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Blended Learning: Combining Face-to-Face and Online Education

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There's this myth in the brick and mortar schools that somehow the onset of online K-12 learning will be the death of face-to-face (F2F) interaction. However this isn't so -- or at least in the interest of the future of rigor in education, it shouldn't be. In fact, without a heaping dose of F2F time plus real-time communication, online learning would become a desolate road for the educational system to travel.

The fact is that there is a purpose in protecting a level of F2F and real-time interaction even in an online program. In education, the components of online and F2F are stronger together than apart. The power is in a Blended Learning equation:

Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment

And if distance learning is to have the level of quality that we dream for it, we as educators need to proactively be a part of the Blended Learning that is inevitably coming our way. There's no denying it's here and growing, and teachers can no longer put their fingers in their ears, yell, la-la-la, and pretend that they have some say in whether or not online learning will be a part of education's future. It's not a question of if; it's a question of how. In fact, teachers must be an active part of designing online learning's rigor and quality or they will be left in the dust.

The Threat Ahead in Teacher Interaction

I have found that many who dream of online learning somehow imagine a virtual school where the teachers are no more than those who load up the assignments and set up the learning management system. But by taking actual teaching out of the distance learning equation, we are dooming distance learning to mere correspondence course status. And it has the potential to be far greater than any model we have thus far imagined, but only if the tools are used properly and if the balance of offline interaction and online learning are aligned.

I recently helped to pilot a number of distance learning programs for my school district. I met with the representatives of three of the major competitors of learning managements systems for schools and tried out each interface. Each permitted transparency for parents. Each permitted me to create a bulletin board of sorts where I could load recorded lessons, upload videos, provide assigned links for homework, create a dropbox for my own handouts, post grades, receive assignments, email, etc. Pretty cool; but not enough.

In other words, it was all asynchronous, taking place without the real-time guidance of a teacher. What was missing was my own interaction with the students. I discovered that any synchronous method of meeting with my students was a part of an additionally priced plug-in for any of the online management systems we were looking to purchase.

What does this say about a teacher's perceived role in the future of online learning?

So, I asked a basic question to all the vendors who were pitching their wares to my district: where are the teachers? I was told that we could always record our classes and post them for students to watch at their leisure. Great, I said. But where's the real-time contact? One of the vendors responded that it wasn't necessary in order to deliver the content to the students, that in fact student success in an online environment wasn't hinged on a relationship with a teacher.

$%#^$^&?!!! (Excuse my language.)

I discovered that if you want to create a class experience online, you need to purchase something like Wimba/Elluminate that allows you to create a collaborative space online for students to meet with teachers. With programs like it, you can go over a Powerpoint, share a screen, break the kids out into discussion groups, answer hands that are virtually raised, and experience material together. But if you want that real-time experience, you need to purchase additional programs in order to benefit from the grown-ups in the community.

Now, I am a huge believer in distance learning and the power of online tools, but I deeply believe that by sending the message that real-time teachers are only needed as a luxurious plug-in and not a fundamental fixture of this next educational chapter, we are doing a disservice to our students and the quality of these growing programs.

5 Components Needed for a Blended Learning Model

Both synchronous communication and F2F interaction are vital to support the success of online learning. To help explain ways to blend both these education models, I've provided a list of at least four necessary components to include in a blended learning environment:

1. Your first class should always be Face-to-Face (or at least Real-Time) if possible. Look, when faced with an online contract, we've all scrolled down to the bottom and clicked "I Agree" just to skip reading the thing. Having an initial F2F introduction class helps to set the expectations of the class and put a face to your teacher and classmates. Having offline faces increases online accountability.

If this can't happen in an actual classroom, then perhaps this can happen via virtual conferencing technology or Skype. Regardless of the program, there needs to be voices and faces.

2. Assessments should be real-time and the choice of F2F or online should be made available. For those big assessments, there should be an actual location for local students to attend. For those further away, there needs to be a time period, a window in which to take the test.

Contact a local school district to utilize a computer lab. Contact your local library to reserve their computers during a specific time. Make a location for students to gather to take the assessment.

3. There must be multiple times throughout the class that are synchronously conducted. Sure there are many conversations happening asynchronously, threads going on, assignments analyzed, and feedback given at wacky hours of the day and night, but there also must be "class times" where students are sent a link and must attend the real-time conversation between classmates and teacher. This is one of the methods in which adults can model a standard of online conversation. It is also about accountability a vital way to help build community.

4. Differentiate your Content Delivery and Discussion Methods. Online Learning is not differentiated unless teachers specifically utilize the various ways to provide the material. Sure, watching a Powerpoint on one's own time might work for some, but for other online learners, they need real-time Q & A. Classes online are not inherently differentiated if there's only one method of content delivery. You can also create your own Second Life island to meet for virtual lessons, or learn more about Adobe Connect Pro or any number of virtual meeting programs in order to provide for all the learners in the community.

5. Keep the Class Size Limited. Don't let online learning supporters who do not understand educational quality deceive our K-12 schools into thinking that class sizes can be larger in a distance learning environment and quality won't be affected. Feedback takes time under any circumstances, and that means protecting our students and our class sizes. Take a tip from some of the pioneer districts currently running successful distance learning programs like the one in Riverside, California; there is no escaping the fact that the more students per teacher, the less individualization per student.

