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. 

The framework is intended as a guide to anyone throughout the denomination (including those working within local churches, Synods, the Assembly committees and staff, and Resource Centres for Learning – referred to as “you” in the rest of this document) who wishes to build learning experiences for church members.  These experiences could range from formal courses with long duration, to short one-off events; could involve a wide range of people, including office holders, lay church members, interested non-members, clergy and ministerial students; and could cover a wide range of subjects. We have used the term ‘learning experience’ throughout as a neutral term to encompass many different kinds of learning, though in fact educators and learners are more likely to use terms such as course, programme, training event, away day, and so on.

The framework is built on the model of the ‘flipped classroom’ (also called ‘flipped learning’), in which “the conventional notion of classroom-based learning is inverted, so that students are introduced to the learning material before class, with classroom time then being used to deepen understanding through discussion with peers and problem-solving activities facilitated by teachers” (Higher Education Academy). However much of it is applicable to any model of educational delivery – none of this framework is set in stone, and you should feel free to adapt it and to adopt those parts which you find useful, while setting aside those which are not useful to you.

The Body of Christ: Individuals in Relationships in Community

At the heart of the framework is an incarnational theology. Our life as individuals is shaped by our relationships, and shaped by the worshipping community in which we experience those relationships. We are interdependent learners in Christ. This community of believers is the Body of Christ: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12, NRSV).

If we are to build learning experiences underpinned by this theology, we must first identify the nature of the three parts of the individuals-relationships-community combination. The following questions may help in this process. Although learning may be designed for specific groups (for example an elders’ training event), as well as for an otherwise unconnected group of people, it is helpful to begin by thinking of learners as discrete individuals.

  1. Individuals:
    • Who are the people for whom you are building learning experiences?
    • What are their needs as learners, as believers (or not), as human beings?
    • Does your learning experience touch them in some deep place?
    • Is your learning experience inclusive of all the possible kinds of people who could study with you, in terms of gender, race, sexuality, age, nationality, theological stance?
    • Is your learning experience inclusive of people with different forms of disability? While physical disabilities such as mobility and visual impairment are very important to learning, bear in mind that there are many hidden kinds of disability, such as dyslexia and depression, which are more common than physical disabilities and also have a big impact on learning.
  2. Relationships:
    • Having established the nature of your learners as individuals, what of the relationships within which they exist?
    • How are they likely to help or hinder somebody’s learning experience?
    • If they have a family or partner, are those people supportive of the individual’s learning – do they see it as a threat or an opportunity?
    • If they have caring responsibilities, how does that impact upon the times and ways in which they can learn?
    • Would it help to create a formal support group for the learner, or is that unnecessary? For some learning experiences, these questions may seem excessive, but for others they will be crucial.
  3. Community:
    • What is the nature of the worshipping community within which the learners exist?
    • Are they supportive of the changes which come with any sort of learning, and which with some kinds of learning may be considerable?
    • Do they need to be brought into the learning process?
    • Does the learner sit in the centre of the community, or on its edge (and is that likely to change in or from the learning experience)?
    • Does the community have pronounced characteristics, such as size, age profile, location, or theological stance, which could make the learning experience more difficult – or more needed?

Criteria – reasons for learning

On the left side of the diagram are three criteria, reasons as to why an individual learner would choose to sign up for a particular learning experience: it needs to be relevant to their direct needs, or it needs to be enticing in terms of the ideas, or it needs to have instrumental value for the learner (that is, to achieve some other goal that they are seeking). Without at least one of these criteria in place, a learning experience is likely to be unsatisfying, and the learner is less likely to devote time to it and see it through to its end. The following questions are aimed to help those designing learning experiences to understand which of the criteria are more appropriate for their experience, recognising that in many cases a combination of the criteria will apply in various proportions.

  1. Relevant:
    • What are the needs that a learner is bringing to this learning experience?
    • Will this experience enhance their spiritual development, or their theological education, or their pastoral abilities, or their practical skills?
    • Will the learning experience enhance their current role within their church community, or enable them to develop new roles within the church?
  2. Enticing: Learning can be exciting. One possible reason for learning is simply that it is enjoyable.
    • What have you done in designing your learning experience to make sure that learners will enjoy it?
    • Is the content of the learning experience inherently interesting to your learners, or is it likely to be more of a struggle?
    • If it involves websites or printed texts, have those been carefully designed to look as appealing as possible?
    • If it involves face-to-face contact, have you considered issues of room layout, appropriate breaks, and ways to involve people in their learning?
  3. Instrumental: Some learning experiences are necessary because they enable learners to achieve a particular goal.
    • Are you aware what the external goal that your learners might be seeking (such as gaining a qualification, or accreditation in a particular ministry)?
    • Does your learning experience enable them to achieve that goal?
    • If you are asking learners to do other things than the goal inherently requires, are these strictly necessary?

Outcomes from learning experiences

The right hand side of the diagram shows three possible outcomes from the learner having been through the learning experience. As with the criteria, we suggest that it is likely that without one or more these outcomes being available to learners, that they are less likely to be sufficiently motivated to follow through the experience to its end. It is possible that there are other potential outcomes for students, not covered by the framework, and as such we have included a further question in this case.

  1. Fit for a specific role: Some learning experiences are designing specifically to train people to be ready to take on a specific role within the church, possibly in addition to other roles or possibly as full-time work.
    • Are you preparing people for any specific role?
    • If so, have you looked carefully at the requirements of that role?
    • Have you spoken to people who currently hold that role to check that your learning experiences have a good fit with what they do?
    • Have you spoken to other stakeholders around the role, such as those who appoint or supervise such people?
  2. Meets validity requirements: Some learning experiences are designed to meet the requirements of a specific external award or other forms – this may well lead on to a specific role (such as ministry of word and sacrament) but it may not.
    • Is your learning experience one which leads towards the validity requirements of an external body?
    • If so, are you in communication with that body, and clear that your learning satisfies their requirements?
    • Is the body for whom you are designing the learning in good standing with the validating organisation?
    • If your learning experience provides additional skills or knowledge beyond the validity requirements, is this for a good reason that fulfils one of the other outcomes?
  3. Positively changes a way of living:
    • Does this learning experience enable learners to change their way of living?
    • Does it help them to be transformed to be better able to love God and to love their neighbour?
    • How deep are the changes that this learning enables?
    • Are they to one part of the learner’s life or to the whole of their life?
    • How will these life changes affect other people with whom they have relationships in community?
  4. Other outcomes:
    • Are there other discernible outcomes of your learning experience beyond the three types above?
    • Do they apply to all/most possible learners, or only a small proportion?
    • If the latter, are there ways in which they could be extended as a possible outcome to wider groups?
    • If not, does that matter?
    • Do these additional outcomes only affect the learners, or also other people with whom they have relationships in community?

Preparation – the left hand path

The framework presents a learning cycle, moving from preparation to engagement and back again. This cycle is a feedback loop – it will change and develop as educators create and develop learning materials, share them with students, and as students work with those materials and each other. The framework is based on a model of the flipped classroom, where as much as possible learners read and work with learning resources before coming together with educators and each other to share thoughts. However there is not a straight linear relationship where material is created, then assimilated, then discussed – it is shaped and reshaped in an ongoing cycle.

Two stages of this cycle can be distinguished, of preparation (both by learners and educators) and engagement (again by both learners and educators). The next questions concern the first half of the cycle, that of preparation.

  1. Content:
    • As an educator, have you access to the content you require to share with learners?
    • Can you gather it together in ways which your learners can access?
    • If you are seeking to have your learners work through it before meeting together, is it at a level that they can easily understand?
    • Do you need to provide a narrative of some form to enable learners to follow (if they wish) so that they can see the connection between different items?
  2. Content access:
    • Is the content you wish learners to access in forms that they can easily do so?
    • Is some of it online? If so, are you aware whether your learners have good online access?
    • Are you aware of their physical access to any resources they need? (Remember that some students may find online resources easier to access and some may find physical resources easier.) Have you considered whether online resources could be provided in physical form and vice-versa?
    • Regardless of the medium, have you considered a mix of different kinds of resources to enable different kinds of learning?
    • Have you considered accessibility issues for different forms of disability with your content, for both online and physical resources?

Engagement – the right hand path

Moving to the other side of the learning cycle, we come to engagement: the way in which learners and educators engage with each other, having already spent time working through learning materials. Work will be needed to prepare and design these engagement activities, and perhaps to devise appropriate testing. There is an increasing body of expertise in the URC around Appreciative Inquiry, which has helpful lessons to bring to any learning process.

Questions around each of these different engagement stages follow:

  1. Preparing for engagement:
    • Have you thought whether learners will best engage with each other online, face-to-face, or in some combination of these?
    • Would online discussions work better where everyone is in the same virtual space at the same time (synchronously) or each learner joining at different times (asynchronously)?
    • If you are using asynchronous discussions (such as forums), are these better placed before face-to-face or synchronous discussions, or after them?
    • Have you negotiated these questions with learners, taking into account their individual needs of the sort discussed in the ‘Body of Christ’ section above?
  2. Engagement design:
    • Often in the flipped classroom model, learners will come to engagement activities to share their thoughts on what they’ve already read and learnt about. What kind of activities will help learners to engage with each other, with educators, and with the learning materials?
    • Can you design discussion activities that will help learners to share ideas with each other?
    • Can you design practical activities that will allow learners to work through the ideas in a different way from discussion?
    • Are you (as an educator) ready to answer questions that may be at quite a deep level?
  3. Assessment:
    • Depending on the outcomes of the learning experience, you may need to have some sort of assessment or testing. Is assessment appropriate for your learning experience?
    • Are the forms of this assessment mandated by an external body?
    • If so, are you clear that your learning experience will prepare learners for it?
    • If not, what would help learners to consolidate what they have learnt, to help them to learn it better, and demonstrate to others that they have learnt it?
    • Can you develop assessment that is rigorous and effective but also unthreatening?
  4. Appreciative Inquiry: The URC has recently been developing considerable skills in Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a method for learning and change management that enables “the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential” (David Cooperrider & Diana Whitney). AI brings with it skills in listening, mutual discovery, and ways to come to new meanings together about old ideas.
    • Have you looked at the possibilities that Appreciative Inquiry could bring your learning experience?
    • When designing discussion sessions, are you careful to ensure the use of active listening, so that learners carefully hear each other?
    • Are you open to developing new ideas through the learning process?

Learning as a gift from God

This page has presented in some detail the blended learning framework, including questions to guide your use of it in designing learning experiences. We have deliberately gone into a lot of detail to cover the variety of different kinds of learning that are used across the denomination. Some of the questions will be more or less appropriate for different situations – but the process of detailed and prayer-filled preparation for a learning experience will always be appropriate. Our ability as humans to learn, and the opportunity to shape others’ learning situated in relationships in community, is a great gift from God to be celebrated and taken seriously.

Download the Framework