Where is the new blended learning? Whispering corners of the forum

with thanks to Mary Deane for reading and suggesting many improvements.

Introduction: the future is now

Where is the new blended learning? Looking back to 2005, when BeJLT published “Blended Learning Landscapes” by Richard Francis and John Raftery, we see an image of the future (today) as envisaged from the past, some nine years ago. As often occurs, the image it paints may appear slightly anachronistic from the present. Yet much of that vision from 2005 has been realised in both physical and virtual space. At the recent Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference, the closing panel identified the most significant developments of the past five years as being the new John Henry Brookes Building (JHBB) and the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), Moodle. On the one hand this is a tribute to the prescience of that 2005 article. We have a grand new space where:

distinctions between face-to-face and online working, between ‘conventional’ and e-learning become blurred. [And social learning is] aided by regular intakes of drinks and snacks and mobile phone conversations (Francis and Raftery 2005).

This short paper is written in this new space, in the Forum, teaching rooms, library and corridors of the JHBB, drinking coffee, eating, walking, talking face to face and on the phone, and writing synchronously and asynchronously in a shared document. It is an attempt to both record and provoke discussion about the new blended learning using the idea of space: space to think and space to learn.

In the paper we look briefly at the changing context of this institution: physical as well as organisational. Education more widely is changing and so is the Internet. We argue that we are as much at the end of an era as we are on the cusp of a new one. To do this we draw on understandings of this space-between, which have been charted in writings on heterotopia (Foucault 1984), and the third space (Bhabha 2004). Finally, we suggest that transformational learning can only take place in these spaces-between: the spaces of coming to know. We conclude that through a new understanding of blended learning, beyond the polarities of physical and virtual, we may reclaim space for transformational learning.

This paper is not a recipe: a pinch of whiteboards, a dash of virtual learning and a cup of social media will not cook up blended learning. We believe a redefinition of blended learning is required; it is difficult to argue that the physical and virtual dimensions of the learning experience are still distinct, or in any way opposed. The discussion as to whether either is the superior learning medium has become sterile. As a form of reflective learning, the rhythm of walking and talking is only available in the physical world but, at its best, the depth and quality of asynchronous online discussion can be an equally propitious environment for activity, participation and reflection.

Blended learning is fundamentally a space-between: between the ideal and the real, between now and then in both directions; between the physical and the digital, paper and the screen, between the personal and the social, between the curriculum and life-wide learning, between our selves and all the others, between institution and teacher, between identity and community.

The changing context

The authors of the 2005 paper rightly identified the need for various groups to work collaboratively to realise the vision of flexible distributed learning (FDL):

including Estates Management, Computer Services, the Library, Student Support Services, staff developers, learning technologists, academic staff, and students (Francis and Raftery 2005).

And while there is still a way to go, Student Central, conspicuous adjacent to the Forum in JHBB, is one signal that the transactional teams in the University are working more collaboratively than before.

Absent from this list of functional groups compiled nine years ago, however, is the senior management team (SMT). In these nine years the University has been transformed by a dynamic and activist SMT. Not only has there been a major restructuring of the faculties, directorates, departments and programmes, but also an ambitious campus redevelopment scheme, of which the JHBB is a huge symbol. The extent of these changes to the institutional context was not foretold in the 2005 paper and contributes significantly to the new blended learning landscape.

In the years between the 2005 paper and now there has been a change of government and a fundamental restructuring of the higher education funding regime and of the place of private (principally corporate) enterprise in the provision of higher education. Always important, the role of employment has assumed even greater magnitude in both students’ as well as in institutional and political aims.

Similarly, since the Francis and Raftery paper was written, the landscape of the virtual world has altered beyond recognition. In 2005 smartphone connectivity was in its infancy, the iPhone still two years away, and Mark Zuckerberg’s idea for an online social space (Facebook) for his Harvard roommates just one year old. The World Wide Web and wider Internet still felt to many like an interpersonal network shaped by the ideas and ambitions of its users, where anonymity and identity-play were still possible. In online activity there were clear distinctions between the professional and personal spheres and demarcations of ownership of and responsibility for IT infrastructure and services. “We” universities used to be the Internet. We ran the networks and the software that was used over them. University libraries could still use time-honoured methods to act as gateways to resources for learning and VLEs  were in their prime. A fundamental concept in computing, that hardware, operating systems, applications and data should be rigorously demarcated has collapsed under the influence of the iPad and its iOS operating system, Google’s Android and the virtualisation of computing infrastructures (the “cloud”).

Now the Internet for most users is Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. Google Apps for Education provide our email and calendaring services. Google Drive provides a host of collaborative tools and the use of departmental intranets for document sharing is in decline. Paperless meetings, once felt to be an impossible dream are now largely real, as managers refer to minutes, agendas and working papers on their iPads. The University’s new social media policy recognises that the personal and institutional dimensions of the social are becoming blended:

the University encourages employees to make reasonable and appropriate use of social media as part of their work, it is recognised that it is an important part of how the University communicates with its audience and allows communication and networking between staff and partners (Oxford Brookes University 2014).

The end of an era: what blended learning was

We thought, in 2005, that the models of teaching and learning were changing, that a judicious blend of face-to-face and technologically enhanced modes of learning in flexible, learner-centric spaces, would ‘transform’ the way learning would occur, enabling more flexible, active, collaborative and professionally authentic pedagogies.  A study of the undergraduate experience of blended learning commissioned by the Higher Education Academy tried to define blended learning:

there were three ways in which the term ‘blended learning’ was being used. [1]… the provision of supplementary resources for courses that are conducted along predominantly along traditional lines … [2] transformative course level practices underpinned by radical course designs… [3] students taking a holistic view of the interaction of technology and their learning, including the use of their own technologies, (Sharpe et al 2006, 2-3).

[These uses] revealed eight dimensions that embrace the possibilities of blended learning:

  1. delivery different modes (face-to-face and distance education)
  2. technology mixtures of (web based) technologies
  3. chronology synchronous and a-synchronous interventions
  4. locus practice-based vs. class-room based learning
  5. roles multi-disciplinary or professional groupings
  6. pedagogy different pedagogical approaches
  7. focus acknowledging different aims
  8. direction instructor-directed vs. autonomous or learner-directed learning. (Sharpe et al 2006, 18).

The authors of this and the Francis and Raftery (2005) article focused on guiding elearning more deeply into the curriculum, asserting confidently that “blended learning at Brookes [had already] moved beyond distribution of lecture notes via a VLE”. Yet, the appreciation of the VLE expressed by the closing plenary panel at the 2014 Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference was reserved precisely for this function. In practice, the pedagogical models have hardly changed at all. The area in which change has been most evident, and which the JHBB so emphatically underlines, is in the blending of the once largely distinct domains of “learning” and “socialising” and in the foregrounding of the transactional component of the social learning space as a “one stop shop” in Student Central.

The beginning of the new era: heterotopia and the third space

In one sense then, the JHBB and the third generation of the Brookes VLE can be seen as bridges between the vision of 2005 and a future that is continuously emergent. They mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.

In this moment, boundary definitions are imposed by working practices rather than need, with structures increasingly a product of administrative praxis and corporate brand projection: the University’s own and Starbucks et al. Professional occupancy of a building is becoming a function of service transaction and thus, as these transactions move online, diminishes. The physical location of staff not engaged in transactional services becomes fluid, their accommodation a problem.

Our new conception of blended learning is located in heterotopic (Foucault 1984), third space (Bhabha 2004), which does not privilege either the virtual or the physical, the didactic or the dialogic, the classroom or the forum, the private or the social, but recognises that the space for learning is a blend of these and more. Such blended space is where learning through activity occurs, and reflection on – and dialogue about – authentic experience happens. This is the space of both community and identity where all participants, institution, teacher and student, are co-constructors of the space itself and of the learning that occurs within it.

