Blended Learning: Will the New Definition Alienate Teachers?

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. 

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11 Responses to Blended Learning: Will the New Definition Alienate Teachers?

  1. Robert Allen says:

    I like your focus on the “can” of blended learning, as it focuses on “where we need to take it”, especially with respect to the lowest performing schools as a priority. My definition has been and is also “can”-related;

    Blended Learning: face-to-face instruction tailored to students’ individual needs, based on strand and/or skill-specific mastery data provided by engaging and effective online instructional assessments.

    In other words, it is about data-driven instructional decisions being made by educators, with data provided to them through the most efficient means possible; in all, the most efficient use of time and tools for both the student and teacher.

  2. Robert Allen says:

    FYI, in the definition I provided, “ongoing,” was intended in place of “engaging”.

  3. Catlin says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your definition, Robert.

    I think tailoring instruction (face-to-face and online) to meet students’ individual needs is critical. I liked the addition of the terminology in the Innosight Institute’s definition about the student’s control over “time, pace and place” because differentiation is extremely important to student success. The aspect of your definition that concerns me as a public school teacher is that so few schools, given current budget cuts, are spending money on engaging and effective online instructional assessments. I do think these types of tools could be incredibly useful to a teacher to effectively assess where students are at and tailor instruction. Many of us must still rely on our own assessments and differentiation strategies to tailor instruction to ensure we challenge students at the top and support students at the bottom. I want to make sure there is a place in our definition of blended learning that allows these teachers without access to online instructional assessments to blend online learning with face-to-face learning.

    I appreciate you taking the time to post a comment and engage in this conversation!

    Catlin

  4. Marva Wilks says:

    I would like to see the definition include an assessment piece where teachers and students utilize the technology in a blended learning environment to guide instruction (teacher) and request instruction (student). I believe both of your comments validates the argument that instruction must be driven by specific learning goals. The use of various components of technology to authentically engage students not only provides for blended learning environment but also capitalize on the students’ ability to comfortably use the technology. However, the issue arises when a newly acquired piece of technology must be ‘integrated’ into the content whether or not it seamlessly fits into the instruction (hardware, software, web 2.0, etc.). Incorporating an accountability piece into the blended learning definition provides teachers and students with the opportunity to validate the learning. Therefore, the technology component must be tied the to the learning goals and its use instructionally makes sense…not just cool. As the barrier of time, pace, and place is removed, the student and the teacher are aware of the student’s academic progress in a blended learning environment. The use of an assessment component empowers the student to take ownership of his/her academic success.

    • Catlin says:

      Hello Marva,

      I agree that assessment – both formative and summative – are important to create accountability and to better meet the needs of each individual student. If teachers work in a school or district that can afford high quality assessment tools, wonderful. If not, it is important to teach educators how to effectively assess work done online to differentiate instruction to ensure all students are being challenged where they are at. It is also important that teachers make the work done online visible so students know how they are doing and what areas need improvement.

      Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts.

      Catlin

  5. Robert Allen says:

    Thank you for your reply Catlin. There are indeed effective means for teachers to adopt blended learning techniques that may not involve internet access and I do invite teachers, not only to request support and training for such, but to also be open to the possibility of district/school adoption of effective online learning tools that have been developed and proven effective, as the access and tools for use of such curriculum grows ever wider. In providing students with the most effective learning experience possible, as always, I believe the most efficient approach is a simultaneous bottom-up and top-down approach. If teachers endeaveor to adopt blend learning techniques in the way that fit’s their individual student situations, and district/school administration are called on to support the efforts of their school and teachers, students will only benefit from the meeting in the middle. Thank you again for what you do.

  6. I appreciated your thoughtful response to the white paper and your attention to the implications of the wording. We sweated over each word in that blended-learning definition, and appreciate your close reading!

    I wanted to address one of your central concerns, which is that by equating online learning to the “online delivery of content and instruction,” we are suggesting that online learning means the preeminence of software over a real teacher. If that’s what online delivery of content and instruction means, then you are right that we completely marginalize the role of a teacher.

    My experience observing countless blended-learning implementations, however, paints a very different picture of how online delivery of content and instruction plays out in actual classrooms. Consider the Acton Academy. It’s one of my favorite blended-learning elementary schools in the country, and it delivers its core academics through a Flex model. For math, students choose from a menu of online math programs, which “deliver content and instruction online” for roughly 30 minutes a day. But the face-to-face teachers are crucial. They meet with students at the start to set goals and position themselves as running partners for the math work ahead. As the online curriculum gets underway, teachers pull those in need aside and use Montessori-style manipulatives to reinforce tricky concepts. They roam the classroom constantly to offer just-in-time help. They monitor progress, review goals, and provide daily, one-on-one assistance. After the online work is complete, students work in teams to apply core academic skills through hands-on projects.

    Laura Sandefer, Acton Academy’s head of school, summed it up when she said “The vision of students glued to the screen hour after hour is what many people have when they hear ‘online learning.” The reality at Acton Academy shatters this image and sets us apart from schools that use technology as a band aid on a traditional school paradigm that simply doesn’t work.” Scroll down to “Surprising Truth #5” in this excellent blog: http://actonacademyparents.wordpress.com/.

