Blended learning

Blended learning is commonly defined as the combination of traditional face-to-face instruction with online instruction (Bonk & Graham, 2012). It is used in exchange with terms such as integrated, flexible, mixed mode, multi-mode or hybrid learning (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004). Its advantages are apparent, which lies in the combination of merits from both traditional and online approaches. Specifically, the online component of blended learning can allow students to learn anytime and anywhere according to their plan, while classroom activities will provide teacher’s instruction and interaction between peers, which will remedy the absence of group feeling and solve the problem of loneliness in online learning. It is described as a flexible, scalable, active, encouraging, inspiring, active and meaningful way of teaching and learning, and likely to be developed as the leading teaching approach in the twenty-first century (Poon, 2014). Broad view treats blended learning from pedagogical aspect as the combination of different didactic approaches, such as cooperative learning, discovery expository, presentations, and delivery methods, such as personal communication, broadcasting etc. (Graham et al., 2013). When we design and implement BL mode, there exist some challenges. Chen and Yao (2016) use univariate regression analysis to achieve six dimensions which will affect the learners’ satisfaction in blended learning environment, i.e. learner, instructor, course, technology, design and environment. Boelens et al. (2017) proposed four challenges the BL brings with it, namely, incorporating flexibility, stimulating interaction, facilitating students’ learning processes and fostering an affective learning climate. Sahni (2019) categorize the challenges into three aspects of instructors, students and the technical support. Other studies indicate some salient impacting factors, for instance, teachers’ presence in online settings, interactions between students, teachers and content, and deliberate connections between online and offline activities and between campus-related and practice-related activities (Nortvig et al., 2018). All in all, it is highly believed that successful blended learning requires a structured process for designing an effective blend, being rigorous in needs analysis, involving students with appropriate skills and bearing in the mind the organization’s constraints.

Blended learning has also been the focus of ESL/EFL researchers and teachers. Studies show that the blended learning approach can provide many benefits to language learners over traditional teaching approaches, for example, developing language learners’ autonomy, providing more individualized language support, promoting collaborative learning, increasing students’ interaction and engagement, providing opportunities to practice the language beyond the class setting and improving the language skills (Marsh, 2012). Sharma and Barrett (2007) regards that the factors which influence the implementation of blended learning in EFL include teachers’ positive or negative attitudes towards technology use, learners’ proficiency levels, teachers’ training, teachers’ and students’ accessibility to technology, and cost. The related results demonstrate blended learning’s significance in three aspects. First, it is on the relationship between blended learning and students’ performance. For instance, Zhang and Zhu (2018) collect a large database and analyze the students’ variables (gender, grade and knowledge domain), the different learning mode and student performance in both blended learning mode and traditional face-to-face learning mode. The results show that students in blended learning had better academic achievement in their ESL course compared to students in traditional face-to-face learning mode. Ghazizadeh and Fatemipour (2017) design a quasi-experiment to explore the effect of blended learning on the reading proficiency of Iranian EFL learners. The results indicate that the proficiency of reading in blended learning mode is significantly better than that in conventional classroom instruction. Second, it is the students’ attitudes towards blended learning. Akbarov et al. (2018) investigate the students’ attitudes towards blended learning and related concepts. The study revealed that students prefer blended learning to traditional classroom in EFL context. Third, it is on the performance and attitudes. In the study of Banditvilai (2016), blended learning of an English for Specific Purpose (ESP) course in Thailand is focused. The achievements and attitudes in both control group and the experimental group have been compared. The findings show that online practice is directly beneficial to enhance the language skills’ learning as well as autonomous learning and learner motivation. Forth, it is on the learning process and motivation. Liu (2013) studied an Academic English Writing course in blended learning mode. The results show that the students benefit from blended learning, which increases student–student and student–teacher interaction, reduces or even eliminates the communication anxiety, motivates them to become more independent and autonomous learners and enhances their academic writing ability, etc. Although the advantages of blended learning in EFL have been proved by enormous studies, the obstacles of designing and implementing blended learning in EFL cannot disappear. All these issues, such as time management, internet access, re-designing the curriculum to meet the students’ need, students’ participation and students’ self-regulation and learning styles, should be carefully considered if higher achievement and richer student learning experience are expected.

Engagement in blended learning

Helping students engage in learning is an important issue for research in instructional technology (Henrie et al., 2015a, b). Most of the articles reviewed did not have a clear definition statement for engagement (Henrie et al., 2015a, b). Although there has never been a consistent conception on student engagement, researchers agree that engagement is a multi-dimensional and complex concept, which includes two or three distinct sub-constructs, evidenced through a range of indicators. Among them, two common and basic sub-constructs, emotional engagement and cognitive engagement, have been emphasized as crucial and most relevant to blended learning (Halverson & Graham, 2019). Emotional engagement is defined as the emotional response when students are facing the learning tasks, context, peers or instructors, such as belonging, interests, happiness, boredom, etc. It could be both positive and negative reactions. Cognitive engagement is the students’ psychological investment in tasks to comprehend and master content, such as meta-cognitive strategies, preference to challenges, self-regulation skills, etc. (Fredricks et al., 2004; Manwaring et al., 2017). And the crucial factors closely related with study achievement are still emotional engagement and cognitive engagement. It is also the reason why in this study we focus on emotional engagement and cognitive engagement in blended learning environment.