History – one’s own history – is crucial but sometimes the fact that we have done something for a time can stand in the way of growth and development. How can we turn our history into critical learning? Self-questioning is important. It is not always easy to ask why we did things in a certain way, but if we cannot answer that question, we may need to look at our practices afresh. In the era just beginning, everyone has a story to tell. The storytelling will combine observation with self-reporting and data analysis. The institution, in order to grow as a learning community, and individual learners, to grow in their own identity, must seek out and reflect on these stories, developing practical wisdom in the act of explaining. As the exploration begins, we seek to tell the story of the mapping of our third space and give value to the traces of occupancy.

The JHBB occupies the heterotopia of the present. A space between the utopian and the real.

We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein … defined by relations of proximity between points or elements… (Foucault 1984)

We can take heart from the fact that students are making the JHBB their own, staying longer on campus, taking advantage of everything being within easy reach, and able to make a seamless transition between the physical and virtual worlds, which the Francis & Raftery (2005) paper invoked.

As a concrete manifestation of this transitional state, the JHBB and the VLE do give the impression of containing as many gaps as defined spaces, but they are gaps within and across which to cast webs of learning and to build up layers of meaning in a learning environment in which transactional services are all to hand, and which at once crosses cultural, disciplinary and institutional boundaries, while allowing the learner to prepare themselves for the harsher realities of the outside world within protective institutional confines.

Now, space is as much about people as it is about their built and natural environment. As well as heterotopia, between the utopian and the real, there is the third space, wherein the uniqueness of each person, actor or context is a blend, or “hybrid”, resisting normalisation or cultural inscription, generating a position against all identity politics by denying privilege to any originary culture (Roberts 2011, 29). Third Space theory explicitly arises from the ambiguity of language, social antagonism and the wider patterns of social relations, metaphorised into spatiality.

[W]e should remember that it is the ‘inter’ – the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the inbetween space – that carries the burden of the meaning of culture… And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves (Bhabha 2004, p.56 emphasis in the original).

As soon as a space becomes formalised as a plan, a VLE or a building, a third space will be opened by, to and for the people who inhabit the space, the very people whom the space seeks to direct, to channel, to normalise. People will only ever partially inhabit any space and they will always occupy it to some extent on their own terms. Writings on social justice contrast hegemonic space, for example the Viceroy’s palace, with the space of the people: the whispering corners of the tavern or the bazaar. The third space is that where all sides come together in the mirror of each other, free of oppression itself, embodied in their particularity.

There is a corner of the Forum in the JHBB, on the stairs leading down from the Atrium, where the voices and sounds emanating from the people below are amplified – a whispering corner.

Blended learning: transforming teaching

There is third space in both the physical and the online world. Blended learning is what happens in that space. We suggest that the third space of blended learning is in the corridor as much as in the VLE or Snapchat, a place between the virtual and the real, whose genius loci is the teacher. Teaching is a responsible act that holds a space for learning; to be transformational it must have the confidence to accompany learners through liminal areas of disorientation and uncertainty: through heterotopia into the third space. In this sense of liminality, discomfort and uncertainty, blended learning might be seen as a threshold concept beyond those of any one discipline:

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view (Meyer and Land 2003, 1).

“Transformation”, as a name for the aim of learning, is widely used. The term emerges from a social model of identity development and activity-based learning (Vygotsky 1934, 1962, Mezirow 1990, 1997, Engeström 2001). In this tradition people experience a disorienting dilemma which leads to a deep structural shift in their world-view. The learners’ susceptibility to transformation will depend on where they are prepared to take themselves, the self-imposed boundary of risk.

Learning is making meaning. The blended learning debate has been locked in an antagonism, grudgingly accepted by two cultures, each privileging its own origins, promoting and defending its received meanings, not making new ones. Elearning enthusiasts see it as a lever to raise the profile and realise the potential of the virtual world. Traditionalists see it as a way to admit the digital minimum, while preserving face-to-face interaction. Blended learning has been addressed as mere pragmatics: a variety of techniques for increasing the availability of content to help with catching up or revision, or for extending teaching without transforming it.

If e-learning is reified as unidirectional, transmissive, computer-based learning, then any blend is bound to find greater acceptance by academics, whether this is for moving away from transmissive models of teaching or for preserving ‘pleasurable opportunities we have for face to face contact with our students’ (Stubbs and Martin, 2003, p.8). (Sharpe et al 2006, 20)

For some time, Oxford Brookes University has been working to reflect more fully a learner-centric ethos in the design of its learning spaces, virtual and physical. Significant challenges remain however. The primary one, the authors of this paper argue, is to reclaim space for teaching as an agency of transformational learning. How is authentic experience to permeate the controlled institutional environments we have described?

The JHBB is in a material sense a polyvalent space, housing social, study, support and recreational areas which interpenetrate and blend with the virtual world. In one conspicuous area, however, this blending halts, abruptly, at a fire door. Beyond this door, where the pooled teaching spaces begin, the progressive confidence of the learner-focused areas turns to conservatism. Teaching rooms have standardised dimensions, layout and technical specifications. Teaching spaces are differentiated not by discipline or even function – seminar, workshop, laboratory, small group breakout area – but simply by seating capacity.

The teaching rooms of the JHBB are liminal territories to be explored. It is perhaps appropriate that they are of pedagogically conservative design: they are for the moment tabulae rasae, erased or “reset” when each session ends. But, in the coming years this will change. The fabric of the building will become encrusted with the memories of its occupants. The pristine novelty will wear off as blu tack stains, dog-eared notices, invitations to share accomodation appear and overlay each other. New strategic priorities will emerge. New buildings will arise. A new SMT will want to stamp its mark on the space.

A similar thing is happening in online learning environments, as open learning spaces form themselves at the borders of the institution and their occupants start to leave digital traces of their presence and activity. Where once the Internet seemed a vast third space, a vast “whispering corner”, it now appears hegemonised by corporate interests. VLEs share characteristics of physical space as structured, institutional environments. They are increasingly shaped by technology-enabled administrative and quality control procedures, e.g. plagiarism deterrence, module evaluation, timetabling, progress monitoring, assignment deadline and grade communication. The space for mediation by the teacher is shrinking.

Conclusion: into unfamiliar territory

All of this is altering the trust relationship between institution, teacher and learner. In an online course, every utterance or action by staff or students may be recorded and scrutinised, to ensure that current and future learning journeys are comfortable and all-embracing, with as few travellers lost on the way as possible. Yet one of the main functions of teaching is to inspire learners to venture into unfamiliar territory, to confront the anxiety of learning, to become lost in their thoughts. Though the spaces in which these human interactions are taking place are not yet clearly denoted, the interactions themselves are real and have human dignity. The challenge now is to prevent them from being treated simply as data to be manipulated towards the construction of synthetic relationships serving the imperatives of a contingent hegemony of global corporate and financial interests, where international competition is normalised and consumer debt a virtue.

Technology is both discipline and a manifestation of disciplinarity. Digital literacy as an attribute of individual competence – the bare minimum necessary to operate in society – is giving way to responsibility to determine where and how it should be used in a disciplined way. Reclaiming space for teaching through blended learning includes reclaiming technologies as intermediate tools, rather than using them to foster inauthentic relationships with data-driven simulacra.

Perhaps it is unsurprising then, that learning is increasingly taking place outside institutional spaces, whether physical or virtual – and regardless of the location of the teacher or learner. To some extent this has always been so. Learners create their own learning environment outside, inside and in-despite of the intentions of the institution or its architects. Moves to more open forms of education, however, have opened the sluice gates; institutional learning dependent on physical or virtual structures may become submerged. Physical spaces as a central element of learning appear ever more fluid, polyvalent in their design and permeated by the digital. Through this fluid polyvalence, all spaces are revealed as spaces between: between the ideal and the real, between now and then in both directions; between the physical and the digital, paper and the screen, between the personal and the social, between the curriculum and life-wide learning, between our selves and all the others, between institution and teacher, between identity and community. The new blended learning is an embarkation point on the way to this continually emerging future and we are on the journey together.


