Blended (not Blanded) Learning

As someone who’s welcomed the potentials for digital learning to expand horizons for learners and connect us with the heart and passion that made us become educators in the first place, I’ll confess to an immediate and powerful positive response to the idea of blended learning. Imagine my surprise and disappointment to find out that even before we explore what it is or could be, the term itself already has baggage. Let’s explore how Blended Learning is currently defined, and then make sure our practices are not limited by definitions that result in a bland version of the exciting, engaging experience it could become.

When my students had their work featured in Scientific American back in 1993, it wasn’t because they’d successfully completed an online course or raised their test scores. It was because they’d seized an opportunity that unexpectedly emerged, to directly communicate with children from Chernobyl, using the “Chatback” listserv run by Mike Burleigh in the UK. This direct communication made history come alive, as many of my students were infants when the reactor exploded. The ability to expand our boundaries requires our willingness to expand our vision of what constitutes learning beyond instruction to embrace application.

Rejecting the “Tyranny of OR” in Favor of the “Genius of AND”

This also demands that we move beyond questions like “are face-to-face courses better than online courses?” or “is project based learning better than direct instruction?” Online courses represent a powerful development in terms of their potential to offer greater flexibility for access, expand application of Universal Design for Learning in design that harnesses the power of your “Three Brain Networks” (please see the great online activity[1] provided by CAST if you don’t recognize that phrase), and differentiation. But their power becomes even greater when personalized through application in well designed and implemented projects.

Whose Bags Are These, Anyway?

From a K12 perspective, the myriad opportunities (global projects, opportunities to connect students from other cultures, or have them engage in coaching/mentorship with professionals from varied fields) are exciting to consider as we design instructional experiences. These activities have been successful since the days before the Internet had pictures. It’s about connecting people, ideas and stories. However, Higher Education has been quicker to shift instruction to online “learning platforms” and indeed the proportion of students who complete their courses online is greater in Higher Ed than in K12. Like someone with only a hammer who sees only nails, all learning can look like “providing courses”, if your view of online learning consists of that which can take place inside a Learning Management or Course Management System.

Therefore, the current widely accepted definition for blended learning[2] is:

  • a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace
  • at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.

Are you excited yet?

When I discuss my excitement about blended learning with my friends in Higher Ed, they look at me with puzzled regard. In their world, the key factor is how many times a semester their students are required to be in their classrooms as a part of completing their coursework.

The Innosight report was an intensive effort. “In defining blended learning and identifying its emerging models, we looked at examples of over 80 programs in the K–12 sector. 1 In addition, in November 2011 roughly 100 educators met during a pre-conference at the International Association for K–12 Online Learning’s (iNACOL) Virtual School Symposium2 and critiqued the taxonomy.”

Hence, when this model is overlaid to provide a framework for K12 use, we see this diagram:

flowchart of blended learning taxonomies

Blended Learning Taxonomies

In reflecting back on two or three decades in which the rallying cry was “integrating technology into the classroom” I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to call the contest. We didn’t win. But the opportunity to learn from failures is how we progress. The classrooms we were trying to integrate into were still “stand and deliver, lecture driven, knowledge transmission” environments. In too many classrooms, the lecture now shines on a whiteboard. We are excited because we can now watch the lectures on our iPad (selecting better lectures outside of class time than those we are subjected to during class, with the variant being the teacher’s skills as a performer). Somehow technology integration missed that point, and the transformative potentials were “rejected by the host”.

“Click and deliver” isn’t much better than “stand and deliver.” If all we get from blended learning is the opportunity to complete courses online, wherever and whenever we’d like, I’d call that pretty bland, compared with what could be happening. We could be helping students change their lives. We could be helping each other “re-professionalize” our profession. We could be helping our communities revitalize their economic futures. However, that will take expanding the current definition beyond its limits. Here are my suggestions of key points to incorporate:

1) Use Learning Teams – that’s the way work gets done everywhere else (except education).

My son recently visited us and described his work at Microsoft. As I listened, was forced to interrupt and ask, “Do you mean everyone in the entire company is on a team?” He replied, “Absolutely. I know I’m seven levels down from Steve Balmer” and then proceeded to describe how each successive level had responsibility for key operations or tasks, but how each person on each team supported the overall operation. No task can be completed without a team. No team can succeed without relying on other teams. Everyone knows what they’re working on and who they can/must rely on. Just like our K12 schools (right!). More about teams further down…

2) Shift from Content Driven to Learner Directed – remember, it’s the learner who does the learning.

Most of our focus is on improving the “inputs” (higher quality digital content, expanded access to better courses, improving instructional strategies used by teachers) while comparatively little focus is invested in determining what supports can improve the learning trajectories of each learner. The Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) puts it simply and powerfully: The goal of education in the 21st century is not simply the mastery of knowledge. It is the mastery of learning. Education should help turn novice learners into expert learners—individuals who know how to learn, who want to learn, and who, in their own highly individual ways, are well prepared for a lifetime of learning.

3) Blend the Power of “In Person” and “Online” Teams.

This is the missing element that can prevent blended from being blanded. Teams have a purpose. They don’t exist indefinitely; they constantly reformulate as the complete one task and move on to another. Teams require relationship and trust, both of which only develop over time, through shared effort.

New Mexico is far from California, and when I’m working on the challenge of fostering digital age learning among our rural districts, the required face-to-face is an unavoidable challenge. One of my colleagues is a superintendent of two districts that cover 9,000 square miles (to get a sense of that, there are 8 states in the US that could fit inside his districts) serving a total of 300 kids. The teachers and families in this set of schools depend upon face-to-face interactions, which cannot and will not be replaced by “online only” anything.

However, most of the team I rely upon to develop ideas, test out strategies in finding ways to support these students and families are in California (and members of CUE!). This is because the team I’ve built comes from the professional and personal learning network I’ve grown since those days when the Internet was text only.

So my learning takes two forms: part of it is what I need to learn to be more effective in the tasks I’ve taken responsibility for. Right now, that consists of organizing the tools and activities my California friends will help me show teachers and students in Los Alamos Middle School how to use to succeed with blended learning projects in their classrooms (and online). The teachers designed the projects, and we’re designing the learning environments to support both venues. The other part is facilitating the learning of the teachers and students in the use of these new tools and practices. Our team is taking responsibility for those types of learning.

4) Make It Matter

The end result of all our efforts is to increase the abilities of the learners we work with to apply what they’re learning in ways that make a difference in real life. Along the way, the expansion of access to quality resources, courses, videos, coaching and mentoring is unbelievably enriched by “going digital”. Connecting students and teachers with their purpose and supporting them in achieving their learning plans represents the highest and best use of blended learning. It is truly the most exciting time to be an educator!

(Originally published in the February 2013 CUE Newsletter)

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