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Blended learning: challenges, pitfalls and successes across a range of postgraduate programmes. Siobhan Smyth, Adeline Cooney, Dympna Casey & Catherine Houghton School of Nursing and Midwifery National University of Ireland, Galway

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Blended learning: challenges, pitfalls and successes across a range of postgraduate programmes

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Blended learning: challenges, pitfalls and successes across a range of postgraduate programmes

Siobhan Smyth, Adeline Cooney,

Dympna Casey & Catherine Houghton

School of Nursing and Midwifery

National University of Ireland, Galway

Acknowledgments: National University of Ireland, Galway’s Millennium Fund


  • Goal to offer all Postgraduate Diploma/Masters programmes through blended learning from 2009/2010 (n = 18).

  • Developed and offered 29 modules in 2008/2009.

  • Some programmes fully offered through blended learning (n = 6) others a mix or no change.

  • Currently developing 31 modules which will be offered in 2009/2010.

  • On target to meet our goal of offering all programmes through blended learning.



  • Falling student numbers

  • Difficulty releasing staff

  • Attendance requirement

  • Cost effectiveness

    Seeking an approach that:

  • Increased access

  • was innovative, flexible, participatory and student centred.

  • had the capacity to effectively engage students, promote critical thinking and facilitate application of learning in practice.

Wider Context

  • The Report of the Post-Registration Nursing and Midwifery Education Review Group (HSE/Office of the Nursing Services Director 2008) sets out eight principles to guide the delivery of future post-registration programmes including: equity of access, flexibility of delivery and sustainability. The potential of e-learning and distance learning as modes of delivery are acknowledged.

  • The Learning Teaching and Assessment Strategy (2009-2011), NUI, Galway advocates the use of flexible and appropriate approaches to teaching and learning and notes the potential of technology to support student learning.

Our solution: Blended Learning

  • A blend of traditional learning methods with online learning.

  • “… the single greatest unrecognised trend in higher education today”

    (Young, 2002, President of Penn State University).

  • Our adopted definition:

    “Blended learning the thoughtful fusion of face-to-face and online learning experiences. The basic principle is that face-to-face oral communication and written communication are optimally integrated such that the strengths of each are blended into a unique learning experience…” (Garrison & Vaughan, 2007 p.5)

    Calls for a change in ‘culture’ of teaching.

Initial Questions

  • Is it appropriate for our programmes/modules?

  • What is the right blend of delivery methods to enhance learning and/or skill development?

  • Will we loose our relationship with students?

  • Will students feel isolated?

  • Does it encourage students to take an active role in learning?

  • What about the technological knowledge and skills of lecturers/students?

  • Will students have web access?

  • Is it resource intensive or resource sparing?

  • What will it cost?

Types of Blends

  • Enabling blends: focus on access and convenience.

  • Enhancing blends: supplement teaching but do not radically change the overall approach.

  • Transforming blends: transform teaching and challenge learners to “actively construct knowledge through dynamic interactions”

    (Graham, 2006)

    Graham, C. R. (2006) Blended learning systems: definition, current trends, and future directions. In: (Bonk, C. J. & Graham, C.R eds.) Handbook of Blended Learning. San Francisco, California. pp. 3-21.

Typical Format

  • Programmes comprise of six modules and three competency assessment. Modules are subdivided into two core, three specialist and one option module chosen from a menu of choices.

  • Module runs over 10 weeks.

  • Typically 4 or 5 units.

  • Each unit runs over 2 (or combination of 2 +3) weeks.

  • Working assumption of a reading week and interactive week i.e. on-line activities.

  • Required readings (maximum 3 per unit)

  • E-tivities (maximum 2 per module)

  • Workshop – 2-days per each module.

  • Assessment approach coursework, OSCE., simulated patient.

  • Distribution of marks: participation, e-tivities, assignment.


Written module:

  • ‘Vision’ – the written module should not be a ‘study guide’ i.e. read this, read the other. It should be a ‘teaching pack’ so should synopsise material, include opinions/comments, think points, challenge students to consider application for practice etc.

  • Include clear learning outcomes/ expectations.

  • User friendly, informal, short chunks of text.

  • Integrate examples/show relevance/ application.


  • Additional resources.

  • Interactive elements i.e. learning activities, discussion board, blog, podcasts, vodcasts.

  • E-tivities to build knowledge/skills.

