The educational practice commonly known as "blended learning" has been around for quite some time now, but a universally agreed upon definition is still hard to come by. So, what is blended learning?
At its most basic level, the term refers to the use of online learning methods and technologies to complement and enhance the traditional classroom experience. "Blended learning is one of the most powerful and influential innovations in education," according to aeseducation.com, because it combines "the benefits of face-to-face education with the anywhere-anytime power of the Internet."
The concept of blended learning dates to the early uses of technology to enhance training in the 1960s, and the term itself has been in use since the advent of the Internet in the 1990s. The practice began to grow in popularity following the 2006 publication of The Handbook of Blended Learning, which sought to introduce a more concrete definition to describe learning systems that "combine face-to-face instruction with computer-mediated instruction."
The Online Learning Consortium describes blended learning as an educational practice in which "a portion of the traditional face-to-face instruction is replaced by web-based online learning."
Many definitions of blended learning share the consensus that it typically includes three important components. The Blended Learning Universe describes these as:
- Part of the educational experience is delivered online in a way that gives students "some element of control over the time, place, path, or pace of their learning."
- Part of the educational experience occurs "in a brick-and-mortar location away from home," most commonly a school.
- Finally, these elements are integrated in a planned "learning path," coordinated by a teacher, that is designed to provide each student with a well-balanced educational experience.
Blended Learning Models and Strategies
Advancements in technology have created exciting new possibilities in the world of education. Now that countless teachers and school districts have been engaged in blended learning for a number of years, there is much to be learned from the tools and strategies they are integrating into the traditional classroom learning experience.
Today, blended learning is implemented around the globe using a number of different models. How many models? Well, like the definition of blended learning, the answer to that question differs depending on whom you ask.
According to Blended Learning Universe, there are seven distinct blended learning models:
- Station Rotation. Students rotate through stations on a fixed schedule, with at least one of the stations being an online learning experience. This model is said to be most common in elementary schools. (See video: "How and Why to Integrate Station Rotation into Your Classroom")
- Lab Rotation. Like Station Rotation, the Lab Rotation model guides students through a series of stations on a fixed schedule but, in this case, incorporates a dedicated computer lab. This model "allows for flexible scheduling arrangements with teachers and other paraprofessionals, and enables schools to make use of existing computer labs."
- Individual Rotation. Students also rotate through stations, but on individual schedules set by a teacher or an educational software algorithm. In this model, students don't necessarily spend time at each station but focus their energies specifically on the activities scheduled on their playlists.
- Flipped Classroom. Students learn at home via online coursework, lectures and videos, and teachers use classroom time for projects that expand upon the lessons learned online -- essentially flipping the traditional relationship between class time and homework. (See video: "What a 'Flipped' Classroom Looks Like")
- Flex. Students move on fluid schedules among learning activities according to their needs in the Flex model, which is designed to give students a higher degree of control over their learning. Online learning is the "backbone" of the Flex model, with teachers providing support and instruction on a flexible, as-needed basis as students work through the course curriculum and content.
- A La Carte. This model blends online courses and face-to-face courses, providing students with additional flexibility in their schedules. This method is particularly helpful in instances when schools aren't able to provide particular learning opportunities.
- Enriched Virtual. Students complete the majority of coursework outside the classroom, "but attend school for required face-to-face learning sessions with a teacher" in the Enriched Virtual model. Unlike a Flipped Classroom, daily school attendance is not required, as online studies are complemented by, for example, twice-weekly in-school sessions.
Blended Learning Tools
The online component of blended learning requires tools ranging from the devices that students use (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc.) to the software and organising infrastructure designed for the teachers who coordinate the blended learning experience.
One commonly used tool is learning management software (LMS) that helps teachers organise their blended learning programs, with features that can include "virtual classroom" technology, online collaborative functionality, and the ability to customise "learning paths" and then track the effectiveness of their efforts with learning analytics.
Well-known examples include Blackboard, Moodle, Mindflash and LearnUpon. The website eLearningIndustry.com has compiled a directory of several hundred "Learning Management Systems with Blended Learning Support," along with ratings, reviews and links to product websites.
There are also countless high-tech tools that have been developed to support and enhance online learning generally, as well as blended learning specifically, ranging from educational games to next-generation educational technology tools that can be used in the physical or virtual classroom.
For a look at a diverse selection of videos and articles, tools and strategies, and helpful online links, Edutopia.org has compiled a comprehensive "Blended Learning: Resource Roundup" for teachers and educators.
The Many Benefits of Blended Learning
When asked about the benefits of blended learning, Shawn Rubin, director of blended learning for the nonprofit Highlander Institute, has said: "When it's done right, the student is at the center of everything and becomes the driver of his or her own learning.... A smart use of technology and ed-tech tools can help teachers figure out how their students are doing day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute. Blended learning can provide teachers with crucial feedback that enables them to intervene with greater precision and effectiveness and customise learning for their students."
Additional benefits of the mix of online and classroom, teacher-led learning offered by blended learning models include:
- Personalisation -- Blended learning enables students to learn at their own pace, which also helps teachers who grapple with how to provide the most meaningful experience to students who may be learning at different levels.
- Tech literacy -- A solid understanding of how to use technology is practically essential when it comes to surviving and thriving in today's world. Blended learning reinforces the tech skills and computer literacy that students learn organically in their everyday lives.
- Parental involvement -- Parents enjoy a greater ability to participate in their children's education thanks to the online components of blended learning, with opportunities to interact and view their child's progress through a virtual window into what they are working on each day.
- Convenience and flexibility -- With blended learning, students gain added flexibility. For example, if they are sick or if the family takes an extended vacation, they are able to stay connected to the classroom.
- Ability to teach to multiple learning styles in one classroom -- For teachers, an expanded ability to teach more effectively to all students, no matter what their learning style, is one of the greatest benefits of blended learning.
The Blended Learning 'Learning Curve'
The high-tech, online aspect of blended learning means there is often a learning curve involved for teachers who may be less familiar with next-generation educational technology.
Interestingly, the well-established benefits of online learning can also come into play in the teacher education scenario, now that more colleges and universities are utilising virtual technology tools and methodologies to deliver Master of Education degree programs.
From blended learning to digital literacy and differentiated instruction, many modern M.Ed. programs now offer the opportunity to specialise in leading-edge aspects of the 21st-century educational experience.
Patricia De Saracho works for the University of San Diego where she supports an innovative, 100 percent online Master of Education degree program that utilises the Blackboard learning management system. Patricia is passionate about education and the role it can play in affecting positive change.
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