When I heard that Innosight Institute was releasing its latest white paper on blended learning titled “Classifying K-12 Blended Learning,” I was eager to read what Heather Staker and Michael Horn had to say about the evolution of blended learning in K-12.
I’ve been an outspoken advocate for blended learning in K-12 and appreciate the efforts made by Innosight Institute to define blended learning. That said, I am concerned about the implications of the current definition and redefined models. I agree that “definitions are important because they create a shared language,” but the way we define a concept like blended learning can have an enormous impact on how it is perceived and implemented.
There is an underlying focus on “content” and “instruction” in this definition of blended learning, which disturbs me. The revised definition states that “blended learning is a formal education program in which a students learns at least part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.”
Much of the work being done by innovative individuals in education focuses on rethinking the way we teach students, and technology is a big part of this conversation. The most inspiring messages I hear are about using technology to engage students in critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, innovation and creation. To accomplish these tasks, learning and engagement must be paramount to content and instruction.
I wish we were defining blended learning as “a formal education program in which a student is engaged in active learning at least in part online where they have some control over the time, place, and/or pace and in part at a brick and mortar location away from home.”
It should be noted that I have removed “path” from my amended definition because it is defined in the paper as learning that “is no longer restricted to the pedagogy used by the teacher. Interactive and adaptive software allows students to learn.” The suggestion that the pedagogy of a teacher is restrictive and limiting is not one I feel I can support. Teachers are educated, trained and spend years perfecting their craft. They bring personality, empathy, experience and variety to curriculum that a computer cannot. Well-designed software can be a valuable tool in the education process. However, computer software and online content should not be preferable to an actual teacher in a blended learning model.
I do not want the term “blended learning” defined as a teaching model that is only accessible to teachers in schools that have abbreviated schedules, learning labs, paid-for content and/or online learning programs. The way it is defined in this white paper seems to alienate traditional teachers who are looking to make online learning a meaningful part of their curriculum.
The flipped classroom model is the only sub-category of blended learning that offers the traditional teacher a route to blended learning as defined in this white paper. As I said in my earlier blog about the flipped classroom, the beauty of the flipped classroom lies in the simple realization that instruction can take place in different mediums. Watching a video does not necessarily mean students are learning. As educators we must build into the flipped model a component that requires students to think deeply about what they have seen and engage with that information in a meaningful way. In the same way, I don’t think that “delivering” content online via software equates to learning.
Technology has made it possible to match the instructional activity with the environment that makes the most sense. However, the flipped classroom is not the only model that offers the teacher in a typical school the opportunity to engage students in meaningful learning online.
I take issue with the definition of the online learning component of a blended learning model defined as “an education where content and instruction are delivered primarily over the Internet.” This idea of the Internet delivering the content and instruction does not sit well with me.
When content and instruction are “delivered” online, we are not radically changing the traditional teaching paradigm to improve student learning. It is digitally replicating the system we currently have where teachers instruct and students are passive participants in the process. The only difference is that the computer is disseminating information instead of the teacher. Shouldn’t the goal be to transition students from passive observers to active participants? Can this be accomplished if they interact with “adaptive software”? Wouldn’t communication and collaboration with other students (in person and online) be a more meaningful path to develop the skills needed to be college and career ready?
In their white paper, Staker and Horn point out the difference between “technology-rich instruction” and “blended learning,” stating that a technology-rich classroom has “digital enhancements” but “the Internet, however, does not deliver the content and instruction.” If we are going to distinguish between a technology-rich classroom and a blended learning model, I believe the distinction should focus on how the technology is used. If the primary purpose of the technology is to assist teachers in their practice of teaching (e.g. using a smart board or posting information on a learning platform), then that denotes a technology-rich classroom. If the technology is used to engage students in active learning online, that is technology used to create a blended curriculum.
I want to see value placed on active learning and engagement. In my book, I talk about the importance of discussion in learning, but that piece of the educational puzzle feels oddly absent from this definition of blended learning. Students need a space in which they can work with their peers to explore concepts, ask questions, problem solve, collaborate and create. Technology provides opportunities to engage students in active, meaningful learning where every student has a voice and is connected to a dynamic network of peers. The power of this connection and the dialogue at the root of learning cannot be understated as we look to revolutionize learning using technology.
Learning does not take place in the act of listening to (or viewing) information explained, but rather in the moments when we are asked to make sense of that information, to wrestle with ideas, to apply, evaluate, synthesize and use what we have learned to create something.
In their white paper, Staker and Horn “invite others to contribute to this research by offering improvements and additions.” As an educator with a passionate belief in the potential of blended learning, I wanted to share my vision for what I believe blended learning can be.
My biggest fear is that blended learning, which I believe has the potential to empower teachers and transform learning for students, will be a vehicle used to marginalize teachers. This is why I encourage educators to claim and define the term “blended learning” to ensure that we help shape the future of blended learning in K-12.