  • Maintain a strong clinical focus.


  • Skills focused, interactive, provide opportunities to practice, student driven.


  • Watch words – transparency, consistency and clarity

  • Maximise student engagement.


Aimed to:

  • Explore students’ experience of taking a blended learning programme.

  • Explore staffs’ experience of delivering a blended learning programme.

  • Discover areas of excellence in either individual programmes or across multiple programmes.

  • Discover areas of potential improvements for either individual programmes or across multiple programmes.

  • Provide guidance for the further development and improvement of blended learning programmes.

  • Generate and share a checklist of elements essential to delivering a quality blended learning programme.

  • Develop an information resource on blended learning for students and staff.


  • Focus groups were conducted with students taking specialist programmes offered through blended learning (n = 6)

  • A total of 63 students were invited to attend and 23 participated (RR 37%)

  • Students were interviewed in their group.

  • Unfortunately, one group were unable to attend. Consequently, five focus groups were completed.

Student Demographics

Students valued the accessibility of blended learning.

They described it as ‘work friendly’, ‘flexible’ and ‘convenient’

All participants indicated it would not have been possible for them to complete the programme if it had not been offered in a blended format.

“I wouldn’t have being able to do the course if it wasn’t blended learning, it makes it accessible …” (FGB)

“I wouldn’t have being able to do this course if it’s wasn’t for blended learning. It’s twelve study leave (days) instead of thirty-two … and you know you only get five (days study leave off work)… so you have to use seven annual leave days. There was no way on earth I would have being able to do if wasn't for blended learning.” (FGC)

“It definitely opens it up to more people … (I’ve) children at home, where was I going to leave them for a day to come to Galway?” (FGD)

Accessible and Flexible

Students enjoyed having autonomy and taking responsibility for their learning.

They described feeling like ‘adult learners’.

They emphasised the importance of being organised and self-motivated.

“It’s more grown up it seems … you have to be focused, motivated and really self-disciplined, not held by the hand. That’s what I appreciate … you feel that you are doing it for yourself …”. (FGD)

“The content I thought was very directed … you (know) what you have to do, what you are supposed to achieve and how you are supposed to do it. … it’s treating you like an adult, it’s good.” (FGC)

“I think the beauty of (BL) is the amount of reading they gave us … you can make it as relevant to you as you wanted to, you know or as broad. It was up to you.” (FGB)

“It is your responsibility to learn it … Its different to college where you got a lecture and someone is there guiding you over it all, if you can’t figure it out … or can’t be bothered to find your articles then that’s your tough luck. You have to go and find your own information; you have to do it yourself. And that’s good as it gives you responsibility.” (FGD)

Autonomy and Responsibility

Structured and Clear

Students valued autonomy but also wanted clarity as to what was expected and a structure within which to work. In the main the chosen format worked for students.

“The e-tivities, however small the marks, comes around every couple of weeks, It’s important as it forces you to get something down on paper and forces you to read if nothing else, you know.” (FGD)

“In relation to the workbooks and the material given. I love (the structure) that you did this, discuss this point one and point three and you did that much then you moved onto the next bit, I loved the way the workshops were structured. I found that really good … I could have done on but and not (done something) or focused on what’s not needed.” (FGB)

“(The e-tivities) makes you think, makes you learn...

“They make you reflect on what you were doing because the questions were actually based on given articles and then reflect on your own work place. You did, you had to reflect, you could not do e-tivities without reflecting, thinking and making your comments. You learn from it as, ‘I’m not doing this or I am doing that’” (FGC)

Student reported actively engaging with the content.

Their pattern of usage was influenced by whether they were focusing on reading or contributing to the discussion board.


“I think that deadlines help … I wouldn’t be the most disciplined … you are obliged to (meet deadlines). I don’t think there was any particular harm in having a deadline. It makes you take responsibility and do it. I think (I learnt) more than other courses as I would have engaged with materials a lot more … you are constantly engaging either online or reading an article.” (FGB)

“ I think in general you do something with it (every day) even if it’s just checking your e-mails from college, or Blackboard. You might not go reading but you would check everything to see if there is anything new … it depends if there is a lot on you know with the likes of assignments you tend to (focus on that), and the computer gets left behind as you tend to focus on the articles you have to read to write your assignment.” (FGD)


Managing the Blend

Students prized social interaction, whether on-line or in workshops. Specific challenges for facilitators: managing larger groups, managing mixed groups, generating a sense of community, generating a sense of safety.

