A Prospect for Blended Learning in Croatian Academic Institutions / H3
Academic institutions in Europe and the United States currently provide hundreds of courses in diverse subject areas <http://www.worldwidelearn.com/>. A review of trends in distant education outlined several important changes in the academic learning environments (Howell et al., 2003):
Even though online education has been evolving for more than a decade, by the year 2004 there were less than a hundred courses in Croatian academic institutions with online learning content <http://www.mzos.hr/virtus/>, but only several of them had interactive and more advanced e-learning elements and none are known that were fully delivered online. Development of on-line courses can be more profitable than education in the physical environment when a large number of students are enrolled in a time span of more than one or two years (see: Bates, 2004). However, for a more widespread application of e-learning in Croatian academic institutions two problems may be of significant importance. First, because of the economic environment there may be insufficient funding for the extensive development of courses that are fully delivered online (including compensation and reward for academic staff). Second, most quality e-learning courses go beyond text-only type of learning content, simplistic use of courseware and solutions that do not pay much attention to instructional design methods. Quality online education should include advanced multimedia elements and sophisticated pedagogy to enhance the attractiveness and effectiveness of e-learning experiences. However, such courses would need (a) highly educated academic staff with motivation and skill to develop them, or (b) support teams for academic staff, for instance in university centers for advancement of teaching and learning, that would provide help in planning, instructional and multimedia design, and also in the utilization of information, communication, and educational technology.
Even if the academic institutions would find resources to overcome the funding problem, it is highly unlikely that a sufficient number of support teams would be constituted to help the development of a substantial number of e-learning courses in the period of next several years. Still, some support is provided by the Croatian Academic Research Network – CARNet with its Pilot projects, Educational projects, and Reference centers for e-learning <http://www.carnet.hr/projects>.
There are numerous advantages of e-learning in comparison with traditional academic education, but the weaknesses of online course delivery should also be taken into consideration before deciding to entirely switch to the Internet as an educational medium (Illinois Online Network, 2003). Online courses enable education "any time, any place and at any pace", with easy access to resources, as well as a potential for student centered and creative education. But the potential weaknesses are equally challenging: lack of access and limitations of technology, as well as insufficient computer literacy of students; students need to be self-disciplined, well organized and motivated; lack of facilitator skill and experience; problems with courses that are not transferable online; inadequate instructional design and curriculum development.
Some of the programs commonly used in an on-line course are (see: McVay Lynch, 2002): e-mail and/or mailing lists, web pages, user authentication and student tracking, discussion board or forum, chat room, whiteboard, student and teacher file management, computer aided assessment tools, course management system (CMS) etc. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that members of the academic faculty may find it difficult to implement on their own many of the listed technologies. Furthermore, numerous offline teaching and learning strategies may be transformed to make use of the diverse ICT and e-learning technologies (Daniels, 2001): lectures, seminars, tutorials, discussions, demonstrations, workshops, group/individual mentoring, assignment feedback, motivating, evaluating, counseling, advising etc. Still, to implement and/or perform more than a few of such activities online may be a time consuming and overwhelming task for individual faculty members.
Briefly, the motivation for developing online course material is related to the demand and expectations of students, as well as to the potential for creative and student-centered education. Contrastingly, the obstacles can be found in insufficient funding, institutional resistance to change and inadequate technical/pedagogical support, lack of faculty motivation and competence, and also insufficient computer literacy of students and their inability to access the Internet.
Blended or "hybrid" learning could be a favorable means for implementing e-learning solutions in the Croatian academic environment. This approach combines best practices of both traditional and online education having in mind the following factors: specific attributes of course content; available resources; level of faculty competence do develop online educational material; instructional design models; number of students and their readiness to access, adopt and effectively utilize online course material. Studies have demonstrated that blended learning can overcome the gap between traditional and e-learning solutions, and also surpass both of those approaches in effectiveness and student satisfaction (for example, see: Riffee, 2003). There are diverse models for blended learning (Valiathan, 2002) and strategies for its implementation (Rossett et al., 2003). It may be opportune for Croatian faculty to set e-learning goals close to the concept of blended learning and develop online educational material that meets the following criteria: is complementary to their offline educational activities; is best suitable to course content; is time and cost effective having in mind the available resources; is in concordance with at least some of the expectations, needs and competencies of students; is not in conflict with copyright policies; will not be outdated too soon; is flexible enough to fit well within a curriculum that usually changes every several years.
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Goran Bubaš is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Organization and Informatics in Varaždin. His main areas of research and professional work are Internet communication, business and interpersonal communication, and e-learning.
Dragutin Kermek is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Organization and Informatics in Varaždin. His main areas of research and professional work are e-learning technologies, learning management systems, web programming, object-oriented programming, and operation systems.
Goran Bubaš and Dragutin Kermek have published and presented numerous papers on Internet communication, Internet technology and e-learning. They are currently working on a CARNet project "Reference centre for pedagogy and communication in e-learning" <http://www.carnet.hr/referalni/obrazovni/mkod>