Considering Learner Diversity in Blended Learning Contexts

Dr Abdel Halim Sykes, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University

The purpose of flexible and open learning is to cater to learners from diverse backgrounds with diverse learning needs; and this is especially true for blended learning contexts. For this reason, it is essential for educators to understand and respect learner diversity because it impacts on the roles of the learner and teacher, on how people learn, and on how they interact in teaching sessions and other learning activities. More specifically, in the adult higher education context, learners have particular, yet diverse, needs and expectations and may be willing to assert these and challenge teachers and institutions if they feel their needs and expectations are not being met (Adams and Nicolson, 2011). Indeed, it could be argued that the nature of flexible and open learning not only caters to diversity, but also accentuates and perpetuates it by promoting independent learning. These issues of learner diversity present significant challenges for institutions, course developers and teachers. However, it is, perhaps, the latter who face the greatest challenges in dealing with learner diversity since they are on the front line of the teaching and learning experience.

 

Recognising Learner Diversity

Obvious markers of diversity include race, age, gender and physical appearance, which are easily identified visually. Others markers, such as ethnicity, religion, profession, lifestyle, educational background and some disabilities may be less apparent but are discovered through interaction with learners. However, the least perceptible, but perhaps most important, diversity markers become apparent only when teaching occurs. Learning activities may reveal diversity in ways of interacting with others, opinions and convictions, levels of sensitivity and confidence, and mental and emotional state: all of which can affect the teaching and learning experience. Therefore, teachers should make themselves aware of learner diversity and use this awareness in the planning and execution of teaching sessions and other interactions with learners. Of paramount importance is the need for teachers not to judge learners, but to be open to the diversity of their learners and be flexible in their teaching styles and methods in order to accommodate diversity.

 

Accommodating Learner Diversity

Blended learning is often included in educational programmes as an acknowledgement of and a response to learner diversity. As institutions of adult higher education attract an increasingly diverse range of learners from different backgrounds and with different challenges, flexible and open learning experiences need to promote and facilitate learning for all regardless of their social situation and life commitments. It is, therefore, important to have a positive approach to understanding and accommodating learner diversity; since where ‘such understanding and support are more evident, it is likely that learners will be able to take better control of their learning’ (Adams and Nicolson, 2011, p.30).

 

Learner Diversity and Blended Learning

The ‘blend’ in blended learning is the combination of teaching and learning modes, methods and activities that facilitate flexible learning. The best blends are those synchronous and asynchronous interactions that are most suitable for maximising the full potential of the largest number of learners. In synchronous teaching sessions, teachers and learners have to deal with issues of punctuality and attendance, and levels of attention and participation, for example, which may be affected by the learners’ confidence, life commitments and challenges. These issues need to be addressed by both teachers and learners if negative consequences are to be minimised. On the other hand, asynchronous interactions, such as discussion boards, blogs and wikis, provide an alternative learning environment that offer greater flexibility than face-to-face sessions. In this context, the quality, quantity and frequency of contributions acquires greater significance.  For instance, teachers may have to acknowledge the fact that some learners are fearful of submitting contributions that are accessible to others in the group. This public display of their abilities, including their weaknesses and limitations, can cause anxiety for many learners and can lead to high stress levels resulting in the self-imposed compulsion to over-perform or simply to withdraw participation altogether. However, in both synchronous and asynchronous learning interactions, the personalities and dynamics within the group will need to be addressed by teachers and learners in order to ensure all benefit from the blended learning experience. It is for these reasons that careful consideration should be given to how teaching, learning tasks and feedback are managed in relation to learner diversity.

 

Learner Diversity and Teaching

While teachers can make every effort to be inclusive and address issues of learner diversity in face-to-face, synchronous contexts, learner-centred activities present a shift in the balance of control in that learners often determine the input, direction and dynamics of the learning experience.  Collaboration in pairs and groups is a major component of blended learning in both synchronous and asynchronous settings.  Such collaboration promotes the notion among educators that active participation is a hallmark of learning and achievement with the corollary being that a lack of participation is indicative of learning difficulty and underachievement. However, when it comes to problems with collaboration, two aspects of learner diversity are of concern: peripheral participation (Lave and Wenger, 1991) and marginality (Wenger, 2000). In the former situation, learners are on the periphery of involvement by choice. They may decide to reserve judgement on an issue being raised or perhaps need more time to reflect before making a contribution. Alternatively, other commitments may make greater demands on learners than their studies; and so the choice is made to focus on other priorities. Conversely, in the latter situation, marginality is not the result of choice, but is caused by factors such as a lack of understanding or sufficient skill, problems in attending face-to-face sessions or gaining access to online interaction, or overwhelming learner anxiety. A more sinister reason for marginality might be the dynamics of the group and the behaviour of others within the learning environment. Whatever the reason for non-participation, teachers need to be aware of its causes and address the issue as it presents itself to ensure teaching is not disrupted and reaches all those who wish to learn. Table 1 provides some strategies for approaching this issue.

Table 1: Ten Strategies for Dealing with Learner Diversity and Teaching

   

Strategies

1

Consider how to utilise learner diversity, such as skills, experience and knowledge, within the class.

2

Encourage contributions, such as questions, comments and suggestions, from learners.