Bhabha, H. (2004) The Location of Culture, Routledge Classics. Abingdon: Routledge.

Engeström, Y. (2001) Expansive Learning at Work: Toward an Activity Theoretical Reconceptualization, Journal of Education and Work 14 (1) pp. 133 –156

Foucault, M. (1984) Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias, foucault.info. http://foucault.info/documents/heterotopia/foucault.heterotopia.en.html accessed 13/04/2014

Francis, R., and Raftery, J. (2005) Blended Learning Landscapes, Brookes Electronic Journal of Learning and Teaching (BeJLT) 1 (3) at http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/articles/blended-learning-landscapes/ accessed 13/04/2014

Meyer, J., and Land, R. (2003) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines, Edinburgh: Universities of Edinburgh, Coventry and Durham. ETLreport4.pdf accessed 13/04/2014 from http://bit.ly/Q3JI8L

Mezirow, J. (Ed) (1990) Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning, Jossey-Bass Higher Education Series. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1997) Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice, New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 74 pp. 5-12

Oxford Brookes University (2014) Social Media Guidelines. Terms and Conditions – About Your Employment, Directorate of Human Resources at http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/hr/handbook/terms_conditions/social_media_guidelines.html accessed 13/04/2014

Roberts, G. (2011) What Do You Do with Your Community IT Centre? Life Stories, Social Action and the Third Space: A Biographical Narrative Interpretive Study of Adult Users of a Community IT Centre, PhD Thesis, Southampton, UK: University of Southampton, at http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/174235/ accessed 13/04/2014

Sharpe, R., Benfield G., Roberts, G. and Francis, R. (2006) The Undergraduate Experience of Blended E-Learning: A Review of UK Literature and Practice, York: Higher Education Academy, at http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/projects/detail/litreview/lr_2006_sharpe accessed 13/04/2014

Stubbs, M, and Martin, I. (2003) Blended Learning: One Small Step, Learning and Teaching in Action 2 (3) at http://www.celt.mmu.ac.uk/ltia/issue6/stubbsmartin.shtml accessed 13/04/2014

Vygotsky, L. (1962) Thinking and Speaking (first published as Thought and Language), Edited by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar. Lev Vygotsky Archive transcribed by Andy Blunden, Cambridge MA: MIT Press athttp://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/index.htm accessed 13/04/2014

Richard Francis

Richard Francis is Principal Learning Technologist in the Learning Resources Directorate at Oxford Brookes University and a National Teaching Fellow. He seeks to identify and promote good practice in the use of digital technologies to enhance learning and mitigate the constraints of time and location. He oversees the administration of the University’s learning management systems and co-ordinates the University-wide Learning Technologies Forum. Before joining Brookes in 1999, he taught English language and linguistics and trained teachers for twenty years in schools and universities in continental Europe and the UK.

George Roberts

George Roberts is Principal Lecturer Student Experience in Educational Development.  He has been at Oxford Brookes since 2000 and joined OCSLD in June 2006 as an Educational Developer (e-Learning). In his previous role he advised the Head of e-Learning and the Senior Management Team of the University on policy for off-campus e-learning and e-learning partnerships. He leads the MA Education (Higher Education) and teaches on the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE) as well as conducting other educational development activities: workshops and consultancies. He completed a doctorate (July 2011) at the University of Southampton on biographical narratives of adult users of a community IT centre on a large estate. He also undertakes research into the pedagogical, social and technical dimensions of e-learning nationally and internationally and is interested in the interactions between personal identity and the values and beliefs that are embedded in the artefacts of Learning Technology. George is editor of the Higher Education Journal of Learning and Teaching (HEJLT). Previously, George taught on the Open University MA course, “Language and Literacy in a Changing World”. He was on the Executive Committee of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and head of the organising committee of the ALT-C conference from 2005-2007. For 10 years before joining Brookes he was an instructional designer in the international energy industry. If you want to know more about his professional activities online:

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