The current era is witnessing a knowledge explosion, a wide technological revolution, and an increase in the number of students. Experts in science education face new challenges in the need for instructional strategies which help students to continue their learning outside the classroom, and to provide them with tools and expertise that help them to access the knowledge they need by themselves. At the same time, teachers are advised to concentrate on learner-centered strategies which achieve an effective teaching for science and help students to acquire scientific knowledge in a meaningful way. Hence, Yager (2000) considered giving students opportunities to build their own special knowledge and understanding as one of the most accepted principles in teaching of science.
Effective and meaningful learning of science can be achieved through the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) which include technical tools centered on the learner, on his interests and abilities, and on his active participation in the teaching-learning process. Consequently, the National Science Education Standards noted that "new technologies often extend the current levels of scientific understanding and introduce new areas of research" (NRC, 1996).
Online or Web-based instruction is considered as one of the most important technological contributions to the field of education. Research focuses on ways to apply this kind of learning to achieve the goals of science teaching through the available technological tools and software programs, which create an interactive learner-centered environment, and provide opportunities for the learner to learn according to his abilities and speed. The literature offers a number of prior studies have shown positive results for using the online instruction in the teaching of science (e.g., Bakas & Mikropoulos, 2003; Cameron, 2003; Kearny et al., 2001).
However, due to the physical distance between the students and their instructor in Web-based instruction, there are some disadvantages associated with the use of this style of instruction (Mabrito, 2006; Codone, 2001). These disadvantages led to the need to complement Web-based with face-to-face instruction in one style of learning which is known as "blended learning (BL)" (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004).
In an attempt to combine E-learning with classroom face-to-face (FTF) instruction, King Saud University (KSU) initiated a project called "Developing Digital Content of KSU Courses". Faculty members were required to transform content of their courses into digital content and submit it to the Blackboard to allow students to continue their learning outside the classroom. KSU started holding training sessions for faculty members to implement this project. The use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in higher education requires an evaluation of the contribution of these tools to students' learning, especially when they are used as a complement to FTF methods (Ginns & Ellis, 2009). Therefore, applying the blended learning approach in teaching physics courses at KSU requires an evaluation. The present project aimed to examine the students' perceptions of the quality of blended learning in teaching the Physics course (Phys. 145) at KSU, and whether these perceptions significantly vary according to gender, computer skills level, and overall academic achievement level.
To achieve this aim, the project was applied on 992 Health Colleges students in the first year of a five-year Undergraduate Degree at KSU, who were enrolled for the Physics course (Phys. 145) in the second semester of the academic year 2014/2015. All of them studied the Physics course using BL approach based on Blackboard. The project sample consisted of 341 students (187 males and 154 females; 34.4 % of the whole population), who responded to the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ), which was distributed electronically. The link of the CEQ was sent by e-mails to the whole population at the end of the second semester of the academic year 2014/2015.
Blended Learning (BL):
At its simplest, BL can be defined as the thoughtful integration of Web-based with classroom-based instruction (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004). Classroom-based instruction occurs when students and their instructor are face to face in a classroom-based setting (Head, Lockee, & Oliver, 2002). Web-based instruction occurs out of the classroom, and in which the content is delivered via a Web browser through the Internet or an intranet (Codone, 2001).
Because the BL approach integrates face-to-face classes with online learning, it is possible for this approach to capture advantages of both modalities (Graham, 2004). Therefore, BL offers learners flexibility and convenience to choose when and where to learn (Voci & Young, 2001), which are considered as important characteristics for working adults who decide to pursue postsecondary degrees (Rovai & Jordan, 2004). For this reason also, the literature describes BL as balanced learning. This balance is achieved by combining the advantages of two learning modalities (Voci & Young, 2001).
The literature also suggests many advantages for BL that may provide effective teaching for science, and help students to acquire scientific knowledge in a meaningful way. The BL approach offers the opportunity for an interesting blend of the traditional classroom experience with the use of different technologies to facilitate teaching and learning outside of the formal classroom (Duhaney, 2006). The possibility of having more types of interaction in BL has proved to be a factor that increases motivation, and creates positive attitudes towards learning (Donnelly, 2010; Woltering et al., 2009), which enable the student to become more involved in the learning process (Wang et al., 2009). The resources and materials of BL provide greater opportunities for students to comprehend and extend the knowledge presented and motivate them to learn (Osguthorpe & Graham, 2003; Singh, 2010; Lei, 2010).
