Blended learning is more than…

Blended teaching and learning is more than just:

  • Teachers putting their lesson plans online
  • Students sitting in a computer lab for part of the day
  • Students on computers surfing the Web
  • Students doing some of their school work from home
  • Creating video lectures that students can watch anytime

In the same way, face-to-face teaching and learning is more than just:

  • A teacher lecturing
  • Students sitting in desks completing workbook pages
  • Students creating videos as part of a project
  • Students reflecting about their learning on a blog or online portfolio

Blended learning – whether in pre-school, K-12 or college –  is about taking the best of face-to-face teaching and learning and blending it with the best of online teaching and learning.  Doing one element of either does not, by itself, lead to success in the classroom.  It is a combination of what the teacher does, what the student does, where the content is located, and how the content is accessed by the student.

Before computers, teaching and learning was mostly about the print content.  Teaching and learning occurred totally face-to-face and the content was almost always the textbook or some related subject specific book.  Teachers could vary how they taught by not just using the textbook, but also include other types of teaching such as cooperative groups, simulations or projects/reports.  But, everything resided in print.  All teaching and learning at this point was basically “textbook enhanced teaching and learning.”

Once computers were invented, they slowly seeped into schools – in most cases, first used by teachers and then by students.  Other technologies have since developed to work with computers that are now being used in classrooms for teaching and learning: projectors, digital white boards, document cameras, etc.  When these tools are used effectively by the teacher, then learning is enhanced.  However, if these tools are simply used to duplicate what was done in the print-only world, then that is an ineffective use. With computers and technology, there was now “technology enhanced teaching and learning.”

Then, along came the Internet and then, once schools were wired, instructors started using online content to enhance their instruction.  Teachers started assigning websites to learn content in addition to what was in the textbook.  This has worked especially well in the sciences where things change daily, but it has been equally useful in English or history courses where students can view actual primary source documents or listen to actual speeches or view Civil War battlefields without having to physically visit.  Effective use of online resources by face-to-face instructors has enhanced learning for many students at all levels.  Effectively using online resources in teaching and learning is “online/web enhanced teaching and learning.”

As Internet access increased, so, too did the use of online learning.  Not only could online resources be used for face-to-face instruction, but they could also be used so students could have some flexibility in when they could access their classwork.  Teachers who teach online utilize curriculum that is primarily online (as compared to the textbook enhanced teacher who primarily uses curriculum in print).  In addition, strategies and tools such as online discussion boards, chat rooms, email interactions, wall postings, instant messaging, video, web cams and a host of related tools are part of the effective online teacher’s tool box.  As new Web 2.0 tools emerge, a greater variety of learning tools will be available to online teachers.  “Online teaching and learning” is different than face-to-face teaching and learning, but it is not better nor worse.  In online courses, the majority of teaching and learning takes place online and the student has flexibility of time when they access the course.

Utilizing the best online tools and strategies and the best face-to-face tools and strategies is what I would term, “blended teaching and learning.”  In some cases, this may be a face-to-face teacher who has students turn in all assignments online and discovers the power of the online discussion board as a way of giving all students a voice.  In other cases, this may be a stand alone course where students may only meet their teacher online and only occasionally face-to-face.  “Blended learning and teaching” looks different at different grade levels:  a 4th grade student may participate in an online discussion group under the direction of a face-to-face teacher;  a 10th grade World History student may access his/her entire course online and meet a teacher face-to-face once a week; a college student may access all of his/her courses completely online with a face-to-face meeting at the beginning and at the end.

Michael Horn and Heather Staker from the Innosight Institute completed their landmark case studies about blended learning schools across the U.S. in 2011.  Their one line definition is, “Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick and mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.” However, reading further in the report, Blended Learning is really more than just where the student is as they wrote, a blended learning definition includes “design elements that differentiate them from the others in terms of teacher roles, scheduling, physical space, and delivery methods.”  I would add that “delivery methods” would also include the teaching tools and the location of the curriculum.

At the college level, Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman writing for the Sloan Consortium defined blended learning as: “courses that blend online and face-to-face delivery where a substantial proportion (30%-79%) of the content is delivered online.”  (Allen & Seaman, 2007. http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/index.asp)

In another definition, Curtis Bonk and Charles Graham define blended learning “combines face-to-face learning with computer mediated learning.”  (Bonk and Graham, 2006.  Handbook of blended learning: Global perspectives, local designs. http://www.publicationshare.com/).

Larry Cuban recently wrote about Rocketship Schools and founder John Danner discussed the use of “Blended Learning” in their curriculum.  In addition, Horn and Staker completed case studies on 40 schools for their publication, “The Rise of Blended Learning” which included Rocketship Schools.   Rocketship Schools and others are highlighted as examples of effective blended learning.  Is Rocketship an example of the use of “blended learning” or “technology enhanced” or “online/web enhanced” or “online” teaching and learning?  Decide for yourself.

Regardless of the definition we use of “blended learning and teaching”, how teachers utilize both face-to-face and online learning tools and strategies is what makes the difference in student learning.

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