Blended learning has become a common phenomenon in higher education courses. These classes involve the normal face-to-face lessons as well as an online component that students complete on their own time. A recent study analyzed differences in student interactions between online and face-to-face conversations to determine what effective teaching and learning practices might look like in both contexts.

To do this, researchers examined one undergraduate class in China with 51 students, one professor, and one teaching assistant. The class was called New Media Research and included weekly in-person sessions and weekly online sessions using a social media tool called Baidu Post Bar, and researchers collected data from each session. In all, they analyzed 604 dialogues and 5,090 online posts. They were specifically examining group dynamics and conversation depth and patterns.

There are a few key takeaways from their findings that could prove useful for instructors and course designers. For one, there was a difference in conversational control between the two environments. In person, the class dialogue had an individual controlling pattern, meaning that one specific person (in this case the professor) was the point person for most of the conversation. Conversely, the online platform had a group controlling pattern, meaning that no one person was responsible for dialogue; instead, people exchanged responses freely with others. For another, the depth of conversation was much higher in person than online. Online exchanges tended to be more informational and matter-of-fact, but in-person discussion dove much deeper into the content by pulling out elements relevant to students’ lives and questioning the material philosophically. Finally, while group interaction was high in both environments, students participated more on the online platform and less in person.

These findings can help instructors and course designers plan a class, especially when planning which information is appropriate for online discussion and which to save for the classroom. For instance, it makes sense to have students discuss or complete assignments on the online platform that deal with straightforward information-sharing or fact memorization. As such, more in-depth, personal, and philosophical conversations can be saved for face-to-face discussion, where teachers can act as the moderator by directing conversations and keeping them safe and respectful.

The benefits of blended learning are precisely this ability to organize course material so that students can both take responsibility for their own education and use class time effectively. As blended learning continues to grow, researchers can expand on this particular study by applying it to other subjects and involving a greater number of students and teachers.

Shu, H., & Gu, X. (2018). Determining the differences between online and face-to-face student-group interactions in a blended learning course. The Internet and Higher Education, 39(1), 13–21.

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