BY KEVIN HODGSON

Joseph is a typical student who is reading a novel about the internment of Japanese-American citizens during the aftermath of World War II. Like many high English Language Arts sessions, there are plenty of in-class guided discussions that are led by the teacher. But Joseph’s learning and inquiry extends beyond the classroom walls and beyond the school day. Using a closed online site that has been set up by his teacher, Joseph and his classmates are required to complete a series of activities that demonstrate what they are learning about the internment issue. Joseph finds some source videos online at the Internet Archive and uses iMovie to create a remix version of the experience of a young child in the camp. Joseph’s project is persuasive in nature, trying to convince his audience that the government was wrong in what it did to United States citizens. He sets up a Voicethread and embeds it into his online space so that others in the class can give him audio feedback on his project even as his teacher posts comments and suggestions about the project to Joseph’s online forum while checking in with him during class time. Joseph dutifully keeps a log of his activities and completes weekly surveys posted by his teacher on his progress. The final project is a presentation in the classroom of his persuasive video, along with a multimedia reflection by Joseph that integrates peer feedback. Later, after more revision sparked by his class presentation, Joseph posts the video project at his class website, extending his audience to the world.

What is blended learning?

As technology becomes more and more prevalent and accessible for students and educators, the concept of “blended learning” is becoming a more common idea. Blended learning is the concept of integrating face-to-face instruction with technology-infused environments that are geared towards constructive interactions among peers and student-to-teacher. Unlike the idea of a virtual high school, for example, where students hail from all parts of the world but only inhabit an online space for learning, blended learning environments are built on the foundations of teachers knowing their students — strengths and weaknesses — in the classroom as well as online. The inquiry of the students is at the heart of blended learning, as they explore interests within a framework established by the teacher.

Bobby Hobgood, director of research and development in online curriculum and instruction at LEARN NC, provides a useful definition for blended learning:

Blended learning is a student-centered approach to creating a learning experience whereby the learner interacts with other students, with the instructor, with content (both chosen and content accessed by the learner based on individual needs) in both online and face-to-face environments.  The instructional design of the experience organizes content, along with support materials, into synchronous and asynchronous learning events that are thoughtfully sequenced, with content that is delivered in variety of modes ranging from traditional lecture to online tutorials.  Communication and collaboration are transparent functions of a blended approach.  Formative assessment is embedded throughout learning events, requiring the learner to assume responsibility for personal learning.

Blended Learning environments are not haphazard places. A teacher should not set up an online space, open the door for students, stand back and wait for learning to take place, as if by magic. Instead, the teacher needs to be thoughtful in the construction of the online component, creating complementary blocks of instruction that utilize the affordances of the technology and medium, whether that is in the form of research, multi-modal composition, or more. Successful and rich blended learning environments are built around the possibilities now available with technology, so that — for example — a student learning about cells in science class can later conduct research (maybe even Skype with a real scientist), create their own animation of cellular mitosis, share that animation as a file in the online environment, reflect on the experience through chats with the teacher and become the expert of mitosis within a class that reaches both in the school and beyond.

Here, the teacher acts as a mentor, laying the groundwork for knowledge first in a live classroom and then guiding the inquiry along in the online space. A key component is that communication in a blended learning environment is both asynchronous and synchronous in nature, allowing students of various learning abilities to enter the conversations at various points. In the case above, the teacher might encourage a synchronous (real time) conversation among students in the class to generate questions for the interview with a scientist (or invite the scientist to take part in the conversation within the learning space) and have the student reflect upon each step of the project in an asynchronous (threaded archive) log.

Some origins of blended learning

Blended learning as a concept indicates a learning environment where students are using a variety of tools to engage in learning. This could be as simple as using a calculator, or learning stations around the room, or mobile devices. Historically, technology was not necessarily even part of blended learning. More and more, however, the idea of a blended learning environment has meant the use of technology to inform instruction as opposed to a teacher giving a lecture and students stuck in the role of passive listeners and learners. Blended learning engages students to become active in the inquiry process. Universities in particular began to experiment with blended learning by adapting the concept of distance learning in earnest in the 1990s, particularly at community colleges whose enrollment included many students with full-time jobs and/or families to take care of during the day. Today, utilizing such technology as Blackboard and other interactive platforms, most higher education organizations have courses that supplement classroom instruction with online involvement by students, and this hybrid model is one form of blended learning.

