Blended learning is the ‘buzz’ word around the world at the moment it would seem. It appears regularly through recent Ministry of Education documents on eLearning and effective teaching, and is a centre-piece of the latest round of eLearning professional development contracts.
We’ve certainly seen a rise in blended learning approaches in some NZ schools in recent years, particularly within the Virtual Learning Network, and now within some of the UFB schools, such as the GCSN in Christchurch.
A report just out from the US brings a timely perspective to this phenomenon, focusing specifically on the schooling sector. Titled, The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, the report concludes that, in the US, what was originally a distance- learning phenomenon no longer is. Most of the growth is occurring in blended-learning environments, in which students learn online in an adult-supervised environment at least part of the time.
The report is co-authored by Michael, Horn, who, along with Clay Christiansen and Curtis Johnson, wrote Disrupting Class, in which they address the dilemma of why, despite massive investment in technology over the past two decades, schools have failed to see the significant changes that have occurred in so many other areas. Their conclusion, schools have simply ‘crammed’ the technology into existing structures – they haven’t allowed it to disrupt the traditional ways of doing things.
Blended Learning may well prove to be a form of disruption that brings about the change we’ve been seeking. However, the K-12 report brings a stern warning:
The growth of online learning in brick-and-mortar schools carries with it a bigger opportunity that has not existed in the past with education technology, which has been treated as an add-on to the current education system and conventional classroom structure. Online learning has the potential to be a disruptive force that will transform the factory-like, monolithic structure that has dominated America’s schools into a new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive, as it delivers dramatically better results at the same or lower cost.
Policymakers and education leaders must adopt the right policies for this to happen. There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed model—and, just as is the case now, too few students will receive an excellent education.
The point is, if we’re to successfully embrace the potentially huge opportunities that a blended learning approach can offer, we have to be prepared to disrupt our existing structures, mindsets and ‘comfort zones’. That will take leadership (see my previous post) – not just management.
For those in classrooms, the essential focus must be on pedagogy. Online learning doesn’t automatically mean effective teaching – in fact, it amplifies the pedagogical practices of the classroom, both good and bad. Sadly, from my experience, what tends to happen most is that it amplifies the fact that we still live in a world where the primary pedagogical construct focuses on content as king, with delivery of content the norm. This is a killer in the online world. this is reflected in many of the comments posted under the article about the report, including this one from a teacher…
Teachers in traditional schools can use an online component- as I do- to replace uninspired worksheet style homework assignments. Instead of requiring my high school English students to complete analysis questions or reading comprehension questions that take hours to grade, I now use my structured online discussion forum- Collaborize Classroom- to engage students in dynamic student let discussions. I have tried blogs and wikis with students to little success, but my Collaborize site actually lets me post different types of questions- multiple choice, yes/no, vote and suggest and forum- to structure discussion and add variety to conversations.
The blended learning phenomena looks like it’s here to stay – and I say “bring it on”. BUT, let’s also take note of the insights provided in this report (and others) that point to the need for shifts in policy and pedagogical practice.
For more commentary on the report read this eClassroom News article.