Deciding on modes of delivery

February 3, 2015 Tony Bates

This is the first of a series of five posts that look at the following:

  • deciding whether a whole course or program should be offered wholly face-to-face, as a blended course,  or wholly online
  • if a course is to be offered in a blended mode, how to decide on what’s done face-to-face, and what online.

This will form part of Chapter 10 on modes of delivery for my online textbook Teaching in a Digital Age.

Today I start by looking at the decisions instructors are now facing regarding what kind of course to offer. The following post will look at the problems in comparing delivery modes, then there will be three more posts on making decisions.

In Chapters 8 and 9, the use of media incorporated into a particular course or program was explored. In this chapter, the focus is on deciding whether a whole course or program should be offered partly or wholly online, and to what extent the course or program should be restricted to registered students or open to anyone.

Decisions, decisions

Online learning, blended learning, hybrid learning, flexible learning, open learning and distance learning are all terms that are often used inter-changeably, but there are significant differences in meaning. More importantly, these forms of education, once considered somewhat esoteric and out of the mainstream of conventional education, are increasingly taking on greater significance and in some cases becoming mainstream themselves.

We saw in Chapter 1, Section 7 that in recent years there has been:

  • major growth in the number of fully online course enrolments, now constituting almost one third of post-secondary enrolments in the USA;
  • a move towards blended learning, where on-campus students combine classroom or lab teaching with online work;
  • the development of the flipped classroom, where students study a video recorded lecture online then come to class for interaction with instructors and teaching assistants.
  • growing interest in developing and delivering MOOCs, which are open to anyone but do not directly lead to specific qualifications other than a badge or certificate
  • growing availability of open educational resources and open textbooks.

These developments open up a whole new range of decisions for instructors. Every instructor now needs to decide:

  • what kind of course or program should I be offering?
  • what factors should influence this decision?
  • what is the role of classroom teaching when students can now increasingly study most things online?
  • if content is increasingly open and free, how does that affect my role as an instructor?
  • when should I create my own material and when should I use open resources?
  • should I open up my teaching to anyone, and if so, under what circumstances?

Each of these questions will be addressed in this chapter.

The continuum of technology-based learning

We saw in Chapter 1, Section 7 that there is a variety of ways in which online learning is being used in education, and as teachers and instructors become more familiar and confident with online learning and new technologies, we will see more innovative methods developing all the time. At the time of writing though it is possible to identify at least the following modes of delivery:

  • classroom teaching with no technology at all (which is very rare these days).
  • blended learning, which encompasses a wide variety of designs, including:
    • technology-enhanced learning, or technology used as classroom aids; a typical example would be the use of Powerpoint slides and/or clickers
    • the use of a learning management system to support classroom teaching, for storing learning materials, set readings and perhaps online discussion
    • the use of lecture capture for flipped classrooms
    • one semester on a residential-type campus and two semesters online (the Royal Roads University model)
    • a shortened time on campus spent on campus hands-on experience or training preceded or followed by a concentrated time spent studying online (an example is apprenticeship training for mature students at Vancouver Community College, or what UBC calls the compressed classroom experience)
    • hybrid or flexible learning requiring the redesign of teaching so that students can do the majority of their learning online, coming to campus only for very specific face-to-face teaching, such as lab or hands-on practical work, that cannot be done satisfactorily online (for examples, see below.)
  • fully online learning with no classroom or on-campus teaching, which is one form of distance education, including:
    • courses for credit, which will usually cover the same content, skills and assessment as a campus-based version,
    • non-credit courses offered only online, such as courses for continuing professional education.
    • fully open courses, such as MOOCs
    • open educational resources, which either instructors or students can access to support teaching and learning

There is an important development within blended learning that deserves special mention, and that is the total re-design of campus-based classes that takes greater advantage of the potential of technology, which I call hybrid learning, with online learning combined with focused small group face-to-face interactions or mixing online and physical lab experiences. In such designs, the amount of face-to-face contact time is usually reduced, for instance from three classes a week to one, to allow more time for students to study online.

In hybrid learning the whole learning experience is re-designed, with a transformation of teaching on campus built around the use of technology. For instance:

  • Carol Twigg at the National Center for Academic Transformation has for many years worked with universities and colleges to redesign usually large lecture courses programs to improve learning and reduce costs through the use technology. This program has been running successfully since 1999.
  • Virginia Tech many years ago created a successful program for first and second year math teaching built around 24 x 7 computer-assisted learning supported by ‘roving’ instructors and teaching assistants (Robinson and Moore, 2006).
  • The University of British Columbia launched in 2013 what it calls a flexible learning initiative focused on developing, delivering, and evaluating learning experiences that promote effective and dramatic improvements in student achievement. Flexible learning enables pedagogical and logistical flexibility so that students have more choice in their learning opportunities, including when, where, and what they want to learn.

Thus there is a continuum of technology-based learning:


Figure 10.1.2 The continuum of technology-based teaching

Figure 10.2 The continuum of technology-based teaching


 (adapted from Bates and Poole, 2003)

Thus ‘blended learning’ can mean minimal rethinking or redesign of classroom teaching, such as the use of classroom aids, or complete redesign as in flexibly designed courses, which aim to identify the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching, with online learning providing flexible access for the rest of the learning.

Over to you

Other than recognising the increasingly significant choices that instructors now need to make regarding the design of courses, and particularly the range of blended learning designs that are emerging, there is nothing particularly new or challenging in this section, but it is necessary as preparation for what comes. However:

1. Is this classification of different modes of delivery helpful? If not how would you do it?

2. How is it decided in your institution whether a course is to be blended or online? Is this the personal choice of the instructor, is it a program decision or does the institution decide? What are the guidelines or criteria for making this decision?

3. I know the U of Ottawa and UBC have institutional plans for ‘flexible’ learning/blended learning. Any others? How are they going?

Next up

A real beauty: comparing delivery modes.

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