Some factors which could influence the students’ engagement have been found. Hospel and Galand (2016) carries out a study within the framework of self-determination theory and found the main effects and interaction of autonomy support and structure on the different dimensions of engagement. The results also stress the complementary role of autonomy support which is closely associated with emotional engagement. Patall et al. (2016) studied the diaries of high school students in 43 science classes. Multilevel modelling results daily and cumulative interest during class predicted behavioral engagement, cognitive engagement and agentic engagement. Manwaring et al. (2017) applied intensive longitudinal methodology to collect data from students throughout a semester and the results showed that the course design and student perception variables had a greater influence on engagement than individual student characteristics and student multitasking had a strong negative influence on engagement. Students’ perception of the activity importance had a strong positive influence on both cognitive and emotional engagement. Ben-Eliyahu et al. (2018) found that in school settings, self-efficacy was negatively related and mastery goals were positively related to affective engagement and overall engagement predicted all forms of motivation. From these studies, we can summarize the factors into extravert and introvert aspects. The former one focuses on the students’ learning characteristics, such as their interests, motivation, self-efficacy on engagement. The latter one concentrates on the course design, teachers’ roles and technical support.

Further, measurement of student engagement is crucial because design of instruction needs good evaluation of the efficacy of instructional intervention. However, students’ engagement is considered to be malleable and it is not stable across learning situations and school subjects, its measurement is always be the difficult point for researchers. The literature review shows that most of existing studies use quantitative self-report, for example, surveys, scales, or questionnaire. Other methods include qualitative measure (such as interview and discourse analysis), quantitative observational measures (such as number of assignments turned in) and bio-physiological sensors (such as eyes movement tracking) (Henrie et al., 2015a, b). Among these measure methods, each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, quantitative self-report can be easily to be distributed, useful for self-perception and less observable engagement indicators, but may be tedious if frequent repeated measures are necessary and it could be intrusive for the class time. And interview can enable the data gathering without disrupting learning, but it is difficult to scale it. Thus, mixed research methods which could combine advantages from different methods are suggested by some researchers, in particular for engagement research in blended learning where two learning channels exist. In this study, we will use both questionnaires and interviews to collect data. Many instruments have been developed to investigate the students’ engagement on school and course level, but little has been done on the activity-level. Sinatra et al. (2015) recommend that the instrumentation should be considered on a grain-size continuum, ranging from a person-centered to a context-centered orientation for clarifying measurement issues. Because of the inherit characteristics of malleability of engagement, it is important to gain an insight into the real-time engagement from students at activity level, which is the direct motivation for this study.

Blended learning method and students’ engagement have closely relationships. Researchers propose that one reason why blended learning is becoming popular is the perception that blended learning can increase student engagement (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004). More and more studies focus on student engagement in blended learning environment. Delialioğlu (2012) designed, implemented and compared a lecture-based blended learning and a problem-based blended learning. Repeated measure ANOVA analysis on data revealed that the indicators of student engagement were significantly higher in the problem-based blended learning than that in lecture-based blended learning. Regression analysis showed that the difference in active learning is due to the learning environment provided in the problem-based blended learning. Henrie et al. (2015a, b) collected both self-report and observational data to explore the change of engagement over time at the course level and between students and identify patterns and influences of student engagement in a blended course. The results indicate that clarity of instruction and relevance of activities influenced student satisfaction more than the medium of instruction. Sahni (2019) collect such multiple source data as focus-group interviews, student surveys and LMS records. The results show that the students in blended learning group outperform in the aspects of outcome achievement and overall engagement with online activities as well as in class activities. Halverson and Graham (2019) present a framework for engagement in blended learning environment. The factors influencing the cognitive engagement cover attention, effort, time on task, cog/meta-cognitive strategies, deep concentration/absorption, or individual interest and curiosity. For emotional engagement, it covers enjoyment, happiness and confidence for positive side, and boredom, frustration and anxiety for negative side, and confusion between positive side and negative side. Li et al. (2021) prove that face-to-face class attendance has positive correlation with virtual learning engagement and the face-to-face class attendance and virtual learning engagement both have positive correlation with academic performance.

Although studies prove that engagement is crucial for students to gain new skills and knowledge, however, it has always been problems in blended learning implementation (Ma’arop & Embi, 2016). Two factors should be in focus, i.e. the characteristics of learners and the learning platform or social medium devices. Tay (2016) found that designers of blended professional development courses should bear in mind the characteristics of both the learner and the online platform to achieve greater cognitive, behavioral and social engagement. Bo et al. (2020) use the questionnaire to examine the relationship between students’ perception of blended learning platform and course satisfaction based on engagement. Their results indicate that satisfaction in blended learning mode is influenced by emotional engagement and perceived playfulness of blended learning platform. Meanwhile, platform’s perceived usefulness has a stronger direct influence on students’ cognitive and emotional engagement in blended learning. Bedenlier et al. (2020) reviewed 42 peer-received arts and humanities articles published from 2007 to 2016. The results indicate that educational technology in blended learning supports student engagement. Blogs, mobile learning and assessment tools were the most effective at promoting engagement.

From the previous studies, we can summarize that the researchers’ interest of engagement in blended learning is on the course level, exploring the actors which will influence the level of engagement. However, the activities are the core element in a course and the engagement, as a situation property, will change according to the context. It is significant to explore the factors on activity level which will affect students’ engagement and provide meaningful suggestions for efficient activity design.

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