Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Blended Learning Varies in Effectiveness

Even when teachers skillfully tap into students' interest in digital tools to engage them in rigorous learning, their efforts may not include blended learning.  In a blog post today, Tom Vander Ark, a former Superintendent and the first Executive Director for Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, responded to my recent blog post entitled Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning.  Tom suggests that we should not be satisfied with students' effective use of digital tools in traditional brick and mortar settings. Following up on his post on HuffPost Education, Tom advocates the use of a blended model, in which students spend at least a portion of the day in an online environment. 
Blended learning should be encouraged in the context of a larger vision for teaching and learning.  In my last post, I described how students' use of digital tools in York County, Virginia is promoted within the context of our vision for engaging students in rigorous work.  Just as one should not assume that the use of technology in traditional brick and mortar settings will automatically yield benefits, one should not make the same assumption with blended learning.  Not all blended learning opportunities are equal or equally valuable.  So, as we expand blended learning options, let's be clear regarding how they fit in a larger vision for teaching and learning.
Tom Vander Ark recognizes variations among blended learning options.  He notes that many of the big state and national online learning providers are a "first gen" version of blended learning, featuring mostly flat and sequential content.  They do not realize the potential for a student-centered, customized approach, as described by Tom. 

Tom praises blended models not only for improved learning, but also for improved productivity.  While blended models offer tremendous learning potential, effective blended models may not be any less expensive than traditional brick and mortar models.  Tom envisions an important role for teachers.  For example, they might  custom-craft a " tech-rich project-based environment  .  .  .  (and) teach small groups ready for a specific lesson."  Less effective blended models minimize the role of the teacher and student-teacher interaction.   Last week I facilitated a panel discussion regarding virtual learning options at the Virtual Learning Virginia Conference.  It was clear from panel discussions and informal conversations that some blended learning experiences are cheap, but lack much student-teacher interaction.

We (the York County School Division) offer more than fifty virtual courses to our students.  We have applied to the Virginia Department of Education for approval as a multi-division provider in order to work with other school districts in Virginia to serve their students.  However, I am even more enthusiastic about our initial steps with integrating virtual learning with the courses in our brick and mortar schools.  Several of our teachers of virtual courses are experimenting with using our digital learning platform as part of their more traditional courses.  Their students access web sites, videos, problems, and other content through our digital learning platform.  All of our middle school teachers of Spanish, Algebra, and Geometry include a virtual component in their courses.  For example, one middle school Algebra teacher held a videoconference with students via Elluminate in order to review for a mid-term exam.  Student posed questions orally and through the chat feature.  The teacher watched students attempt to solve problems, while also demonstrating solutions herself.  This videoconference and our other initial steps with blended learning reinforce our sense that blended models offer significant potential.

Where will our journey with blended models take us?  Tom writes, "The old elementary job of one teacher and 25 kids of  the same age but varying learning levels in the same room for 180 is too hard.  The old high school job of teaching five sections of 30 kids doesn’t work very well for students or teachers." He also calls for dynamic scheduling, team-based staffing, case-managed services, and competency-based assessments embedded in learning experiences.

I'm not sure what blended models will look like in a few years, but, as we move forward let's proceed within the context of a broader student-centered vision for teaching and learning.  Also, let's not overpromise in terms of the cost of effective blended models.  While blended models are not a cheap panacea, they offer substantial potential for engaging students in rigorous learning. 


  1. This blog post makes some excellent points about blended learning: what works and what may not. I think it is a mistake to pigeonhole blended learning as primarily a credit recovery solution (as it is viewed by many in California) or that it is a guarantee money saver for districts.

    The blended learning models that will be most effective will absolutely value the teacher as a critical component to learning. Unfortunately, any teachers already fear the term "blended learning" as they assume it means a loss of control over the delivery/creation of curriculum and less face time with students.

    It is a mistake to assume that the term "blended learning" refers to any one model as it is being defined in a variety ways by a variety of people. For some it is the blend of a virtual on campus lab with teacher time, but for others it is the blend of online classes and traditional classes.

    I want teachers to "claim" this term and make it their own. At its root "blended learning" refers to any combination of traditional classes with an online element. For me, I have spent two years using my Collaborize Classroom discussion platform to design questions for discussion, student driven projects, creative writing opportunities, etc. that I did not have the TIME for prior to adopting and implementing an online learning platform.

    For me the discussions were the key and teachers need the necessary support to successfully integrate this model. In a time of budget cuts, I hope that people higher up will have the foresight to realize that a blended learning model will only be as successful if teachers are provided the professional development (preferably peer led by experts in education). If teachers are not supported and given opportunities to learn, then I worry it will not have long-term success.

    Catlin Tucker

  2. I enjoyed reading your post. I agree that it will take some time, to create a blended model that is educationally sound. One that provides the balance necessary for a successful, student driven, teacher enriched experience. Allowing for further enrichment or mediation through a project based environment is one blended model I would like to explore. Not quite sure exactly how that would look at this time, but I believe blended learning in general will change the brick and mortar setting and force educators to look at the bell to bell schedule like we never have before.