“I have to say I love the face to face lectures I tend to take in a lot more by listening as opposed to, I drift off when I am reading you know online or whatever I do take in more like that when even our discussions online, I take in more from that than reading articles.” (FGB)

“I wouldn’t like for it to be all online. I really value going in and saying “Do ye find that hard?” you know what I mean?

“I think it’s good to come in and bounce things off each other. Plus also to meet …” (FGC)

“The smaller group in the discussion board you could actually build up (a relationship) and be more specific around our area it worked very well.” (FGB)

“I think people held back (on the discussion board) and there were all ‘I agree, I agree’. There was nothing no real information coming out, people were very general and very safe.” (FGA)

Learning & Application

Students reported that they both learnt more in contrast to traditional programmes and were actively applying their learning in their practice.

“I definitely learned more. I did my degree five years ago … and maybe it's self-directed, maybe it’s because I am older and more responsible and more interested. I don’t know but I am definitely learning more and more interested. I love the layout of it. If I was to do a course I would do this rather then sitting in a room. I think because you are looking up material and you are looking up the articles rather then presented in a PowerPoint presentation it just sticks with you more and you are relating it to your practice, you know chatting to others and their experiences, you are learning all the time without realizing it you know. Because you are saying “my experience is this”. (FGB)

“It completely increases your knowledge at work … so much stuff comes together at work. Things make so much more sense … you can really see it at work. We all know more. We chat about things a bit more you know” (FGD)

“I find in particular I’m trying to apply it to practice because I am making sense in my own head. I’m actually doing it at work … you have to make your own sense of it which (means) you learn it, you really learn because you had to totally understand it. I find sometimes in a classroom again they might say to you ‘Do you get it’ and we all nod and we would not have a clue.” (FGA)


There was a settling in period or adjustment to learning this way. This was partly to do with initial anxiety about learning in a ‘new’ way, grappling with the technology and getting used to taking responsibility for their own learning.

“I suppose just going forward from doing any other courses I wouldn’t be negative with regards to Blended learning. I would be quite open to it now after this course that I wouldn’t have the preconceptions or anxiety’s that I would have prior to it. I feel quite comfortable with it now.” (FGB)

“Once I got used to the idea and did my own learning around it, it was great, I didn’t have to travel. I could do it all at home.” (FGB)

“(It was assumed) that everyone knows how to use a computer and is computer literate. I suppose that was a big issue at the start and that caused a bit of anxiety myself. I thought how am I going to manage this or cope with, now that we are looking at it from the other side it works very well and I can see how it works very well but I certainly think it would be an idea to bring people in prior to the course commencing.” (FGB)

A downside of BL was that it could take over. From an educationalist point of view this may not be a ‘downside’, in the sense it has always been expected that students work outside of class time. However, that was not how students viewed it.

Clearly, students also had to work to maintain a balance.

“It’s so invasive…

“ … at least when you are in college, you are in college and that’s it. it’s college and it’s done. Whereas when you come home from work, you come home to put on the computer, you study cancer, you read articles.

“You may not spend more time but it’s in your home time.

“… if you speak to people (who) done the course coming up here every week whatever. They literally came to the lectures and might not do anything else for the rest of the week, because you know they had their eight hours …

“They have put in the time.” (FGD)



BL had the potential to overwhelm and tire students. It was important that facilitators' considered what was a reasonable workload and reflected this in the allocation of marks. Some facilitators moved beyond the ‘norms’ set.

“… we were told initially that each unit had three of four readings max to be read per unit. The option module we had had fourteen or fifteen in one unit alone. That obviously added to the paper and the workload and made us feel hugely stressed.” (FGD)

It’s been heavy going, a lot of work especially like … all of us work, are married, families, kids the lot, its been a lot to incorporate … It’s more time consuming (than a traditional programme). You really need to be (on-line a lot), I have been on I say the least two nights a week for three hours each night but that’s organizing getting kids to be bed. (starting at) 8 o'clock ‘til 11 o’clock at night and then back up in the morning at 6 o’clock to get ready for work you know I find it quite time-consuming and tiring.” (FGC)

“.. It’s ten percent for the discussion board and the amount of work that some lecturers would ask you do for learning activities, in your mind it doesn’t equate for the percent your going to get. So you think, I have to concentrate on what my points are going to be - my essay. I am going to get the most points on that, so instead of like some learning activities they say ‘read this and this’ and then write it, it could be pages of stuff if you really did it properly.” (FGC)

Ground Rules

Students also experienced some issues in how the group used the discussion board. They expected facilitators to monitor and adjudicate on group behaviour. This was a problem in one group in particular. Others recommend the anonymity of using their student number rather than their name on Blackboard. Sometimes this was because they felt ‘silly’ asking a question.

