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Rethinking our teaching practices in blended learning spaces
Leia C. Margate

“The World Wide Web is fast replacing the university as a repository of knowledge.

This statement is part of the context under which the narrative of “The Invisible Teacher” was made by Dr. Alexander Flor of the University of the Philippines Open University where he recognized the changing roles teachers play in education in the advent of the Internet. Anyone who fails to agree with this statement has a dangerous misapprehension of the power of the Internet over traditional institutions like schools.

The Philippines has become informatized – that is, we have transitioned into an information society. “Informatization is changing the way we teach and the nature of our educational institutions,” Flor added.

Informatization is pushing us to rethink our practices as educators.The biggest challenge for educators is their ability to adopt technology and use it to their advantage. It is hard enough to teach, let alone compete for the attention of millennial students who have grown up in this era of informatization. So why not reach them using their preferred learning space?

This article comes from a reflection on my experiences in almost 15 years of teaching at the University of the Philippines Baguio.

The library and the Net

As a fresh graduate being interviewed for a teaching post, I was gently asked by then Vice Chancellor Teofina Rapanut with a look of concern: “How would you ensure that you are not just a few chapters ahead of your students?” There was truth there, I relied mostly on books which I sourced out from the library – the same books students could read ahead of me if only they took the time to do so. The Internet did not seem a suitable resource back then, mostly because it did not offer free book contents, only summaries from pseudo-encyclopedic sources which might neither be accurate nor verifiable.

In 2004, one school in Baguio was touted in a news of being the first to have an online system to access their library resources long after UP had started using the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC). At present, the OPAC system or other variations have become so popular that you will be hard pressed to find a university that does not have one. 

Fast forward to a decade after, I still visit the library to get books I do not want to read on my computer or those that do not have an e-copy. But most of the time, I use the Internet to download the latest e-books and journals from reputable sources, made possible by university subscriptions to publishing houses and online databases. Colleagues who have amassed collections for their own e-libraries also share materials via Facebook or Google Drive. There is also LibGen or Sci-Hub for those of us who believe in open access.

Knowledge on the web is massive, you can search for practically anything and find information for free, hence libraries must adapt to cater to this form of informatization. This includes allowing more relaxing reading and discussion spaces for users; free access to wifi or to computer terminals connected to the Internet; and supplementing in-house content with free access to online journals and databases which otherwise require subscription fees like Taylor and Francis, Ebsco, Gale, and Proquest to name a few.

From dial-up to unlimited access

The transition for information sourcing from the library to the Internet did not happen in a blink.

Back in 2003, I used to buy Internet cards, it gives you a number to call and a password which you type after the familiar dial-up modem sound. What did I download back then? Cliparts, the free ones, simple enough to be printed on acetate sheets for my lectures using the bulky overhead projector, which I had to lug to my classrooms.

Then came the advent of the LCD projector. This, however, came in handy only for those who had a laptop. I eventually received a second-hand laptop, thanks to my sister who wanted to help me improve my teaching abilities. I switched to Powerpoint (PPT), thus, I needed to download PPT templates, colored pictures, as well as clipart animations for my lectures. The problem was the college only had two pieces of LCD projectors back then, you would have to reserve it two weeks ahead if you want to be able to use it, and pray to the heavens the gadget wouldn’t break down during your class lest you be accused of mishandling it and be accountable for repair.

Eventually we were able to have better and almost unlimited access to the Internet in school. This allowed for the exploration of other uses of the Internet. It was also then that I started downloading readings and researching materials for my classes, more updated ones than the books we had at the library. This helped with teaching content a lot, but I had to be careful that the content was accurate and the latest there was. In the next few years the university made it a priority to upgrade Internet access and availability of computers and other gadgets for the faculty and students alike. This included shifting the regular registration procedure to an online procedure to avoid long lines during enrollments; shifting from a manual form of grade submission to online submission; and shifting from paper memos to emails in order to communicate important announcements. At present, there are only a few transactions that do not have an online counterpart.

Opportunities for blended learning

Blended learning, in one definition, refers to the mixture of traditional pedagogy with computer mediated education.

