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Blended Learning Involves Online Learning...But More

A Smooth Blend

Blended learning involves online learning – but more.

In the past, teachers may have tried to provide a mix of experiences for their students by herding them outside or reading to them aloud. Occasionally a visitor would come into the classroom. A few times a year there was a field trip.

But today, with technology that lets students move out of the classroom virtually and learn in other new ways, they may face a wide range of approaches that provide them with a stimulating change in the setting, in the material and in the delivery of a lesson -- all of it stacking up to give them "personalized" learning opportunities.

Michael Horn, author of the book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, says that at least a quarter of students are experiencing this type blended learning for part of their day in a variety of settings and at all levels of school. And, he says, it is not always part of state or national education policy – but driven by teachers and schools who see the opportunities and the benefits.            

“We see a lot occurring in reading and math at the elementary school level, and in high school many students experience blended learning either in credit recovery courses, in advanced courses, or as part of a flipped classroom that teachers put in place,” he says. “My sense is that this has been more a bottoms-up trend from within districts – either teacher, principal, or superintendent-led."           

And, he says, blended learning – and particularly online learning, which is a major part of it – will grow. “If it hasn’t rocked a school, it will soon,” he says.  

Experts say blended learning often is seen as another name for independent class work online, but Horn notes that it is critical for it to include support from teachers, but perhaps in different ways. It changes the classroom to focus on new methods of teaching to meet the individual student’s needs – blending together various tools and approaches that are available today.

“At its worst, it is textbook reading and solo computer-based assignments at night or inside the classroom online without much support,” says Trace Pickering associate director at Education Reimagined, a group advocating for new approaches to "student centered" teaching such as blended and personalized learning. “At its best, it allows teachers to bring a measure of personalization, student interest, and self-pacing to the curriculum and to the standards they are required to teach, using a variety of tools."

Pickering notes, however, it should be undertaken carefully. “The very best expressions of blended learning in traditional settings are blends of discipline areas and shared projects rather than only shifting the place and order of the prescribed learning.”           

Horn says now students increasingly learn online while attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school, and students and teachers have adjusted. Even in younger grades students are working online and understand how to make the best use of those resources – for research and assessments, for instance. And teachers increasingly know how to control and direct student technology use, which some experts said initially, as it was introduced, was a challenge.

Too often when online resources first became available, teachers were not prepared for the distractions technology would bring, then perhaps became to restrictive. Now, experts say, they are finding how to add to their classroom management repertoire an ability to effectively direct students as they go online.

Horn says blended learning can allow those who struggle with a lesson to get more attention when otherwise they can become frustrated and drop into a cycle of feeling lost.           

“Many students need just a little more time on a concept to master it. But when the class moves on the students don't get the material at their personalized level,” he says. “As a result, their gaps cause them to grow farther and farther behind and there is no way for them to catch up as each concept builds upon the last. They start to conclude whole subjects – or school itself – just isn't for them; they'll never be successful. These moments happen many times each day. Blended learning can help personalize and end this."           

He also says it also creates students who are engaged and self-motivated and who are more likely to become life-long learners, although to be effective it may require additional work for teachers upfront. If done effectively, Pickering notes, it will save them time later, however, when students are moving through work independently.           

Here are five steps to help teachers develop blended learning in their classrooms.          

  1. Get information. Find out about all the options for blending your classroom – and what is practical in your environment. Ask for help within your building and district (someone is probably doing each part you hope to implement) and read the variety of material online about it.
  2. Establish goals: Think through what you're trying to accomplish. A break from traditional learning? Allowing speedy learners some independence or giving yourself time to help students who are lagging?  Your goals should be carefully considered as you plan your approach – and you should consider how you will measure whether they have been met.
  3. Step by step. Develop a plan for how you want your classroom mix to take shape, perhaps moving in stages in a logical way. Map out a short-term and long-term strategy. Consider the make up of each class and the needs of the students – and re-adjust as necessary.      
  4. Evaluate and tinker. As with any new approach, often the time spent checking on its effectiveness is the most valuable. See if you are meeting your objectives, and ask colleagues to check. If you are evaluated formally, let those doing the evaluation know beforehand that blended learning is one of your objectives so they have an understanding of what you are doing and can help you evaluate it.
  5. Prepare to explain. Students, parents and others in your school will want to know why you are using varied approaches. Have a good, clear explanation of what you are doing and why. Such a “mission statement” will help you think through your objectives and assess your success,

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (