With the Corona pandemic most educational institutes around the world are aware of the added value that digital learning and blended learning offer. But Blended Learning is not just a response to the pandemic. It’s here to stay. So it will be essential for educational institutes to face the challenges it brings in the upcoming academic years as well.

Digital or blended learning is more than just the distinction between classroom and online lessons. When used correctly, it can maximize the interaction between teachers, fellow students, and the learning content itself. It will also help to actively involve students.

What does blended learning mean?

“Blended learning refers to enriched, student-centered learning experiences made possible by the harmonious integration of various strategies, achieved by combining face-to-face interaction with ICT (Oliver & Trigwell, 2005).”

Thus, blended learning stands for a didactically sensible combination of learning via traditional face-to-face as well as electronic and online media, which combines the advantages of both methods. This ensures a higher quality of teaching, more social togetherness in the sense of a “Community of Inquiry” through time- and location-independent, self-controlled learning. In order to create a comprehensive, student-centered learning experience based on proven design principles, it is important to put your own courses and programs to the test and, if necessary, redesign them. According to the “Community of Inquiry Model”, online learning must take place in a learning community and reflects three important pillars:

  • Cognitive presence: processing of knowledge and learning content
  • Classroom presence: safe learning environment provided by the teacher
  • Social presence: communication with others

Fig. 1: Social Presence within the Community of Inquiry Framework

Although blended learning is often understood as face-to-face learning units alternate with digital learning methods, in this article we refer to the mix of synchronous (live) with asynchronous (on-demand) learning. But what is the most successful way to create this mix? And what role does a modern learning management system (LMS) like Canvas has? This article explains how synchronous and asynchronous learning activities can be supported with Canvas and corresponding LTI apps.

Blended learning – the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning

Good teaching design focuses on making (digital) teaching even more efficient and ensuring this through a high degree of interaction between teachers, students and the subject itself. But it is not that easy to find the perfect balance between synchronous and asynchronous activities, because both formats have their advantages and disadvantages!

Advantages and disadvantages of synchronous learning

Synchronous learning means that a group of students has a learning event at the same time. This does not necessarily mean that all participants have to be in the same place. Live webinars and meetings, as well as virtual classrooms, are also possible.

A great advantage of synchronous learning lies in the opportunities for social interaction:

  • Immediacy: Learners receive support, answers & feedback in real time
  • Communication and discussion of topics and content
  • Sharing content and experiences
  • Active exchange with each other and with the teachers

But synchronous learning has some disadvantages as well:

  • Lack of flexibility, as appointments cannot work for everyone at the same time
  • The learning pace of individuals is insufficiently taken into account
  • Learners do not have enough time to contribute themselves, to process what they have learned and to apply it in practice
  • Technical problems require advanced skills on the part of the educators
  • Different bandwidth and internet problems can lead to frustration and a decrease in learner motivation

Advantages and disadvantages of asynchronous learning

Asynchronous learning means that the students access learning content at different times and at different locations – ideally at their own pace. Examples of this are micro-learning units, web-based training, online learning platforms with forums, quizzes, pin boards, wikis, FAQs, etc. Asynchronous learning offers a number of advantages:

  • Particularly popular with students who often feel that they are under pressure in face-to-face events because they have to adjust to the speed of others
  • More time for reflection and the processing of content
  • High level of self-control and therefore a great learning effect
  • High flexibility, as learning can be done at anytime and anywhere
    Deep processing is supported: what has been learned can be processed and applied

Disadvantages of asynchronous learning:

  • Isolated learning leads to a lack of motivation and the risk of passive irrigation
  • Support and answers to questions as well as feedback are only given with a delay (if offered at all)

Fig. 2: Application example of synchronous & asynchronous learning offers

It is important that the right mix supports the student’s learning journey in the best possible way and leaves enough room for individualization and focus on the learner. The best way to do this is to mix the flexibility and convenience of asynchronous learning with the immediacy and social interaction of synchronous learning. This will have the best of both worlds: The students learn online and independently in the asynchronous learning phases, while the synchronous events, such as course meetings via video conference tools, offer space for questions and exercises for practical transfer as well as group work. This ensures that what has been learned can also be repeated and applied in the sense of deep processing. This way, new knowledge is better anchored in the memory – which increases the learning effect considerably. When developing blended learning courses and learning paths, it is important that teachers have enough flexibility to tailor their courses to their participants and that the students themselves can keep track of their courses at all times.

To use blended learning successfully in the sense of the Community of Inquiry model, we recommend the following procedure:

Cognitive presence:

  • Use the peer review principle
  • Create a virtual space for students to share ideas and collaborate, such as Miro
  • Make use of online moderated discussions, assignment feedback, and other communications
  • Develop digital, formative quizzes with automated feedback

Social presence:

  • Create a blog about progress in the discussion forum
  • Have your students create video messages and comment on each other
  • Enable peer review of tasks and assignments. They could even be mandatory
  • Create group environments in which students can work together in their ‘asynchronous time’

Presence in teaching:

  • Reflect on the teacher-learner interaction
  • Link deadlines and appointments with elements of the learning environment such as modules, quizzes and tasks
  • Give formative assessments through quizzes (practice tests) or tasks (communicate expectations in advance)

Learning management systems as enabler within education

As already mentioned, the number of possible learning activities is large, both offline and online. However, (too) many options also bring some risks: the stress of choosing the right one and a lack of clarity as well as uncontrolled and wildly mixed up learning activities can cause frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed by teachers and students. This shows the immense importance of suitable support in (further) education that enables teachers to provide proper blended teaching methods. A modern learning management systems (LMS) could offers such support: They help teachers with the preparation of content, the blended learning design for students, but also with the control of the individual learning paths by the learners themselves. There are different types of learning management systems: The advantage of an ‘all-in-one LMS’ is that it covers most basic functionalities within the core system. However, besides that these are not best-of-breed- , it’s advised to take into consideration how scalable this is. Because, when everything has to fit within one system, how suitable will this be within a decade? When will it reach its limits? For this reason we see a lot of leading universities and business schools making choices for the long term. They invest in ‘open’ technology that is ready for growth. Core platforms that don’t have set boundaries but that are actually strengthened by best-of-breed solutions. The very difference between a system and a platform. A modern LMS such as Canvas is an open system that expands the boundaries of learning by including collaboration, social learning and more through the additional integration of best-of-breed software (LTI apps). Also it grows with the needs of the institution and stays flexible. Thus using an open and flexible platform like Canvas provides even more focus on learning by supporting synchronous and asynchronous learning activities.

Fig. 3: Canvas – A digital learning ecosystem that enables seamless learning journeys

How to structure learning journeys in Canvas?

Learning paths can be created very easily in Canvas: Using modules, teachers can structure their courses and design linear learning processes in which students are navigated through the course using a clear, predetermined learning path. In each module, learning content can be created, which in turn can be structured according to day, week, chapter or topic. With the help of modules, a linear learning process can be designed that navigates students through the learning path and gives them a clear structure. It should be noted that the way in which the modules are laid out has a great influence on how the learner moves through the course materials. If the modules are pre-structured according to topics, for example, the student has to decide for him or herself when to consume which learning unit. On the one hand, this means more freedom for the learner, but it can also cause frustration.

This is of course different if the course material is arranged chronologically: the learner knows at all times what the next step is, but has less freedom in structuring his learning phases. In addition, there is also the possibility that learners can only start a certain module after the previous one has been completed. The modules themselves can easily be filled with content, such as Canvas course pages, tasks & assignments, quizzes, external links, videos or team meetings. In this way, the learning content can be more easily adapted to the learning objectives and conveniently alternated between theory, (graded) quizzes and assignments in practice, as well as collaboration.

Fig. 4: Example of a course dashboard in canvas

With the Mastery Path function in Canvas, it is possible to provide an even more individual learning path for the students. Meaning that the learning activities can be designed appropriately, depending on which results the students achieved in their assignments and the quizzes. All of this can be set in advance so that there is no additional work for the teachers during the course phase. The learners are automatically offered a personalized learning path based on their own results. The Mastery Path can be set for assignments, discussions and quizzes.

Fig. 5: Example learning path in canvas

How to support synchronous learning activities with MS Meetings Scheduler?

Fig. 6: Integration of MS Meeting Scheduler in Canvas

With the combination of Microsoft 365 and Canvas as a learning management system, educators and educational institutes can transform learning in a virtual space. Furthermore, teachers and students can benefit from a synchronous and seamless learning experience through the integration of MS Teams. Canvas serves as the basis for learning management and Microsoft 365 offers the best tools for real-time collaboration, video conferences and synchronous learning activities. In addition, the new, improved LTI app Team Meetings helps educators and students to integrate virtual meetings into the curriculum:

  • The teacher automatically schedules a course meeting by clicking on one button in Teams LTI and assigns it to the correct course
  • Teachers and students then can navigate seamlessly between course materials and MS Teams sessions
  • Teachers can also create class teams with the correct user roles in a Canvas course based on the course’s enrollment list. When creating teams, the data protection guidelines of MS Teams for administrators and for Canvas are taken into account. After the class teams have been created, teachers and students can access the class team via the Canvas course or MS Teams

What is new is that recurring or individual meetings can also be scheduled in the Canvas course and that different meeting options can also be set based on the rights management. The details of a team meeting as well as logging into the meeting also happens directly in the Canvas course via a deep link to MS Teams. In addition, not only future but also past meetings can be viewed in the Canvas course calendar – through corresponding recordings, transcripts, attendance lists and chat histories.

Fig. 7: Creation of class teams in MS Teams

How to support synchronous learning with Canvas Assignments and Quizzes in MS Teams?

Fig. 8: Canvas Assignments & Quizzes in MS Teams

With the integration of Canvas Assignments and Quizzes directly into MS Teams, a new form of learner engagement is made possible and provide an even more seamless, synchronous learning experience. For example, during the course meeting, teachers can let students work together on tasks while they take care of organizational matters and the general “flow” in the meeting. The whiteboard function allows educators to ensure a high level of interaction in the virtual classroom, while always retaining sufficient control and monitoring options. Students can use the “raise hands” function to speak and thus initiate a discussion themselves. The new “Together mode” strengthens the feeling of togetherness and enables different individual backgrounds to be set during the meeting. Breakout rooms allow individual group work and give even more room for interaction and collaboration

Asynchronous learning with the OneDrive LTI app: easy access to files

Fig. 9: OneDrive LTI-App in Canvas

OneDrive and Teams files are now even easier to access in Canvas. In this way, teachers and students can easily create, share and edit teaching materials, assignments and other course materials – all without ever having to leave Canvas. The OneDrive LTI app helps teachers and students have a more modern OneDrive experience, including built-in assignments, collaboration and grading workflows, modern OneDrive file selection and support for multiple OneDrive accounts (personal and organizational). OneNote class notebooks and Flipgrid are also available with appropriate LTI support.

Practical tips about how to use Canvas for blended learning

  • Think carefully in advance which structure is suitable for your course of study
  • Don’t set the bar too high; try to make your course a little better the longer you work with Canvas
  • First try to build up an entire module to your satisfaction before you immediately start creating your entire course
  • In Canvas, you can create learning paths for your students, in which you set conditions and requirements or let the students navigate freely through the course. What suits your students best?
  • Offer theory in a variety of ways, for example by using existing videos, recording your own Videos and / or lectures, using written texts or collecting and sharing knowledge by the students themselves
  • Use the Canvas test function, for example, to activate the students’ prior knowledge at the beginning of a new topic or to let the students test their own knowledge afterwards
  • Switch between synchronous and asynchronous activities: some tasks can take place within a class with direct feedback and interaction from a student, other tasks can be done outside of class. Then you give the learners feedback on a task you have given, for example
  • You can also use the multimedia functions to give distance learning students the opportunity to demonstrate certain skills, for example by recording a video of themselves
  • Offer multi-layered information, for example links to external sources or pages that are not included in the module overview

Do you have any questions about Blended learning, Canvas and LTI apps? We are happy to help!