First appeared in Blogcritics.
If you have been reading any educational news recently, much of it has to do with extending the school day and year in order to give students more of what they need, but how about if there was an alternative? Blended learning may be the answer that will meet the needs of educators and students, at what should be a fraction of the cost of extending school days and years (which means increasing salaries and overhead).
Blended learning is a combination of online and in classroom instruction, with opportunities available to meet the needs of all students at various levels. The misnomer here is that it is not like using a blender (throwing everything into one container and hitting the blend button), but rather a skillful attempt to bring students along at their own pace, enhance what is possible within a regular school day, and challenge those students who may need something more than they are getting.
As an educator, I have always felt like there is not enough time in in the day. Anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom knows this to be true, but also because we have held to the old model for so long. If we spend the first ten minutes of a lesson checking last night’s homework, we set up the no-win scenario of never getting to the actual lesson plan or completing it. Blended learning can be many things – a combination of online instruction and classroom follow-up in numerous variations.
Imagine if the evening before my students had been “taught” the lesson online? So let’s say I am teaching subject-predicate agreement, and students had an opportunity to watch this lesson at their own pace, stopping and starting it again as often as necessary. What if there was also an interactive component that allows students to ask questions about the lesson if they were uncertain about something? The next day in the classroom becomes an entirely different situation. The "homework" (the lesson) then actually becomes part of a lesson that sets up advanced opportunities. Those who still do not get it could also put on headphones and use an iPad or PC to get more help, and those gifted and extremely talented students could do the same thing to enhance their experience. All the while a teacher is available to answer questions too, to solve problems, and to not only truly “differentiate” instruction but to bring it to a higher level than was ever possible before.
Since blended learning is so new – an educational frontier to be sure – there should be great excitement about its possibilities but also extreme caution in its implementation. Districts and schools need to invest in the technology to make this happen, train teachers, and prepare students for the brave new world that will combine online and in-classroom instruction. The wonderful thing about blended learning is that it is not carved in stone, and this flexibility could allow schools and districts to use it to best meet the needs of its population.
In high schools there could be a more rigorous model where students spend four evenings a week “in class” as they observe lessons (taught by their teachers), and then go into school prepared to discuss what they have learned. As an administrator, nothing has bothered me more than visiting a classroom and observing students reading from the textbook. The teacher will defend this by saying that he/she needs to be sure the text was read; however, this is an almost criminal waste of time.
Blended learning offers a solution to this that is pretty painless – students can read that informational text online (or join an interactive lesson where the text is being read). If we are reading about the American Industrial Revolution, wouldn’t it be far more productive to have this done the evening before, so that students could come into class ready to participate in an active discussion, answer essential questions, and bring the in-class experience to a level of discourse that would not have been possible before? Students who are having problems with a subject can benefit from this process as well. There can be additional lessons – ones taught at a slower pace or even focusing on one aspect of difficulty – at their disposal online anytime of the day or night. There also can be a parent portal that will allow parents and guardians an opportunity to also observe the lessons in order to assist their children as much as possible.
The beauty of blended learning is that it respects the teacher’s place in the educational equation. Students and teachers still need to be in a classroom for it to work, but the wonderful thing is that the time in that classroom will be more about higher order thinking and learning, made possible by the online component that has expanded the day without increasing time students and teachers have to be in a physical classroom. With blended learning the possibilities are endless, but it is up to school districts and their leaders to recognize that the golden opportunities blended learning makes available.
During the summer months, blended learning could take the old “summer school” model and knock it over. Imagine a student who needed to take a summer course to pass his/her English class. The student would have an online learning module that would have to be completed over the summer. The parents could still take the family on vacation, the student would not have to suffer in the classroom, and the requirements could be met by the student watching lessons and completing assignments online. We always hear about “thinking out of the box” in order to move things forward, and educators tend to cling to what they know because it seems to be proven, but the world we live in requires flexibility and connectivity that we have not embraced before.
Blended learning is a frontier for education – a brave new world for educators and students to embrace with full vigor. It’s a promising opportunity that could not only change teaching as we know it now but for the foreseeable future.
Photo credits: old time classroom- edublogs.com ; computer class-npr.org