Tuesday, March 26, 2013

View from the Field: The Journey of Blended Learning

I’ll admit that the first time I heard the term blended learning, I wasn’t sure what it was.  And shortly after finding out what it was, I wasn’t sure it was beneficial either.

I was serving as interim high school principal at Grinnell High School, and the term was used in a Promising Practice series that ISTE was referencing on their website.

I should back up and say, my apprehension had nothing to do with technology integration.  I was a former teacher for an innovative 1:1 laptop program as well as a district technology coordinator and professional development instructor for technology integration in the classroom.  If anything, my weakness was using too much technology instead of not enough.

It was the resource management that was the issue.  Blended learning literally is the combination of face-to-face and online learning elements into the same class.  As a principal, I foolishly saw FTE being needed for both the in class portion and the out of class portion, as well as additional infrastructure and additional policies to put the online instruction into play.

If you look at blended learning from only a resource perspective, then it doesn’t make much sense.  There are no savings by adopting this model.  But, that of course is not the way we look at educational practices; we look at them for the educational impact.  And that is where blended learning shines.

Blended learning has been cited in study after study as being more effective than either completely online learning or face-to-face learning.  The simple reason?  It takes the best of both worlds.  It takes the personal context and quick assessment strategies that flourish in a face-to-face environment and couples them with flexible time and the ability to make content and activities ready when the students are, as is the case in an online environment.


Blending the learning in your classroom is as much a journey as is anything else.  Teachers don’t wake up one day and say “I’m blending my class today!”  It takes careful planning and understanding of how the structure will work.  Are you moving your lessons to be viewed online, and focusing on class time for discussion?  Or do you move your discussions online to take place in an asynchronous format?

Blended learning is a continuum both in complexity and the degree by which content is online vs. face-to-face.  Teachers typically start with a safe step into the zero-grade end of the swimming pool, by simply uploading their resources into a platform like Moodle to be downloaded later at home if need be.  This isn’t blended learning in the true sense, since learning is not taking place outside of the class period, but it is a step to become comfortable using the technology necessary for an online format.

From here, often teachers take another couple of steps, allowing for students to submit homework online, through a digital dropbox.  Some start to dabble with the use of online quizzes for students to assess their understanding on their own.  Others put together the aforementioned lesson that a student views online, or utilizes an external online resource, like an online simulation that requires several hours of manipulation and play for students to understand the working variables involved.

It is very few that actually blend a K-12 classroom by removing actual face-to-face time from the class.  This is a big step--a move to the deep end of the pool of sorts.  Removing face-to-face time causes supervision complications; do students report to a study hall at this time, or where do they go?  Teachers can't make this decision unilaterally either.  It requires planning and communication from an administrative level.

But there's another question.  If a teacher takes her face-to-face course and adds online components without replacing any face-to-face time, is this always better?  There's a law of diminishing returns when it comes to using time for learning.  Students need time for pursuit of their own interests and passions.  In many ways, more is not better... more efficient is better.


In the upcoming months this spring, we'll take a look at blended learning in detail, reading the thoughts and experiences of educators who are implementing blended learning in their classrooms.  We'll examine some of the different models available and what resources are available statewide to help you on your journey.

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