The rapid transformation of digital economies throughout Asia and the Pacific continues to challenge traditional higher education systems. Increasing demand for relevant education and training requires a rethink of how to promote the development of new skills throughout life . Although the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is not the panacea for all the challenges faced by higher education institutions (HEIs) in the region, ICT-enabled learning, is essential to promote quality education and accelerate progress to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), also known as Education 2030. Realising the integration of ICT in higher education is 'inevitable', a growing number of HEIs in the Asia-Pacific region have been combining online and face-to-face modes of teaching and learning, i.e. blended learning, as a means to ensure quality knowledge transfer and construction through ICT. A specially developed strategic planning framework and accompanying self-assessment tool can enable each HEI to fashion a bespoke capacity building approach for blended learning.
Why Blended Learning for Quality Higher Education?
By harnessing the “strengths of each” mode of learning and incorporating new pedagogical possibilities of blended learning, quality may be achieved through improved learning outcomes. Possible improvements include actively engaging students and transcending the parameters of time, space, and interactivity that characterises traditional face-to-face classroom learning, which afford teachers opportunities to impart 21st Century Skills using more student-centred, active learning approaches, as well as foster learning communities that work in concert to construct knowledge via the processes of inquiry, reflection and discourse. Quality may also be achieved with increased access and flexibility for learners especially hard-to-reach learners, and improved cost-effectiveness of institutional governance. If done appropriately, HEIs can fulfil all of these ambitions simultaneously rather than just provide greater efficiencies of content dissemination.
Blended Learning for Quality Higher Education Requires Strategic Planning
The straightforward definition of the blended learning paradigm contrasts with its complexity of implication. There is some evidence suggesting that transformational uses of blended learning in the Asia-Pacific region are limited. In many cases, HEIs are often unable to effectively adapt their blended learning practices to suit a wide spectrum of contexts or cannot maintain these practices over a substantial length of time; in other words, they often suffer from scalability and sustainability limitations. Further, knowledge, experience and key lessons of what works, as well as how and why it works, are not integrated. Strategic planning empowers HEIs to reach consensus around the focal points of the concerned matter and the necessary measures that should be taken in a combined effort. The process will help to link political will, effective planning, and concerted resources – which are key elements suggested by the Qingdao Declaration for implementation .
A Holistic Approach of Blended Learning Strategic Planning
Featured in the book Blended Learning for Quality Higher Education  as a collaboration between The Education University of Hong Kong and UNESCO Bangkok, Lim and Wang (2016)  proposed a framework of blended learning strategic planning using a holistic approach and detailed how blended learning could be driven, supported and scaled up from different perspectives. The framework includes eight strategic dimensions: vision and philosophy; curriculum; professional development; learning support; infrastructure, facilities, resources and support; policy and institutional structure; partnerships; and research and evaluation. This work also took a close examination of lessons learned from case studies, particularly promising practices of HEI’s adoption of blended learning in the region. By considering all the dimensions in the framework and gaining experiences from the promising practices, HEIs are more likely to formulate and implement coherent internal and external processes that optimise the learning potential of integrating blended learning into their programmes and courses.
A holistic framework for building the blended learning capacity of HEIs
Blended Learning Strategic Planning in Action – Where Can We Start?
Harnessing the power of blended learning for quality higher education involves much more than introducing online-based ICT innovations. Moving towards a more promising institutional blended learning practice would require not only gaining shared understanding among HEI leaders and policymakers, but also reaching parity with accessible resources and human capital. Therefore, the scope and sequence of efforts have to be prioritised in the reality of many local contexts. Lim and Wang (2016)’s work took a step in this direction by developing a comprehensive self-assessment tool containing descriptors or indicators that HEIs can use to periodontally benchmark their progress in each dimension of the strategic planning framework. Such a snapshot can be a useful reference for monitoring and steering growth to higher stages of institutional strategies supporting blended learning practices in an HEI.
Blended Learning Practice (Institutional) Self-Assessment
Leveraging the Self-Assessment Tool in Practice
UNESCO Bangkok has engaged the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), Cambodia and University of Colombo, Sri Lanka in a two-year initiative to increase access to quality higher education by promoting ICT-driven innovation. The incorporation of blended learning has been one of the key approaches. The effort of capacity building in the two HEIs is based on the institutional assessment using Lim and Wang (2016)’s self-assessment tool. Consequently, these HEIs are working to localize their efforts and become more effective as innovative leaders in the development of blended learning in emerging economies in the wider Asia-Pacific region.
Supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada and The HEAD Foundation, Singapore, The Education University of Hong Kong has also worked on a project together with RUPP, University of Battambang (UBB) and Svay Rieng University (SRU). Having UNESCO Bangkok and The Directorate General for Higher Education, Cambodia as partners, the ongoing project advocates the considerable potential of blended learning to reduce urban and rural disparities in education quality where it is adopted. Recognising that the effectiveness of blended learning can largely be determined by how it is implemented and supported, the project team and HEI leaders used the self-assessment tool to draw a portrait of and subsequently analyse the challenges and opportunities unique to each institution. This in turn resulted in the formation of possible strategies and future directions for synthesizing and strengthening urban-rural partnerships in planning and implementation, and sharing blended learning courses to help close quality gaps.
Challenges remain to promote blended learning as a tool for quality higher education. Many (if not most) courses throughout the Asia-Pacific region are inputs-driven, which means any mode of delivery, whether in-person or blended is not centred on the needs of individual learners. To make that transition, “time to learn and develop” new learning materials may be among the most important limitations. A related and fundamental factor is the importance of teaching performance overall, which may be undervalued, often at the expense of “high-impact” research .
Going forward, UNESCO Bangkok and partners will increase their focus on ICT-driven innovation in higher education to achieve SDG4. This includes higher education-related targets to “ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.” UNESCO looks forward to collaborating with IAU and other key stakeholders to explore diverse models of practice on how to accelerate progress and ensure inclusive access to quality higher education for all.
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 Asia-Pacific Regional Strategy on Using ICT to Facilitate the Achievement of Education 2030 Asia-Pacific Ministerial Forum on ICT in Education 2017 (11-12 May 2017, Seoul, Republic of Korea)
 Qingdao Declaration International Conference on ICT and post‐2015 Education: Seize digital opportunities. Lead Education transformation (23-25 May 2015, Qingdao, China)
 Lim, C. P., & Wang, T. (2016). A Proposed Framework and Self-assessment Tool for Building the Capacity of Higher Education Institutions for Blended Learning. In C.P. Lim, & L. Wang (Eds.), Blended learning for quality higher education: selected case studies on implementation from Asia-Pacific (pp. 1-38). Paris: UNESCO.
Wang, L. & Teter, W. (2017). Recalibrating Careers in Academia: Professional advancement policies and practices in Asia-Pacific. Bangkok: UNESCO Bangkok, p.402. ISBN: 978-92-9223-573-4