Around five years ago, there was a lot of buzz around the idea of Blended Learning. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were faltering, and a blended approach promised to revive online learning.
Beginning in 2007, MOOCs were proposed as a cure for all the problems of traditional education. Experts from every field would post video lectures, quizzes, and course materials. Anyone with an internet connection would gain access to a world-class education. Knowledge would spread like wildfire, and walls of inequity would come tumbling down
There are several reasons why the experiment failed. The popular explanation was that MOOCs lacked the “personal touch.” But this explanation ignores a deeper problem. After all, were students in 300-person lectures really motivated by personal connections? Even in smaller classes, it’s hard to believe that teacher charisma is the main source of student motivation.
A bigger problem for MOOCs was a fundamental misunderstanding of the learning process. The courses were designed solely around information delivery, just one small part of how we learn.
But why are completion rates so much higher for live courses? Most live courses are also built around information delivery.
Part of the reason is, in fact, personal connections — primarily with peers, but also with teachers. But most students in live classes are working towards extrinsic rewards: grades, degrees, jobs, and admission to other schools.
So if we can learn anything from the MOOC experiment, it’s that students aren’t all that interested in learning through information delivery. At least when it’s stripped of accountability and personal connections. The question is, what’s the alternative?
How Blended Learning Addresses the MOOC Problem
In response to the failures of online learning, education innovators created blended learning. A blended approach combines in-person learning with online instruction. Most definitions also include some element of student control over the pace and path of their learning.
You may not have heard of blended learning, but you’ve probably heard of some BL models, such as the “flipped classroom” or “station rotation.” At first, I was really excited about blended learning. When I first became a teacher coach, my title was “Blended Learning Specialist.” Originally, this blog was even called Blended Learners.
For several years, I supported a dozen or so schools with their blended learning programs. Teachers were flipping classes and rotating stations. But we still relied almost entirely on an information delivery model.
At some point, I realized we’d been too focused on when and where students were learning, and not enough on how and why. Was it really that different for students to watch lectures at home instead of in school? Or to move from table to table, if they were just switching from paper worksheets, to digital ones?
Eventually, the excitement around blended learning faded. But as schools explore how to safely return to in-person classes, blended learning is reentering the conversation. Schools are splitting students into A Groups and B Groups, and dividing instructional time between in-person and remote learning.
While it’s important to determine where and when students will learn, we also need to talk about what the learning experience will look like. About why these models are being chosen, and how teachers can connect the in-person and online components of their classes.
The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan was a communications researcher and philosopher who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” He meant that the medium we use to convey ideas is interwoven with the ideas themselves.
For example, the invention of motion pictures challenged our ideas of time and perspective. They changed how we understanding the world, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with books or radio.
Over the past century, the primary medium of communication has evolved rapidly, from print, to radio, to television. The internet represents multiple shifts, as it has evolved from text, to web, video, social media, and so on.
With each shift, successful communicators leverage the benefits of the new medium. When television dramas replaced TV dramas, they didn’t just videotape people reading lines. And as news sites and social media replace newspapers and magazines, the stories being told are changing as well.
So when we move our live classes online, it’s important to recognize that we are changing mediums. Online learning isn’t better than in-person learning. But it’s not worse, either.
The true test of our approach to blended learning will be how well we maximize the benefits offered by both in-person and online instruction.
Benefits of In-Person Learning
Let’s start with the obvious. For most of us, in-person learning is easier. It’s what we’re used to. It’s what almost all of our training and resources have been designed for.
And there is just no replacement for being able to look students in the eye and put a hand on their shoulder. There’s nothing like a lively discussion among people in the same room.
I have never experienced a great multi-person conversation over videoconference. The lag-time, the difficulty of making eye contact with the speaker…the list of ways that live discussions are superior goes on and on.
Most of us have also noticed the benefits of assessing students in-person. Formative assessments can be done by looking over our students’ shoulders, or even just seeing their faces. We can get instant feedback on where they are striving and where they are struggling.
But the biggest edge for in-person learning may be the formal assessments. I don’t think anyone, including the Educational Testing Service, has figured out a way to test students remotely. The possibilities for cheating and technical difficulties make it nearly impossible to offer fair, high-stakes assessments.
Benefits of Online Learning
But online learning offers its own benefits. The biggest being that we can focus on instruction. No arrival and dismissal. No commotion in the hallways, lunch duties, or detentions.
One of my biggest challenges as a classroom teacher was being constantly distracted by non-instructional responsibilities. The benefit of being free of these shouldn’t be overlooked.
A related benefit is behavior management. When a resistant student is forced to sit in your classroom, they can interfere with other students’ ability to learn. In an online classroom, many of these students choose not to attend. And if they’re too disruptive, there’s always the mute button. (Be honest, how many of you will miss that when we eventually return?)
While low attendance is its own challenge, it does allow us to focus our attention on the students who do attend.
If we really think outside of the box, we can find even more fundamental benefits of online instruction. One is flexibility. Our online classes don’t need to fit into a 45-minute or 90-minute structure.
