By Thomas Cavanagh (Assistant Vice President, Distributed Learning, University of Central Florida)

Welcome to the Morning Blend, our occasional blog dedicated to exploring the many facets of blended learning. As time goes on, we hope to use this space to create a forum for ideas related to blended learning from the leading thinkers—both domestic and international—in the field.

Let’s start with the basics. What is blended learning? Quoting from elsewhere on this Blended Learning Toolkit website, “Blended courses (also known as hybrid or mixed-mode courses) are classes where a portion of the traditional face-to-face instruction is replaced by web-based online learning.”

As time goes on, we hope to unpack various models of blending courses, as well as look at some of the nuts and bolts of course construction. For now, however, let’s ask an even more fundamental question than what is blended learning, specifically, why blended learning?

As the NGLC website states, a “2006 American Council on Education study showed that 78% of undergrads worked at least part time while enrolled…These students work an average of 30 hours a week. The economic reality is that many still cannot afford to go to college full-time and when faced with juggling work and school commitments, work often wins out.”

The common mental model of the online learner is an adult, non-traditional student going back to school for a career advancement or change. He/She has work and family responsibilities that interfere with school. Such students need online learning as an essential means of educational access.

Yet, considering the ACE study cited above and observing the behavior of the “traditional” 18-24 year undergraduates here at UCF, I am wondering if the “traditional” label is even relevant anymore. Certainly such students exist. Yet, their numbers continue to decrease. Recently quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter J. Stokes, executive vice president of Eduventures, states that only about 15% of students are the typical 18-22-year-olds living in dorms. Another 15% are full-time students of the same age who live off-campus.

That means that 70% of the college-going population is “non-traditional.” And, even the traditional students want non-traditional flexibility. Students who want to be a part of Greek life or participate in intercollegiate athletics or join clubs or otherwise engage in the campus experience can more easily do so via the added flexibility of blended learning.

While gathering information in support of an article about this type of student behavior, we reported that in Fall 2010 8,827 UCF students took both face-to-face and blended classes concurrently. During that same term, approximately 2,700 UCF students took all three modalities of face-to-face, online, and blended courses at the same time.

UCF began its eLearning initiative in the mid-1990s with an exclusive focus on completely online courses and programs. However, within a year we realized that 75% of the students taking online courses were local and also taking traditional, face-to-face courses. Thus, our blended learning initiative was born and the centralized unit created to manage it was dubbed the Center for Distributed Learning (not “Distance Learning”).

What is the experience on your campus? Are you seeing the blurred boundaries of traditional vs. non-traditional and online vs. campus-based students? Feel free to comment below.