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What is blended learning?

November 30, 2011

School districts around the country, strapped for money and staring at plummeting graduation rates and ever-rising Federal and state requirements, are looking for new strategies and approaches to education.  Online education has seen a dramatic rise in use across the country.  The appeal is clear: credits can be awarded based on mastery of content, rather than time in class, making it possible for students who are behind on graduation requirements to make up ground quickly.  Staff to student ratios can be larger and facility space can be used more efficiently, creating the potential for significant cost reductions (though the licensing costs of some commercial online education programs eat into those savings).

A primary concern about delivering instruction solely online is the same as delivering it solely in the classroom.  Students are not homogenous, and just as some do not succeed in the traditional classroom, some struggle with the hands-off approach and independence of pure online programs.  Rising in popularity is the concept of blended learning, which combines the student-driven structure of online programs with varying degrees of face-to-face contact with educators.  The Innosight Institute, in a recent report, defines blended learning as programs in which “students learned in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home at least some of the time” and “experienced online delivery with some control over the time, place, path, and/or pace”.  That same report identifies six “flavors” of blended learning, with different mixtures of guidance / tutoring and self-directed learning, and additional components.

Blended learning has become a topic du jour in education in recent months, with several foundations and education media outlets touting its benefits, which are admittedly very attractive.  In the journal, Heather Staker of the Innosight Institute describes blended learning as a “disruptive innovation”, with the potential to transform not only the educational experience of students, but our very concept of schools. “The system lacks the modularity and flexibility to optimize for each student’s strengths,” she says, “[b]ut this doesn’t need to be the case.” Freeing students to access teachers as a resource, but otherwise direct their educational experience based on their needs and schedules, could potentially improve access to education drastically.  Another selling point of blended learning classrooms is the potential for cost-effectiveness.  A 2004 Educause report notes that blended learning approaches can reduce instructional costs by 25 to 50 percent, while maintaining direct contact with a teacher when the student needs it.

Education Next profiled Communities in Schools’ “Performance Learning Communities”, which employs a blended learning model using various online platforms supplemented by one-on-one time with a teacher as facilitator, with little directed instruction at all.  The programs target students who are at risk of graduating late or not at all (though students must pass a proficiency test demonstrating they can complete reading and math tasks at the 8th grade level).  Indeed, many programs are marketed as “alternative education”, to be accessed after students have already failed in the traditional model.  The Educause report states that a program at University of Central Florida demonstrated higher student success than the equivalent face-to-face class, and lower attrition than the equivalent online course.  However, blended learning models are not limited to credit-recovery, and several successful programs are implemented for students on-track to graduate, and some allow for accelerated progress.

There is reason to believe, and mounting evidence, that blended learning environments could benefit students, schools, and districts.  The flexibility in course offerings should be of particular interest to small or isolated communities where schools are limited in their resources and available courses.  Leaders considering a blended learning program should determine who the target audience is, and choose a model according to the expected outcomes, planned implementation, and resources available.  Faculty and staff should be willing to work in the radically different environment and expectations of the blended learning classroom, and should possess the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to run the classroom.  Leaders should also determine the appropriate online platform, including open-source and third-party commercial contractors, and solicit proposals from any commercial partner explaining how their product works successfully in the blended environment.  Foremost, new programs must be a drastic departure from standard instruction to be worth the effort and expense of startup.  A blended learning classroom cannot simply be a traditional classroom with more online instruction; the value in this innovation is how it totally reconfigures educational delivery, and leaders of these programs cannot be bound by the structures and rules of the past.

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