    Acton Academy is only one of several examples that hopefully assuage your worry that under our definition, “the flipped classroom model is the only sub-category of blended learning that offers the traditional teacher a route to blended learning.” In fact, there are examples in every single blended-learning category and sub-category of blended learning liberating teachers to work more individually with students and spend more time engaged in the heart of their craft. Some do this online, some face-to-face in tandem with the online platform, and some a combination of both. These examples demonstrate that even if the Internet delivers content and instruction—in fact, because of the fact that the Internet delivers content and instruction—teachers are elevated to a new opportunity set professionally and students are finally getting a chance to learn in a more engaged, motivating, personally resonant way.

    • Catlin says:

      Thank you for taking the time to reply to my blog post, Heather.

      I have been following (and appreciating) the work you and Michael Horn have been doing on blended learning for a couple of years. I realize that defining a concept like blended learning is a daunting task. I also know your definition and models are the product of the research you do.

      My interest in blended learning came from my own desire to improve student learning, while being a more effective educator. My teaching practice was transformed when I began weaving together work done in the classroom with work done online. As a result, I encourage regular teachers (like myself) to embrace this term and use technology to create a blended curriculum that combines engagement and active learning in the classroom with meaningful work done online.

      As a public school teacher in a state experiencing painful budget cuts, I want to send teachers a message that they can create a blended learning model using web 2.0 technology that is readily available and, in many cases, free. Too often teachers feel like they are drowning in work and, as a result, students are not getting the best experience possible in the classroom. I believe teachers can use technology to differentiate instruction, connect students outside of the physical classroom, and create more time inside of the classroom to engage students in student-centered activities.

      I’m encouraged to hear that the Acton Academy is using technology to allow teachers the opportunity to work one-on-one with students to provide “just-in-time help” and allow students more time to explore hands-on activities to reinforce challenging concepts. This sounds like a special school that is using technology to create time and space in the classroom for teachers to be more effective, which is exciting. That said, this school clearly has the technology and resources to support this innovative approach to teaching. As I said in my blog, I do not want blended learning to be a teaching model that is only accessible to teachers who work in schools with the money to pay for computer programs, online educational content and assessment tools. I want every teacher to know they can design their own blended learning curriculum using technology to differentiate instruction, engage students in powerful learning and create student-centered classrooms.

      As technology continues to permeate our society, I am hopeful that they kind of blended learning model I am advocating for (definitely more of a grassroots approach, not district or school driven) will begin surface.

      Catlin

  7. Sid Stockdale says:

    I chair the history department in a large independent day school in New Mexico and have used a quasi blended learning model in my classroom for about two years. One of the implications it has had is that it allows me to find more creative ways to engage students and allow them to explore topics of their own choosing. I have also found it valuable to intersperce more content rich units periodically and this has helped manage the pace of the school year. Assessments too have become more varied and personalized and this has allowed me to see strengths in my students’ work that wasn’t revealed in more “traditional” assessments. I am looking forward to including more discussion board activities in the future.

    One of the other implications has been that I am more and more interested in the development of interactive e-textbooks and gaming. If you haven’t checked out inkling.com and looked at some of the work they are doing, I think you might find it interesting.

    The implications that blended learning has for our school are tremendous, and they are complex. Our teachers, twenty in my department, are given tremendous latitude in developing their individual syllabi and it’s not part of our culture to mandate change so our institutional move to blended learning has been slow but I sense it is gaining momentum. Eventually I could see us becoming a laptop school with a daily schedule modified to permit more independent student work time built into the school day.

  8. cruz rodriguez says:

    Thanks Catlin for providing us with such a great book. I also find myself very interested in blended learning. The more I research, the more convinced that this is the new way to teach. In order to become a more effective teacher, I need to gather as much information on blended learning. My concern is, I don’t have time for trial and error. I am presenting this idea to my administrators. If there is any suggestions you can make in helping me getting a blended course started, I would love to hear from you.
    This may come as links for proven methods and recommendations for books.
    I have been using Web 2.0 tools without even realizing it at first. I now want to see if I can get a LMS started for spearheading this idea at our high school. Again, great book. I really got a lot out of it and I hope to hear from you in the near future with an suggestions to help make this possible at my high school.

    Thanks,

    cruz

    • Catlin says:

      Hi Cruz,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the book! I wish I had other books to point you towards. Part of the reason I wrote my book was to provide educators in K-12 space with a practical resource on blended learning. There aren’t any books that I have found that provide concrete strategies and resources for primary and secondary teachers.

      The book was the product of my own trial and error, so I am glad you found it valuable. I agree with your statement that blended learning will eventually be the new way we teach. I expect that technology integration will become the norm.

      Here is an article about “Building a Blended Learning Program” that might be helpful since it is geared towards administrators: http://www.districtadministration.com/article/building-blended-learning-program

      This is an Educause resource: http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI80077.pdf

      I hope you are able to use these to prepare for your presentation to your administrators. Good luck!

      Catlin

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