New research on blended learning environments emerged during the course of the current project, particularly in the UK, which is strongly driven by Quality Assurance Agency processes (Quinlan 2002) alongside a tradition of scholarly work in online learning (Swinglehurst, Russell & Greenhalgh 2008). Until recently, there had been surprisingly little published in the area of peer review in online and blended learning environments, even though many subjects in universities in Australia and elsewhere are now delivered in blended modes (Swinglehurst, Russell & Greenhalgh 2006).
Peer review of teaching presents particular opportunities and challenges in blended learning environment (Swinglehurst et al. 2006; Bennett & Santy 2009; Wood & Friedel 2009). The dearth of literature in this area presents challenges:
Much remains to be explored, researched and documented as to how, and how far, ‘online-ness’ impacts on the peer observation process, the experience and the benefits for participants. The evidence is that distinct strategies, processes and models are probably needed to provide guidance for transferring peer observation online … both the implementation and exploration of online peer observation are still in their infancy and a wide range of aspects remain to be investigated. (Bennett & Barp 2008, p. 564)
One key aspect of interest is how the teacher has designed the learning environment – with a specific mix of learning experiences, resources, media and technologies – to facilitate the achievement of specific learning outcomes. However, Bright (2008) notes that:
There are few well-known conceptual frameworks to analyse this feedback and lecturers are sometimes daunted by ‘best practice’ e-teaching guidelines which often turn out to be long and detailed checklists of what the lecturer should be doing online. (p75)
How teachers make these choices and scaffold student learning are important elements to include in reviews in blended contexts. Gosling (2009) builds on his three models of peer review and emphasises the need to go beyond observation in what he terms a ‘collaborative model’ of peer-supported review, which sees reviews proceeding “through conversation and dialogue, examination of relevant documents and online material, and in some cases, observation of teaching” (p14). For this process his ‘guiding principles’ include: autonomy; self-evaluation; developmental process; mutual trust and support; professional practice; student learning; professional and scholarly processes; working in pairs, teams or communities; and results achievable within normal working hours.
Bright (2008) takes a collaborative approach to the development of a framework for evaluating ‘online presence’ in blended courses. The process he outlines includes self-review based on indicators given to the reviewer as a starting point for completing the review. The process also includes an interviewer, or chairperson, who introduces open-ended questions as a guide; however, the time taken to complete this process, and particularly the self-review, was an issue in this study. Hall & Conboy (2009) see scope for discussions about teaching, blogging, peer observation and mentor support to develop teachers’ professional identities and build innovative practice.
There is an added challenge associated with blended learning environments, where the very nature of the environment further complicates peer review. Teaching and learning activities are distributed across both online and offline ‘sites’ of classroom and learning activity. The less ephemeral nature of online learning offers new possibilities for peer review but additional challenges of time and space (Bennett & Santy 2009). Assessment, for example, is one area where these challenges are often confronted albeit rarely addressed (Anderson, Parker & McKenzie 2009). Bennett and Barp write:
Even with clear guidance on where to look and what to focus on, online-ness affects what you can ‘see’, how easily you can understand what is going on, and potentially presents ‘more’ for you to observe. (2008, p567)
There is disagreement about whether blended learning environments enable the ‘capture’ of more aspects of teaching and learning, but the scope of the reviews varies considerably (Bennett & Barp 2008). Impacts on assessment, for example, are not always apparent but are easier to trace if they are online.
The exciting possibilities offered online include reviewing previous interactions relating to a subject, with options for ongoing engagement over extensive timeframes (Baker, Redfield & Tonkin 2006; Cobb et al. 2001). For reviewers there is also great value in this peer review process (Schultz & Latif 2006), and online observers learn in this role (Bennett & Barp 2008). In blended learning environments, reciprocity of peer review is particularly valuable, providing “mutual support in the often isolated process of teaching online” (Bennett & Santy 2009, p404). For innovative teachers forging new paths online for their students, being able to “establish connections through which to gain a window into the practice of fellow innovators” (Bennett & Santy 2009, p405) is an important lifeline.