been achieved and what needs to be achieved in blended learning, in terms of both research and practice.

A review of blended learning models

During the last 15 years, a great number of blended learning frameworks and models have emerged, and these have advanced our understanding in many important ways. The following review discusses a few of the most influential models, and this discussion provides diverse lenses through which to view the differences between these models and the one proposed in this research.

Shea's grounded model promotes a pyramid framework starting with "our assumptions and beliefs about the nature of knowledge" (2007, p. 31). This is followed by the identification of "the theories of learning that reflect these philosophical underpinnings," the articulation of "complementary pedagogical approaches," "instructional strategies and, ultimately, specific learning activities." As we can see, this model focuses on one aspect in blended learning, the instructional design of a blended curriculum.

McSporran and King's (2005) generic framework for blended learning advocates the selection of delivery methods in line with learning needs and available resources. Again, this model caters only to one element of blended learning, content delivery, which is useful in guiding the delivery of blended learning at a course level rather than guiding the implementation at an institutional level. …

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