Blended Lives, Blended Learning

People live blended lives, which is to say that their lives have an online component. “Blended Learning” similarly designates teaching and learning models that utilise online methods and environments to “meet people where they are” and to make learning opportunities available to a wider constituency.

Blended Learning has been happening in our classrooms and churches ever since it was recognised that “chalk and talk” was not the one size that fits all. Similarly, the Equipping the Saints report to General Assembly 2004 explicitly recognised that an important challenge to faithful discipleship is to integrate the different lives we live in different contexts: church, home, work, community etc.

“Offline learning” refers to the traditional variety of learning in all its richness: small groups, lectures, participatory exercises, use of books and physical materials. The emergence of eLearning has transformed the educational picture through its capacity to deliver learning opportunities that are not geographically constrained and utilise a wide variety of media: video, sound files, online interaction etc. Blended Learning, as a technical term in this context, refers to emerging models of learning provision aiming to provide an integrated blend of eLearning and offline learning. These are designed to supplement one another in order to deliver effective, attractive learning opportunities.

This Blended Learning Task Group report employs the notion of Digital Discipleship to utilise Blended Learning to resource the United Reformed Church’s commitment to missional discipleship.


1.
We recommend that the United Reformed Church commits to equipping itself for the digital age, by taking good practice seriously and investing in enough capacity to do it excellently.

Church in the digital age

Blended Learning for Missional Disciples

Blended Learning becomes a powerful culture, tool, resource and possibility when set in the context of the URC’s mission priorities. These priorities follow a declared trajectory; an arc of aspiration.

Future Patterns of Ministry (2002) saw each Christian working out their ministry in their daily relationships and experiences. Equipping the Saints (2004) stressed the need  to resource adequately the discipleship in the world of each church member. The Training Review (2006) crafted Resource Centres for Learning and held out the challenge of shaping and fostering a learning church. Catch the Vision (2006) reshaped structures and highlighted local congregational engagement in mission resourced, amongst other things, through a renewal of spirituality. RCLs and Synods, responding to such initiatives, developed a variety of Blended Learning opportunities. The Windermere Online Festivals illustrate significant potential.

Spiritual renewal often took off through the prayer and biblical resources of Vision 4 Life (2008 onwards). Significantly, V4L attempted much digital resourcing and acknowledged difficulties in making these accessible across the URC. Subsequently local mission and discipleship has been fostered through Vision 2020 (2010 onwards). 

Read more: Recommendation 1

2.

A. We recommend that the Education & Learning Committee establishes a series of online conversations towards discerning Reformed theological perspectives within the digital age.

Reformed Theology for the digital age

There are particular traditions and insights that we would want to bring as a Reformed church to any discussion of digital discipleship. Some of the key issues for us could well include:

  • fostering fruitful inclusion across generations and contexts given that access to the digital world is not universal, or universally affirmed;
  • relating our DNA of conciliar governance to a digital world of meetings and encounters;
  • exploring how the value for face-to-face encounter in mission and ministry connects with a digital realm of encounters;
  • examining how our theological language relates to the online multiplicity of language and expression.

Whilst we have wondered about generating a physical gathering, hosted through an RCL, as a means of exploring such matters, a more experimental and relevant format has commended itself to us. 

Read more: Recommendation 2

3.

A. We recommend that the United Reformed Church makes a significant investment of resourcing in order to develop its capacity for online learning for discipleship through the identification and networking of digital champions, in collaboration with Synods and the Assembly Communications Committee.

Online Learning Enabler

In terms of resourcing people, we recommend that the denomination explores the possibility of creating a network of Digital Champions from within its membership. These would be people who would be able to mentor and encourage those less confident or familiar with using the internet to engage with the learning resources that were available and ‘get online’. As a starting point we suggest that each Synod is approached to identify one or two people with these skills who could form the initial core of a network. We can also encourage people to take advantage of locally delivered courses and resources aimed at improving digital inclusion (e.g. Digital Unite or Digital Communities Wales).

When developing the URC’s online learning presence there is scope for collaboration with the Assembly Communications Committee, and therefore conversations between appropriate staff should be pursued.

The aim of working with the Communications Committee and the Synods would be to encourage a reasonable level of digital literacy across the denomination thus providing a solid base on which to build. 

Read more: Recommendation 3

4.

Having looked at blended learning carefully, we recommend that the Education & Learning Committee offers the following framework for the URC’s engagement in all forms of learning, and advocates its dissemination for wider discussion.

 

United Reformed Church Blended Learning Framework

This page gives further details of the Blended Learning Framework recommended for adoption by Education & Learning Committee on behalf of the denomination, along with a set of questions to guide its use. 

Read more: Recommendation 4

5.

A. We recommend that the learning from the BLTG is forwarded, in the first instance, to:

  • online 200x200

    Walking the Way Steering Group

  • The task group working on the successor to TLS

  • Communications Committee

The BLTG’s report has been presented digitally so that it both models its content and purpose and can be shared widely. Our hope is that the Education & Learning Committee will commend the work and desire that it is forwarded to the places where it can do most good in terms of informing the ongoing work of enabling the discipleship of the people of God.

The Blended Learning Task Group has enjoyed its work together, learning as we go and having the privilege of being invited to spend time on exploring a fascinating and highly relevant subject. The United Reformed Church has exciting possibilities ahead of it as it seeks to define its life as missional discipleship through Walking the Way. Living the life of Jesus today. An important thread within this is to take forward the strengths of Training for Learning and Serving as it has developed over 23 years into a successor programme which starts from a 21st Century standpoint. Contemporary digital realities and expectations are part of the landscape in which both these will exist, as hinted at by the insights of a leading researcher into the church and the digital world. Therefore it is vital that the insights, experience and conclusions of the BLTG inform the work of these two new groups.

Ideally the URC will consciously integrate its online provision through its websites, internal software, and online learning platforms. Different needs and expectations require different offerings

Read more: Recommendation 5

6.

We recommend that the Education & Learning Committee act decisively and with urgency to equip the church for learning in the digital age as soon as possible.

New World New Church

There is positive flux in the URC at present, and it is important that opportunities for conversation and decision-making are grasped. These not-yet-finalised areas include:

  • Changes on the staffing of RCLs
  • Relationships between the congregational development functions of Assembly, RCLs, and Synods
  • Defining Walking the Way. Living the life of Jesus today.
  • Designing the successor to TLS
  • Discussions about the use of IT facilities in the redeveloped Church House

It is clear that the E&LC has an opportunity to move quickly through sharing the BLTG report actively and intentionally with key groups if it so chooses. A possible timeframe for this would be: 

Autumn 2016:

  • e-mails with the link to the BLTG report go to committees and individuals identified in this report.
  • BLTG report to be discussed by RCLs and relevant Assembly Committees and task groups. 
Read more: Recommendation 6