Online vs. Blended Learning – Are they really that different?

Increasing curricular demands and a desire to provide meaningful and engaging instruction for my students have pressed me to review and revise both my teaching style and my teaching methods.  When I attended the Hybrid Learning Consortium Symposium in Kansas City, MO, I was ready to learn new strategies and content for blending my literature classes.   Clearly, blended learning is the new frontier and I was ready to face it.  What I was less ready for, however, was discovering that an online class was definitely in my future.  Of all the classes I teach, Literature on Trial – a public speaking intensive exploration of the intersection between law and literature – was the last class I could imagine as an online course.

It’s important that we take a quick detour and define a few terms to ensure we are all talking about the same things:

  • Asynchronous learning – typically it is considered to be anytime, anywhere, online instruction primarily used in the non-academic world. The courses are completely self-contained and non-linear in nature, meaning you can jump around rather than following a set path. In addition, asynchronous learning can be tailored to the student and relies heavily on online quizzes and assessments to track progress.
  • Synchronous learning – typically thought of as “live” learning or face-to-face (F2F) learning. Where the student is the center of asynchronous learning, everything in synchronous revolves around the teacher.  Classes are linear in nature and require that all the learners progress together. Engagement and dialog can be as important as the assessments when in a classroom.

Blended learning – Yep…both. It’s a hybrid. The Prius of learning and instruction.

At the HLC Symposium, however, I quickly discovered that using the word “online,” does not mean the entire class occurs only in front of a computer screen.  In fact, many online classes require students to engage in active learning or various other techniques that do not involve the computer – except maybe to document the work they’ve done or for class communications. The idea that an online course eliminates F2F interactions is misplaced – unless a teacher specifically designs it to avoid all interaction. F2F interaction can absolutely be required and in fact is encouraged.  Taking linear F2F materials and simply offering them online is not true asynchronous learning because students learn differently. More importantly, students need different things in order to learn.  Asynchronous learning is great … for some.  Some students, however, learn best with a live teacher and the engagement of a classroom of students. Some students love the independence and personalized training that online learning provides. Some don’t have the self-discipline or integrity to make online-learning a viable option.

Leaving the HLC Symposium, it was impressed upon me that an online class would allow me to leverage the pros of both methods and would provide the flexibility in what I offer, allowing the engagement, practice, and real-world experiences that F2F offers while also enabling development plans to be tailored to students.  Thus, affirming that an online course really is a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning.  I also understood that calling my class a “public speaking course” was something of a misnomer given that students only speak in front of 12 other students and myself – meaning there isn’t much “public” to speak of.  In an eye toward blending my classes, I certainly plan to “flip” my classes, having my students record and post their speeches online (more on that later) for comment and review, however, I learned from several online instructors, that through an “online class” there are actual means of having my students speak in front of a live audience online.

YouTube and other sites that allow anyone to communicate with the public are the norm, not the exception. Being able to communicate and effectively present oneself through electronic media is an extremely important skill for future success. With this, an entirely new audience is provided to students when they record their speeches and post them online. This creates an interactive audience (private or public depending upon the setting) that can leave comments and suggestions, which is not restricted to being in the same room at the same time as the speaker. Does a student have extra incentive to do well knowing that teachers, peers, and possibly a future employer might see this speech – or are they more motivated by their 12 classmates in the classroom?

Even better than just recording a speech and posting it online, I discovered several live broadcast tools like,, and  There is even a Facebook app for Ustream.  Most of these tools are free and they allow for a live broadcast that can be recorded for future viewing and critique; they also have the pulse-racing feature of going live to an unknown audience.

Comparing this experience with the “classroom speech” raises the following question: why don’t all public speaking classes (regardless of delivery method) have this as a requirement?

The number one online vs. blended take-away from my experience at the HLC Symposium is that, in the end, teachers are the key in either world.  Just throwing material “online” won’t do.  Courses are only as good as the teachers, and teachers who are not engaged, active, and committed to the training will lead to failure. For most, true learning requires some practice, context, and real-world experience, something only teachers are best equipped to provide.  It is the well-trained teacher who facilitates social learning, experiential training, and group work. Understanding that students need different things in order to learn, and that they still need engaged, passionate teachers is still key, regardless of whether the class is online or in the classroom.

Turning my in-class Literature on Trial public speaking course into not just a blended but also an online class may very well be a game changer.  Either way, a Prius isn’t so bad if your goal is to get from point A to B as effectively and efficiently as possible.