We can plan mini-projects that cross several days, incorporate personalized and adaptive learning, or schedule small group discussion sessions and breakout rooms.
Many educators worry about the “lack of structure” within online learning environments. But while students do need time to adjust, loosely-structured environments offer proven benefits for executive functioning and social-emotional learning.
Traditional Blended Learning Models
Traditional learning models, often described as gradual release or or “I do, we do, you do,” are designed around information delivery. First, a teacher provides information (‘I do’) through lecture, modeling, or handouts. Then, students complete practice questions as a group (‘We do’). Finally, they show they’ve learned the content through homework assignments, quizzes, or tests (‘You do’).
The key here is to ensure that testing occurs in a physical classroom. There really is no way to ensure the integrity of a test if you’re not in the room.
The easiest part is the “I do” portion. For lectures, students can be in a room with us, watching over livestream, or even watching a video (the ‘flipped’ model).
And if you’re using recorded lectures, find ones that have already been made, rather than making your own. I know a lot of teachers prefer to make their own videos, but that’s really a teacher-centered concern – your students will learn just as much from someone else’s video. The time it takes to record and edit your own videos would be much better spent connecting with your students in other ways.
In traditional classes, the ‘We do’ section consists of an interactive lecture. Google slides, PearDeck, and NearPod can be used for interactive lectures in school or at home.
Progressive Blended Learning Models
A progressive approach helps increase student engagement, differentiate instruction, and promote social-emotional and conceptual learning. If you’ve already embraced student-centered learning, there’s no reason to revert to lectures in a blended model.
Consider the Three-Bridges Design for Learning. The idea is that there are three ways to structure learning in schools: Content Coverage, Personalized, or Inquiry-Based. Each model has its own measures of success, and each addresses a different learning need.
Content Coverage: Focuses on delivering information, and assessing what students have remembered. The class moves through content at the same pace. While this is the sole focus in a traditional classroom, it’s only ⅓ of the focus in a Three-Bridges approach.
Personalized Learning: Skill-focused and based on each student’s needs and interests. Students in the same class may learn different skills, based on their need for remediation, enrichment, or acceleration. PL usually relies on an adaptive platform.
Inquiry-Based Learning: The focus here is on application and social-emotional learning. Instead of providing information, we present challenges in the form of problems or projects. The three-part workshop model (Inspire, Inquire, Reflect) works well online or in-person.
Three-Bridges addresses many of the challenges of a blended schedule, including limited instructional time. The content coverage bridge is the same as the traditional model: lectures are delivered in-person or online, while testing takes place at school.
For personalized learning, students work remotely on adaptive platforms. Teachers meet periodically with each student (in-person or online) to review goals and progress.
Inquiry-Learning could cross over. The Inspire component can be done in either setting. Inquire is in-person when special materials are needed (such as a science lab). Ironically, group meetings will work better remotely, due to social distancing. Reflection can be done remotely for written reflections, but presentations work best face-to-face.
Disastrous Blended Learning Models
I was shocked to hear how many schools are planning to livestream their in-person classes. When Group A students are learning remotely, they tune in to see the Group B students learning in a live classroom.
Schools that use this model are going to seriously regret it. And not just because of privacy laws. Just think about how challenging it was to shift from live instruction to online learning. Sure, we all learned a lot, and even benefited to some extent from the creative constraints.
But remember the bit about the medium and the message? Broadcasting live classes doesn’t allow us to leverage the benefits of either in-person or online teaching. Imagine being asked to write a movie that would be shown in theaters AND broadcast over the radio. For it to even make sense over the radio, it would be a really boring movie.
Asking teachers to teach like this is incredibly unfair. It virtually guarantees they will have to resort to lecture-based teaching. They’ll be working ten times as hard, and students still won’t learn as much.
I do understand why some educators are considering this approach. We are all worried about losing half of our instructional hours.
But this is where a progressive approach really shines. Stop wasting class time on passive listening. Deliver a short mini-lesson to launch problem-based and project-based activities. Use remote time for small-group activities or personalized learning. Schedule monthly goal-setting or “well-being” check-ins with each student.
Planning for Blended Learning
Whichever approach you choose for blended learning, the key is to plan ahead. If we plan one week at a time, or straight from the textbook, we focus on what we need to “get through,” instead of thinking about where we need to “get to.”
Grant Wiggins’ backwards-design approach, presented in Understanding by Design, has become the gold standard in curriculum planning. The key is to start with a learning target, determine how to assess it, and then create a plan for learning.
When I help schools design custom curriculum plans, we work through this process on three levels. First, we establish a vision for a graduating student (in academic and social-emotional terms). Then, we break the school-wide goal into concise bullet-points for each subject and grade level. Then, we break the grade level goals into unit objectives with unit plans.
Teachers who go through this process realize that they can “cover their standards” more quickly than they thought. The efficiency of yearly and unit planning lets us invest time into differentiation and hands-on learning.
Most schools are now anticipating a 50% loss of instructional time. Not to mention the Spring learning gaps to be addressed. Regardless of which blended model you choose, a unit-based approach will be critical for success.
Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff