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Blended learning in adult education: summary of the online discussion

Is a blended approach to delivering adult education the best way forward in a situation of prolonged closure of adult education centres? The blended approach is a good option when it is not possible to assure continued access to adult education, however the type of adult education provided needs to be adapted and customised to the learner. One size does not fit all. The blended approach may not be the best option for some public target. For those adults without digital competences or without personal computers or internet the blended approach can be demotivating.

Blended learning in adult education: summary of the online discussion

The online discussion, hosted on the EPALE platform on the 26th of November 2020, on the future development of blended learning in adult education began with an introductory webinar on the topic led by Dr Lauri Tuomi, CEO of KVS, Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation, and a board member of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA). KVS is the main publisher of Elm Magazine.

What followed was a lively discussion among the community on many of the issues raised by Dr Tuomi. Let’s have a look at the points raised. 

Is a blended approach to delivering adult education the best way forward in a situation of prolonged closure of adult education centres? 

  • The blended approach is a good option when it is not possible to assure continued access to adult education, however the type of adult education provided needs to be adapted and customised to the learner. One size does not fit all. The blended approach may not be the best option for some public target. For those adults without digital competences or without personal computers or internet the blended approach can be demotivating.
  • Some adults need to be face-to-face supported to pursuit their learning activities, mainly if they are not much self-confident. The blended approach must be considered a possible methodology, the important factor is to find the best approach for each adult, if we want to leave no one behind. 
  • It is possible to use the complex approach especially now. When we are teaching and learning we support the learners also psychologically, they don’t feel alone, they are engaged in learning.
  • In the context of blended learning, also the concept of “Inverse Blended Learning” is worth mentioning, which relates to online courses enriched by on-site teaching. For example, the “EBMooc” carried out in 2017 and 2018 by CONEDU was accompanied by weekly gatherings for discussions of the course content at educational institutes near the participants’ residences. In comparison to other MOOCs, the participants’ engagement in discussion forums was significantly higher, as was the completion rate. It can therefore be inferred that inverse blended learning fosters interaction among learners in online learning environments and helps maintaining the participants' motivation. For more information on the MOOC, see   https://epale.ec.europa.eu/en/content/ebmooc-plus-open-online-course-adult-educators.
  • In Portugal, IEFP, a hybrid framework was recently designed to support the transition of short-term training courses, which are usually carried out face-to-face, to a format that allows them to be carried out remotely. The option for the hybrid model proved to be adequate when applied on the ground, in a training pilot that involved more than 50 trainers and a thousand of trainees.
  • In the context of Digital Literacy of adult education trainers, an interesting Erasmus + project on the topic took place in Latvia, DigitALAD.
  • There is a place for online learning which works alongside face-to-face classes. For some learners their personal circumstances are such that their time physically in a college or an adult learning centre is “protected time” that they can devote solely to themselves and their learning away from other pressures such as caring for elderly parents or for children or work.  Additionally, adult learners often lack confidence if they are returning to learning after a long period of time and the importance of face-to-face classes where they form a bond with their teacher and benefit from peer learning with fellow students cannot be underestimated. Some vocational/technical/practical adult courses (such as construction, engineering, hairdressing) cannot solely be delivered online and practical elements of the course need to be in a physical setting but could be supplemented with online learning. 
  • The benefits of blended learning is that it allows adult education to be even more flexible, meeting the needs of adults who have many other challenges in life to contend with. 
  • Here’s an interesting blog on the topic: “Putting down roots: establishing e-learning opportunities in informal adult education”.     

Blended learning in adult education: summary of the online discussion

What are the main challenges to implementing a blended approach to learning in adult education? 

  • The mixed approach has enormous potential. The problem/challenge, is to ensure that adults in training have equal opportunities to participate in a mixed learning system.
  • During the shutdown period, in March 2020, the Qualifica Centres (centres that are responsible, in Portugal, to guide and referral adults to qualification pathways and also to assure the recognition of prior learnings) were closed and were recommended to keep their adult education activities at distance. After that, the Qualifica Centres were asked about the activities carried out and the main challenges the centres and adults faced. The results of this inquiry were analysed by National Agency for Qualification and Vocational Education and Training (ANQEP) and showed that, generally, adults expressed a positive feedback. However, some adults felt difficulties associated:
    • to the lack of digital skills,
    • the insufficiency of resources (like personal computers or internet),
    • to a weak motivation to work in a blended model.

For Qualifica Centres’ teams the main challenges reported were the difficulty to implement more often some sessions at distance, the redefinition of technological and training procedures, how to keep the adults’ motivation and how to reach adults who didn’t have access to technology. 

  • Weak qualifications in terms of digital skills could be considered as a major obstacle to the generalisation of a hybrid model. 
  • A survey of Further Education colleges in England about the move to online learning during the lockdown period in the Spring/early Summer of 2020, reported that lower level adult learners (particularly those learning English as a second language) had issues with access and digital literacy which prevented them from fully participating/engaging with their learning online. 
  • It is often not a question of digital skills or the attitude towards digital work, but rather a lack of skills for self-learning and self-organisation. There is a lot of talk – and this is of course very important – about digital divide, lack of digital skills, but an important basis for Blended Learning are competences for independent learning and self-organisation.
  • Time is used differently. Training online is much more intense, less slack, and less pauses. It is harder to engage with each learner, as they are virtual and thus (in synchronous settings) often harder to see and reach. When in asynchronous settings there is the extra time for reflection, and the increased feeling on one-on-one that this makes possible. Social competences and skills within the teacher are demanded to a higher extent. Often, the environment itself still limits the teaching situations, and the possibilities there are of co-creation, joint ownership, distributed roles and group work. Some institutions are a bit stuck on their models and tools.

    

What adult education initiatives and polices are required to implement a blended learning approach to adult education? 

  • First of all, to implement a blended learning approach to adult education all actors (teachers, trainers and trainees) need to have access to technology and a certain level of digital skills to use it properly. Otherwise, only some of them benefit from this approach and, very likely, will not be the ones with the lowest qualifications. So, it is necessary to implement a programme to facilitate the acquisition of those equipment and also to promote the attainment of basic skills training sessions. Moreover, the adult education should obey to a model really flexible that adapts to a blended approach. In this model, individualised teaching should be given priority to what is done majority in classes. This way any adult can learn at her/his own pace and according his priority and interests.  
  • It is essential that also the adult education researchers are encouraged to research how blended learning has affected the way we teach.
  • The educational providers role is very important in order to ensure that the learning environments support the blended pedagogy and that every teacher is provided with technological and pedagogical support. Of course, the monitoring of quality should be integrated in the quality system of the institutions.      

Blended learning in adult education: summary of the online discussion

      

What’s the impact of COVID-19?

  • We need to elect  the pandemic situation as a focal point for learning in adult education. Can we imagine a more evident and more appropriate learning context for educational, training and citizenship-promoting approaches than the one that the COVID-19 pandemic provides spontaneously and naturally? It is clear that it is necessary to urgently adapt the pedagogical approach to a situation so severe that it conditions and afflicts families, citizens and local territories in their daily lives. But by simultaneously assuming that the dynamics of everyday life can constitute in themselves a potentially relevant framework for learning, we can then combine the events of the day-to-day journey with the connections and risks of COVID-19 by designing a path of pragmatic and clearly perceived learning by adults.
  • Key themes  emerge, can COVID-19 be the basis of all learning activities, in actions related to adult education? What themes emerge as evident? Three examples:
    • The theme of “living together”. The awareness of the importance of solidary behaviour in matters of health prevention is built on the understanding and appropriation of the mechanisms of contagion and the ways to counter it with full knowledge of the cause. Solidarity saves lives and strengthens the capacity of collectives.
    • Health topics. After all, why do we talk about risk groups? Who are? Why are they? Does the group belong to this group? What initiatives can be taken to counteract weakness in the face of critical public health situations.
    • The theme of food The reformulation of the basic food supply processes and the need to rebalance the composition of meals, namely with the consumption of local and seasonal products. Adult education and social development These approaches are focused on everyday life and on the concrete issues that the pandemic poses.
  • There may still be another approach that lies in responding to a central question of social development: can adult education contribute to help combat the pandemic and strengthen local communities? In other words, to establish the purpose of adult education activities as their contribution to the resolution of problems in society and the mobilisation of local resources to strengthen communities and the meaning of collective life.
  • It may be seen already  that those countries with at least some tradition and experience in online learning had a better and more rapid adaptability to shifting a large part of the labour force into home office mode. Especially Scandinavian countries like Norway or Finland have shown us the way. If we succeed to engage more people in blended education, there is a better chance for the economy to adapt to such abrupt situations like this one.
  • We need to use, and many are already using, the pandemic as a new opportunity for adult non-formal education. Precisely because “the mask is not placed on the eyes!”. And that is a good sign, because we must not lower our arms, we must live and live as well as possible in a situation like this
  • “It's all about learning to learn”. Considering the pandemic situation we're asked to change and adapt to new ways of learning. This is a period of change, so some outputs may be unknown to us; yet, it doesn't mean that they have negative consequences.
  • Blended learning has been the tool to survive through COVID-19 time. Hopefully soon we will recover and, thus, it is the time to think about the future. I am sure that hybrid learning – the idea to create different ways for the adults to learn together – will remain. Thus, in this respect, it is the responsibility of all of us to create learning settings which foster inclusion. 

Other content on the platform that may be of interest is Learning Through Lockdown – Moving Online blog post by Fiona Aldridge the Digital Education and Participatory Adult Learning (DEPAL) project’s guide on participatory learning and digital storytelling.

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