Yahoogroups became the first blended teaching space I used for some of my classes. It was a site where we could share materials and announcements via group email. The primary advantage was that it was paperless. I did not have to print reams of readings for my students to photocopy. Students could send their work to me via email, but I would need to download individual files for grading. This tended to be more tasking compared to receiving print outs of their work. The other disadvantage was that some students do not check their emails regularly. Yahoogroups was useful for a few years until Facebook offered a better option.

Facebook was at first regulated in UP Baguio. This meant limited hours of access to those connected on the Internet in campus. When the excitement of setting up an account, adding as much contacts as possible, and playing Farmville had worn off, Facebook was seen for its value in education. The campus regulation making FB available only at lunch time or after 5 p.m. was lifted. More faculty started using it for their classes for its FB groups function, the ease of access, and its Messenger function. Students are easier to reach in FB, they respond almost immediately, thanks to free data or free wifi. The informal setting also allows for better communication.

Students volunteer to create FB groups for their classes since they already have contacts with almost everyone in their batch. These groups are used for announcements, file sharing, discussions, and consultation. For some of my classes, part of their output would be to publish their work online.They use FB to generate traffic and readership to their websites as feedback in the form of comments is included in the rubric.

Google classroom

Just this semester, I was taught how to use “Google classroom” by our youngest and far more techie faculty member, James Beltran. This he learned as a result of the formal training conducted by the UPOU on Blended Learning. I boasted of having made the transition, feeling so millennial and technologically advanced! But, in reality, it took me another three weeks to learn how to open a classroom, upload files for sharing, make announcements, and make an assignment bin complete with a ticking clock to indicate deadlines.

According to its website, Google classroom “is a free web service for schools, non-profits, and anyone with a personal Google account. Classroom makes it easy for learners and instructors to connect – inside and outside of schools. Google classroom is available for free for schools that are using Google apps for education.”

Anyone with a Gmail account could set up a classroom but we were urged to use our school-based accounts. I invited my students to register in the classroom using a particular password for each of my subjects. Students can access the classroom using their Gmail accounts. This works because UP provides adequate computer units at the library. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, and pocket wifi also allow students to access their Classroom anywhere.

Learning materials, files, and links to online references are uploaded on Google classroom. To reinforce announcements, I would repost them in Facebook, either on groups or just on my wall where I don’t have to worry about the announcement spreading like wildfire to the students.

The downside is you must prepare every material beforehand, so instead of a lecture you prepare a presentation that looks like a lecture and allows for interactivity on the part of the learner. This takes more time than to conduct a traditional lecture in person.

Dr. Flor says this was in fact their experience in UPOU when they shifted classes to the open source Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment (MOODLE). The faculty acting as facilitator and learning coordinator has to prepare almost 70 percent of the work before the semester starts and upload all this in the learning site. He said that meant shifting from being an instructor to a course developer and instructional materials designer.

But the benefits of Google classroom outweigh the time and labor-intensive preparation on the part of the teacher.

Google Classroom came in handy when I had to work from home for more than a week because my daughter had chicken pox. I couldn’t meet my students in person, but the classroom still allowed me to teach.

It is paperless. Assignments can be submitted in PDF or Word format unless I require a print out to facilitate faster editing and commenting as I handle journalism classes. I also have the option of downloading the files sent to me and using MS Word, make my comments and editing marks in TRK changes and return the assignment to the student via the Google Classroom.

Assignment bins allow for easier submission. Students can send assignments any time before the deadline which I usually set until 11:59 pm. They need not show up in the faculty room or look for me just to submit their assignments or even have the excuse of misplaced or lost assignments.

Lastly, I can grade student’s work online, send them feedback, contact them as soon as they pass their work. I already see in the bin which student has submitted, which has not, which one was late, etc.

While Google classroom holds much possibilities as a blended teaching space, I still meet my classes most of the time for lectures, discussions, and exams.

The Internet will undoubtedly continue to provide us more learning and teaching opportunities. Constantly rethinking our teaching practices could help us adapt to this dynamic blended learning space.
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