Transforming Curriculum

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Blended Learning: A Common Sense, Teacher-Friendly Definition

In a recent Sprint study of technology in K-12, the following observation was made:

  • “Schools across America are at a crossroads as personal devices and technological advancements have proliferated [into] classrooms. Technology is increasingly a significant part of everyday learning, and connectivity has transformed the way students interact with teachers, peers and curriculum…"

Today, only about half the students in the U.S. have 1-to-1 access. But look at the trajectory: 23% had 1-to-1 in 2012 and thus, in three to four years, we should be at 100 percent. 1-to-1 will shortly be the new normal.

In other words, instead of students having access to a computer for one hour a day – visiting a computer lab in the school or using the laptops on the cart that rotates among the classrooms – students will have access to a computer – his/her own computer –  for upwards of eight hours per day. Indeed, the computer will be sitting on a student’s desk or carried from class to class all day long.

So, what are the teachers and students going to do with all those computers?

Now, with access for only one hour or so a day, using one app, e.g., Kidspiration/Inspiration or Microsoft Office or Google Docs Editor, or visiting a website, or playing a game, or running a simulation, etc. is a typical use pattern. And, since it might take 10-20 minutes to get going on the computer (walking/running down to the computer lab, passing out computers from the cart, booting up, connecting to the network, logging in, etc.) and another 10-20 minutes to stop using the computer, the actual time a student can spend doing academic work on a computer would limit the student to using one app, visiting one website, playing one game, etc.

But, with the computer sitting on a student’s desk or available for use whenever, “Technology [will become] increasingly a significant part of everyday learning …” In other words, instead of reaching for pencil and paper or a textbook, now a student can turn to his/her computer, and, most importantly, that student will use many apps and visit many websites during a school day. Thus, it seems obvious that the computer will increasingly be used to deliver some content/deliver some instruction, while the teacher may increasingly be involved in scaffolding, motivating, nurturing, assessing and disciplining students as he/she walks around during class. Before and after class, a teacher will be involved in lesson planning and assessment – as usual.

Blended learning” absolutely characterizes the type of instructional activities described in the previous paragraph.  The technology is blended into the school day in a teacher-friendly and student-friendly manner.  Stepping back, here is a common-sense definition of a blended learning classroom:

  • Each student has her/his own computing device for use during the entire class day. (It would be best if the computer could go home with the learner, but let’s not push it).
  • The teacher moves between whole class instruction and student-directed instruction, seamlessly and appropriately, and during class, walks around the classroom scaffolding, motivating, nurturing, assessing and disciplining. Pre- and post-school day the teacher is preparing differentiated lessons based on assessments and other learning analytics.
  • More time is spent in student-directed learning – using the computer, working collaboratively with peers, etc. – than in whole-class instruction. (Students are not tied to their computer; they can still build leaf collections!)

Most importantly, while there will invariably be bumps on the journey, today’s teachers can – and will – transition their classroom practices to those aligned with the above definition. No question about it!

And, for the purists among us, the above definition is totally consistent with the definition of blended learning proposed by Heather Staker in 2011:

  • "Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace."

Now for the fly in the ointment: Unfortunately, over the past two to three years, the term “blended learning” is becoming virtually synonymous with the terms “adaptive, personalized learning”:

  • “One of the core objectives of a blended learning model is to personalize instruction …” Lexia Learning
  • “Personalized learning accompanied by a … blended, iterative approach …” Dreambox Learning
  • “Blended learning … support[s] personalized learning …” iNACOL
  • “Blended learning, particularly models supported by adaptive learning …” iNACOL
  • “Nonnegotiables” in a blended learning environment: “Content must be adaptive …” GO BLENDED, A Handbook for Blending Technology in Schools.

We could go on and on with more examples of where the term “blended learning” now means “adaptive, personalized learning." However, we will spare you the repetition – but for a critique of “adaptive, personalized learning” see our blog post.

And to remind our readers what “adaptive, personalized learning” is, we refer you to the picture of the classroom in the Carpe Diem school, where 250 students sit in cubicles with headphones on, for half to three-quarters of the school day being adaptively and personally instructed. (Fair enough: We shouldn’t paint all adaptive, personalized learning programs with the same “Carpe Diem brush.”)

Now, lest there be any question or doubt: we are not pleased at how a really useful term (See Catlin Tucker’s website; see Alan Rudi’s article)  – blended learning – is becoming associated with a very specific, highly ideological set of pedagogical practices. Indeed, the term “blended learning” did not start out being synonymous with “adaptive, personalized learning.”  And, “blended learning” should not be synonymous with “adaptive, personalized learning.” 

Words, words, words!  Words do carry meaning; duh. And, while we (CN & ES) have day jobs in the ivory tower, we are not just playing word games or counting angels on the heads of pins!

Blended learning is too important a concept for the future of education in general and educational technology in particular, to lose it to the “adaptive, personalized learning” crowd.  

Resist! Thus, in our work we will continue to use the term “blended learning” in the, ahem, right way. Onward! The transition to blended learning is underway – well underway!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at www.imlc.io.

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at www.imlc.io.

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at thejournal.com/rc.

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