Furthermore, a number of prior studies have shown positive results for using the BL approach in the teaching of science in higher education (e.g., Makhdoom et al., 2013; Lopez-Perez et al., 2011; Uzun & Senturk, 2010; Lim & Morris, 2009; Wang et al., 2009).
Applying the BL in teaching Physics:
The credit hours for the Physics course (Phys. 145) is 3 hours, two hours for the theoretical part and one hour for the experimental part. The BL was applied to the theoretical part only. In the second semester of the academic year 2014/2015, during fourteen study weeks, the instructors taught the theoretical part to the first year Health Colleges students using BL based on Blackboard (Bb) interface according to the following procedures:
- The instructors trained the students how to use the Bb interface to take the Physics course online.
- Two hours weekly, the instructors taught the Physics course to the students face to face in the class using traditional methods (lecture, explanation, and discussion). In addition, the instructors presented the content using interactive multimedia as a SCORM file loading through the Bb interface. The multimedia consisted of outlines of information, training, assessment questions, fixed and moving photos and drawings, in addition to links for videos and enrichment webpages on the Internet (see Appendix 8).
- The students could enter their accounts on the Bb using their usernames and passwords to access the course online out of the class using the interactive multimedia according to their own ability and speed.
- Through their own accounts on the Bb interface, the students could complete their homework and tasks, and see feedback from their teacher.
- Through the available social communication networks (email, chat rooms, and platform), the Bb allowed the students to contact each other and their teacher in an asynchronous dialogue. This allowed them also to ask questions, discuss, and exchange views.
- The Bb allowed the instructors to contact their students in an asynchronous form, follow them in fulfillment of homework and tasks, and send them feedback.
Table 5 in Appendix 7 revealed that the BL based on Blackboard in teaching Physics at KSU is generally perceived to be of high quality, since the mean scores of the participants on the CEQ was 4.02. When each domain of the CEQ was considered individually, table 5 also revealed the following results:
a) the teacher was effective to an average extent in facilitating learning in the online context of the Physics course, since the mean scores of the participants on the first subscale "quality of teaching in BL" was 3.94);
b) the online materials and activities assisted learning of the Physics course to an average extent, since the mean scores of the participants on the second subscale "quality of online resources" was 3.92;
c) the volume of work was appropriate to a high degree to cope with the online components of the Physics course, since the mean scores of the participants on the third subscale "appropriate workload" was 4.13; and
d) the students' online postings to a discussion board were perceived as useful and provoked engagement with the topics of the Physics course to a high degree, since the mean scores of the participants on the fourth subscale "student interaction" was 4.26.
Also, tables 6, 7, and 8 in Appendix 7 revealed the following results respectively:
a) there were no statistically significant differences in the students' perceptions of the quality of BL in teaching Physics at KSU that can be attributed to gender;
b) there were statistically significant differences in the students' perceptions of the quality of BL in teaching Physics at KSU that can be attributed to their level of computer skills in favor of the students with a higher level of computer skills, and
c) there were statistically significant differences in the students' perceptions of the quality of BL in teaching Physics at KSU that can be attributed to their level of academic achievement in favor of the students with a higher level of academic achievement.
In closing, as we investigated in this research the students' perceptions of the quality of the BL approach in teaching Physics at KSU, it is important to investigate the students' perceptions of the quality of this approach in teaching other courses as well. Also, it seems necessary to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of this approach in probing of learning outcomes, such as achievement, retention, and learning process in terms of higher levels of learning (e.g., critical and creative thinking), since Gardiner (1998) noted the need for classroom change to allow students to acquire more significant kinds of cognitive learning, particularly critical thinking skills. The results of the project may also help directors of the Physics Department at KSU to address any shortcomings that appeared. Furthermore, it is recommended to use the BL approach in teaching Physics, especially in situations where student numbers are high, such as the first year of undergraduate study.