“I personally, you feel silly sometimes asking something on the discussion board that you might think maybe I should know this. So I don’t want to ask.” (FGA)

“(Recounts an instance) It wasn’t really a discussion but it was an angry discussion ‘no you have completely taken me up wrong’ and you know it was very personal … It was uncomfortable it was too much for an internet. … the facilitator just let the group bash it out” (FGA)

“The Blackboard contribution were not what it is meant to be about. Their blackboard contributions were a little (stilted). They are learning activities and each one of them was answered as an answer, there was no discussion. Any sort of discussion was completely shot down not so much by the facilitator but by (other students). They were not into discussing anything, … it was completely ridiculous. They did not voice an opinion and they referenced every single thing they put on it. And it made us feel completely intimated.” (FGD)


A key issue for students was timely and high quality feedback. Students expectations were met by most facilitators but not by all. It was a particular problem in the larger modules.

“… we get a lot of support online. I think (facilitator) has been particularly excellent in making us feel we belong and looked after. Even through blackboard discussion it’s a continuous process, with feedback from her, so you do feel like you’re involved.” (FBD)

“I got an e-tivites result sheet and written on the bottom in the comments was "I don't know how you dealt with these issues”. End of story …” (FGC)

“… they always said you would have it back the following week but you had done your next e-tivity and you still had no results from the first. So if you had made a mistake or read it wrong in the first one it is very hard to change it on the second one if you have no feedback” (FGB).

“I found (the feedback) great and you have it there, you can review it. Its fine, I had no problems with that way.” (FGA)

“Regular prompt feedback would facilitate me and it motivates you” (FGD)


Students wanted absolute clarity regarding expectations. In the larger teams and across modules this was not always achieved.

“… for different modules we had different leaders and they were saying different things to us we did know one of our lectures said your e-tivity is 150 words, ‘that ok, I’m flexible if you go over that’ and the other one said ‘I’ll stop reading at 150 words and that’s it’ Some expectations on the discussion board were this and some were more relaxed. I don’t think it was fair on us.”

(In relation to the discussion board) some wanted just a free flowing discussion and some people said “yes that’s what we want” or “no it needs to be punctuated with references”. I suppose clarity more than anything.” (FGB)


  • Individual facilitators who students deemed approachable and facilitative.

  • Clarity regarding expectations.

  • Workshops that were practice focused and interactive.

  • Clear and timely feedback.

  • A structured apprach.

  • Retaining face-to-face teaching.

  • All groups would recommend blended learning to other colleagues.


  • Distribute core modules across both semesters.

  • Some students recommended more face-to-face time.

  • Review heavy workload in some modules or units.

  • Generate greater interaction on the discussion board.

  • Reconsider distribution of marks - not enough marks designated for the amount of work some activities entailed.

Lessons Learnt

  • Student induction.

  • Consistent approach

    • How technology is used.

    • Expectations.

    • Group norms/rules.

  • Learner workload

    • Number of e-tivities

    • Extent of reading.

    • Learning activities.

  • Shift in teaching approach/changing organisational culture.

  • Lecturer workload (must be kept realistic).

  • Timing and quality of feedback.

Other outcomes

  • Increased recruitment catchment area.

  • Increased accessibility and convenience.

  • Independent of space or time.

  • Students motivated and engaged with the content/process.

  • Initial experience quality of work better.

  • Increased depth of reflection.

  • Our comments … “steep learning curve” but “great potential”

  • Resource intensive but also resource sparing!!

Future Plans

  • Maximise potential of Blackboard

    • Wikis

    • Blogs

  • Increase interactivity/interest.

    • Videos

    • Podcasts/vodcasts

    • Simulation

  • Consider more varied assessment approaches:

    • eOSCE

    • Reflection

  • Monitor student engagement and performance.

  • Updating/other quality assurance mechanisms.

Thank you…


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