3

Monitor the type and appropriateness of contributions from learners.

4

Moderate and manage inappropriate behaviour by learners.

5

Assign pairs and groups for collaborative work based on your knowledge of the diversity of learners in the class.

6

Change pairs and groups for different activities to build on the diversity within the class.

7

Create a level playing field to ensure fairness among learners.

8

Intervene to minimise dominant behaviour by some learners in pairs and groups.

9

Acknowledge the need for peripheral participation by learners.

10

Encourage participation and collaboration to avoid the marginalisation of learners.

 

Learner Diversity and Learning Tasks

In the blended learning context, it is important in both synchronous and asynchronous sessions to offer learners a variety of tasks and alternative options rather than a one-size-fits-all, prescribed approach. Selecting from a variety of tasks affords independence to learners who can decide which tasks to attempt depending on their skills, interests and needs. By catering to diversity in this way, learners have some control over their own studies and can select tasks they feel comfortable approaching. Ideally, learners should be involved in devising learning tasks; however, this involvement is at the discretion of the institution, which may prefer to place design and development in the hands of professional developers without recourse to learners. Nevertheless, at every stage of a learning task (design, preparation, execution and review) it is essential to consider and incorporate learner diversity (Table 2) so as to ensure all learners can be fully engaged and benefit from the experience.

Table 2: Ten Strategies for Dealing with Learner Diversity and Learning Tasks

   

Strategies

1

Involve learners in planning learning activities.

2

Provide clear, simple instructions.

3

Clarify the aims and expected outcomes of tasks.

4

Use tasks that are appropriate for the level and experience of learners.

5

Avoid tasks that might compromise or cause embarrassment for learners.

6

Discuss with learners how they can approach difficult tasks.

7

Analyse tasks for potential problems which may arise for learners.

8

Adapt tasks to ensure they are suitable for particular learners or groups.

9

Avoid coercing learners into participating in tasks when they appear uncomfortable.

10

Advise learners on the types of task most suitable for them to undertake (according to their needs and capabilities).

 

Learner Diversity and Feedback

Effective feedback is important in every teaching and learning context; however, it is essential in blended programmes in which real, face-to-face interaction may be limited or non-existent. In order to compensate for the lack of a personal touch, teachers need to maximise the potential of feedback in blended contexts by addressing the learner’s performance in an individualised manner that is sensitive to the learner’s specific needs and challenges. In this way, the teacher builds a unique relationship with each learner and is less likely to give generalised, stock responses and comments that are too generic to be of use to individual learners. A more personalised approach to providing feedback results in unique, targeted comments and advice tailored to the needs of each learner. However, such feedback can only be provided when the teacher has some knowledge of the learner’s background, strengths and weakness, and other salient information. Where feedback is offered from a distance, via the Internet for example, the opportunity for immediate clarification of comments and a lack of body language and voice input can make the interpretation of comments difficult or confusing for learners. Hence, it is necessary for teachers to provide feedback that is unambiguous, relevant and sensitive to the learner (Table 3).

Table 3: Ten Strategies for Dealing with Learner Diversity and Feedback

   

Strategies

1

Treat each learner as a unique individual deserving of respect.

2

Ensure your feedback can be understood clearly by the learner.

3

Avoid making comments that compare a learner with others.

4

Acknowledge the learner’s effort in completing a task or assignment (even when the execution is not to a high standard).

5

Consider the sensitivity and confidence levels of each learner before you make comments. (Not all learners can accept strong criticism well.)

6

Avoid making comments that might cause embarrassment for learners.

7

Adjust your methods and style of feedback to suit each learner.

8

Consider how the method of feedback can affect your message. (F2F, recorded video, written comments)

9

Advise learners on how they can proceed with their studies (according to their needs and capabilities).

10

Obtain learners’ feedback on the way you present feedback to them.

 

Summary

This brief article has attempted to highlight the need to recognise and accommodate learner diversity in blended contexts. It has shown that while learner diversity presents challenges to   institutions and course developers, teachers, in particular, need to consider how learner diversity affects their practices on blended courses. Teaching methods, learning tasks and the provision of feedback must take account of the needs and expectations of learners in flexible and open learning environments in order to maximise the educational experience for learners and enhance the teaching experience for educators. Strategies for incorporating learner diversity into practice have been presented as a prompt to encourage teachers to consider how learner diversity impacts the learning experience and to promote diversity awareness among teachers. It is essential for teachers to be aware of the background, motivation, knowledge, skills, world view and challenges learners bring to their studies so as to understand how and why learners make particular choices, manage their studies and adopt certain behaviours during their learning journey. This awareness can empower teachers and enhance their ability to provide learners with appropriate lessons, activities and feedback that are tailored to their needs and expectations: making the blend more meaningful and effective.

 

References

Adams, H. and Nicolson, M. (2011) ‘Learner Diversity’, in Nicolson, M., Murphy, L. and Southgate, M. (eds) (2011) Language Teaching in Blended Contexts, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, pp.29-42

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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About tlcunisim

This is the TLC UniSIM blog: the virtual community space for associates and faculty members to share ideas on teaching and learning. This blog is edited by Dr. Abdel Halim Sykes, Lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University, Singapore.
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