More and more high schools are now starting to follow that same path. Teachers are more apt to create class-specific social networking sites, or utilize course management software, or expect students to continue their engagement in their learning beyond the walls of the school and beyond the hours of the school day.

A survey of school administrators in the United States published a few years ago by The Sloan Consortium found:

  • 63.1% had one or more students enrolled in a fully online or blended course.
  • 57.9% had one or more students enrolled in a fully online course.
  • 32.4% had one or more students enrolled in a blended course.
  • A meta-study conducted by the US Department of Education looked at more than 1,000 studies of online classes and concluded that the blending of instruction — using online components as an extension of the physical classroom — seemed to indicate positive results for students.

    Among the findings of the study entitled “Evaluation of Evidence-based Practices in Online Learning“:

  • Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.
  • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.
  • The study, while noting that the data so far is relatively small in its sample, concluded by stating that, “In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to- face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. Even when used by itself, online learning appears to offer a modest advantage over conventional classroom instruction.”

    For the most part, due to concerns of online safety and access to technology (and comfort level of teachers), this model of blended learning has not yet become all that popular in the elementary and middle school levels.

    Elements of a productive blended learning space

    Creating a successful blended learning environment takes careful thought and preparation. The element of no direct physical presence requires teachers to map out potential avenues and direction for student learning, even while leaving space for individual inquiry. Here are some concepts that I believe we should keep in mind when designing a blended learning environment:

  • Envision the curriculum as a series of modules, or units, that ultimately fit together for the aims of the class. Each element of instruction — either set out in a time sequence or a series of achieved expertise/experience — should scaffold the learner to the next step forward. It’s important to point out that not every module of a blended learning unit need be steeped in interactive technology.
  • Use classroom time for guided technology, showing not only exemplars of the tools available and work completed with technology, but also some hands-on exploration in the presence of the teacher and peers.
  • Self-directed inquiry-based learning by the student should be encouraged as much as possible. Blended learning experiences lend themselves nicely to the concept of differentiated instruction because students can explore and create at their own pace, away from peer pressures and perceived classroom expectations. It is incumbent on the instructor to have in place multiple paths, however, so that the top student is as challenged as the struggling one.
  • The element of design of any online space component in blended learning is critical. The last thing an educator wants is a student confused by the navigation within a site. Make sure virtual paths and expectations are clearly marked and intuitive.
  • One thing that remains as central in this hybrid model as the traditional classroom: the teacher remains an extremely important nexus for any classroom activity, whether using technology such as online spaces or not.  A report by the International Association of K12 Online Learning came up with four traits for teachers either considering, or being considered for, a blended learning environment.

    A teacher should:

    1. Be able to facilitate interaction. As any news report will tell you, people can act differently in an online environment when social cues are not visible. It is important for the instructor to be a guiding presence for fostering a positive environment.
    2. Be highly responsive. Young people need and expect timely feedback and responses, and a void of silence is a sure way to stifle the activity of a site.
    3. Know web-based technologies. A teacher in a blended environment would do well to be an explorer and user of technology themselves. It is only through experimenting themselves and reflecting on the possibilities that meaningful integration can occur.
    4. Be trained in both synchronous and asynchronous instruction. There’s a certain skill to managing and following communication in these realms, and professional development around the use of real-time and archived discussions — and when to use which, for what purpose — is important.

    Not “one size fits all”

    Like any push into new terrain, a teacher might fall into the trap of merely taking long-time lesson plans from a traditional unit of instruction, uploading that assignment into a blended learning space and expecting results from students comparable to what was done traditionally in the classroom. For the most part, this just won’t work. The cookie-cutter approach that sometimes seems to dominate e-learning networks — the “one size fits all” conundrum — needs to be reconsidered if the tenets of blended learning — student inquiry, multi-modal composition, connectedness of the community, etc, — are to be fully reflected in the space. The teacher’s role here is to straddle the physical and virtual classrooms in such a way that encourages their students to explore, expand knowledge and experience learning in a vibrant way.

    Photo credit: mr.beaver on Flickr.