Blended Lives, Blended Learning

People live blended lives, which is to say that their lives have an online component. “Blended Learning” similarly designates teaching and learning models that utilise online methods and environments to “meet people where they are” and to make learning opportunities available to a wider constituency.

Blended Learning has been happening in our classrooms and churches ever since it was recognised that “chalk and talk” was not the one size that fits all. Similarly, the Equipping the Saints report to General Assembly 2004 explicitly recognised that an important challenge to faithful discipleship is to integrate the different lives we live in different contexts: church, home, work, community etc.

“Offline learning” refers to the traditional variety of learning in all its richness: small groups, lectures, participatory exercises, use of books and physical materials. The emergence of eLearning has transformed the educational picture through its capacity to deliver learning opportunities that are not geographically constrained and utilise a wide variety of media: video, sound files, online interaction etc. Blended Learning, as a technical term in this context, refers to emerging models of learning provision aiming to provide an integrated blend of eLearning and offline learning. These are designed to supplement one another in order to deliver effective, attractive learning opportunities.

This Blended Learning Task Group report employs the notion of Digital Discipleship to utilise Blended Learning to resource the United Reformed Church’s commitment to missional discipleship.

Recommendations

1.
We recommend that the United Reformed Church commits to equipping itself for the digital age, by taking good practice seriously and investing in enough capacity to do it excellently.

The United Reformed Church shows interest in being equipped for the digital age. The Blended Learning Task Group’s review of online learning has revealed an extensive use of online material in the URC, yet there is not a consistent approach to its use and purpose. Colleague denominations show a similar use of online material, from the very interactive to the equivalent of online brochures. However, there is enormous potential to engage in the wider digital world, not as an alternative to previous ways of interaction, but as a further layer of meaningful engagement for formal and informal learning.

What is needed is a thorough strategic overview approach, capturing good practice, building new connections, and challenging ourselves theologically and technologically to embrace critically the complexity of digital life. The Blended Learning Task Group affirms that “It’s not that [e-learning] is cool, cheaper, or easier, but that it can result in better learning and formation” (D Stoutt, CODEC). We can no longer do the minimum; our fractured world needs the best the URC can offer in expertise and information.

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2.

A. We recommend that the Education & Learning Committee establishes a series of online conversations towards discerning Reformed theological perspectives within the digital age.

B. We recommend that the Education & Learning Committee actively engages with the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology as a primary ecumenical partner for exploring the theology and practice of the digital age.

In order to develop a particularly URC focus upon faithfulness in the digital age the Blended Learning Task Group has continued to explore current trends, thinking and resources. We have been attentive to the realities of time, people, skills and money to take matters forward. We have engaged with some of the dynamic ecumenical and academic work already under way in this field. All of this brings us to these two connected recommendations.

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3.
A. We recommend that the United Reformed Church makes a significant investment in building its capacity for online learning through the identification and networking of digital champions, in collaboration with Synods and the Assembly Communications Committee.

B. In order to achieve this, we recommend that the Education & Learning Committee, in consultation with other Assembly Committees explores the possibility of creating a post of Online Learning Enabler.

We need to build capacity both in resourcing people for learning in the digital age, and in procuring robust, professionally built and supported technologies on which to provide the online elements of blended learning. We look to the development of a network of ‘digital champions’ within the denomination. However, whilst there is capability within the United Reformed Church, our current structures do not yet provide sufficient capacity for development. Our assessment is that the potential in this area will not be realised without the appointment of a dedicated staff member with the necessary professional skills.

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4.
Having looked at blended learning carefully, we recommend that the Education & Learning Committee offers the following framework for the URC’s engagement in all forms of learning, and advocates its dissemination for wider discussions.

United Reformed Church Blended Learning Framework

For further details of the Blended Learning Framework recommended for adoption by Education & Learning Committee on behalf of the denomination, along with a set of questions to guide its use, click “Read More” below.

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5.
A. We recommend that the learning from the BLTG is forwarded, in the first instance, to:

  • Walking the Way Steering Group

  • The task group working on the successor to TLS

  • Communications Committee.

B. We recommend that the Education & Learning Committee pursue further conversation with the 20-40s Task Group drawing on material from the report.

In presenting this report digitally, the group has sought to make it accessible to other task groups and committees who are likely to pursue a blended learning approach in the achievement of their objectives. It is important to make this work available for with those groups currently working to develop material to take the church forwards. It is also vital to engage with the generations for whom digital content is already taken for granted as part of life and learning, in order both to be better able to support their spiritual life and also to learn from their wisdom.

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6.
We recommend that the Education & Learning Committee act decisively and with urgency to equip the church for learning in the digital age as soon as possible.

This is a time of opportunity which needs to be grasped; to fail to do so runs the risk of losing pace with the world around us, and for the church to appear to be increasingly an anachronism in today’s society. It is vital that education always addresses the contemporary situation, rather than a world that used to exist.

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