Online learning is here and we teachers as experts in education must embrace it. We are a necessary component in its success, but only if we use our knowledge and voices to become a variable in the equation of blended learning.

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Mercedes Meier's picture
Mercedes Meier
Foreign Language - College

I'm teaching at a college where no online classes where being offered. I prepared a proposal for them, they accepted to conduct a pilot program and now we are in our third semester offering 100% virtual, teaching Spanish. BUT this could NOT be possible without synchronous communication! Especially in classes like Foreign Language! All my discussion boards are asynchronous everyweek using video/image which has helped tremendously to create a "sense of community" but the KEY is using Wimba Pronto.

Lisa Helmers's picture

I really enjoyed your post Heather! My company, ArborBridge, is bringing some of the same ideas you have discussed above to the world of test prep and academic tutoring. ArborBridge tutors connect seamlessly with students, one-on-one, using cutting-edge online tutoring technology. We have seen great results by utilizing video chat, desktop sharing, and graphics tablets to create a F2F collaborative interaction between tutor and student. I believe you are absolutely correct in your assessment that the future of online education is rich with opportunity rather than limitations.

MRM's picture

I have taken several online classes at the grad level (M. Ed.) when there were no other offerings and even though I did very well (have 4.0 overall), I generally hated it. I am a VERBAL learner--I learn in the give-and-take interactions that occur in face-to-face conversations. (That does not mean "chat," email, or Skype--it means face-to-face.) If I were taking something conceptually difficult (like the upper division math I took a couple of semesters ago which I salvaged--started making C's, even though I went to class and plowed through all the homework by myself, but ended up with an A--by finding students I could teach the subject to), I would have been really lost. I also found frequently in the online setting that there were things I wanted to "say" online, but since I didn't know how it would be received, I ended up not posting them.

Here's the litmus test for this new thrust for online learning: is this format one that the wealthy people want for their children, or is this one more thing being foisted on the children of the poor? I understand the point made in the article about not sticking my head in the sand, but I am also sure that the affluent want to use technology to ENHANCE the learning experience (not just replace the teacher).

All that being said, I also have a degree in computer science so I am certainly not afraid of or against using technology; however, I think all of the points made in this article are excellent and have had excellent experiences with blended learning where we attended class in person and also posted and shared work electronically that we could then work on collaboratively face-to-face.

There is nothing that substitutes for being there IN PERSON to be able to measure and interpret all of the verbal AND body language to gage how well (or whether) ideas are received or even understood.

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

Thank you so much for this post. I have attended classes online, as well as teach classes online to teachers. I also use a blend of online and traditional learning in my classroom. I think the blend of online and F2F interaction is very powerful.

For example, during writers workshop, I have online videos that students watch on writing mechanics on their own. Students are able to get the instruction when they need it, not when the whole class is "ready." I also do plenty of one-on-one instruction.

Using the internet allows me to personalize the learning and make the most of the F2F interactions.

Sacha (You can see a few of the videos I use here.)

Ellen Bremen's picture
Ellen Bremen
Tenured professor of Communication Studies, Highline Community College

I love, love, love seeing articles regarding hybrid (blended) learning for K-12. I was an early developer of a successful online public speaking course at the college level that is modeled at a number of institutions around the country.

I originally felt the same way about teaching online--particularly teaching communication online. I could not get past the need for face-to-face enrichment and facilitation. I teach primarily hybrid (blended) now, but I taught largely online for many years. In my transitional thinking from "No way should communication be taught online!" to becoming an award-winning online educator, I realized that I could create the same experience online as I do in the classroom--and really, it's what I should be doing from both a curriculum integrity and connection perspective.

Regarding the connection piece, when I send my students announcements/e-mails, I keep them personalized, like letters. I add the same chatty tone--"Hey, did anyone see American Idol last night?" or "Wow! Sunshine in Seattle for a change... anyone else going out for a run this morning?"--as I do in the classroom. I stay in close touch with my students, reminding them often of what's coming up, and offer a ton of encouragement about speeches. I even started doing weekly newsletters in Publisher (for my online classes exclusively) to mix up the learning a bit. My strong retention and student evaluations revealed that students did feel connected to me, even in this "faceless" environment.

From a content perspective, I'd like to suggest visiting the Quality Matters website. QM is a national organization originating from a FIPSE grant that focuses on best practices in online/hybrid learning--and they have a K-12 rubric: My course was reviewed by a peer QM team in 2009, and even as a veteran of online/hybrid instruction, I learned a great deal from the experience. Our state subscribes to QM; however, individuals and individual institutions can sign on. Thank you for an insightful article. Ellen Bremen @chattyprof

John Norton's picture
John Norton
Education writer, Founder & co-editor of

Heather and Shannon are both teachers I've had the chance to work with -- they've been able to embrace technology and connected learning without losing sight of the *fundamental* importance of establishing human connections in virtual space. It's true for adult learning and most certainly for K12 students.

Renee Hawkins, another teacher friend and school-based IT leader, wrote recently that ""the skills necessary to be a successful online student are the same skills that will serve our students well into adulthood. Successful students are self-directed, self-motivated, and self-assessing."

She points out that the research base supporting the efficacy of online learning *below the college level* is still spotty. But her own experience in a school with F2F, online and blended learning tells her that students who have the necessary skills to succeed in online learning environments "are equipped with these skills because a great teacher taught them how and gave them ample opportunities to practice. It is a myth that any student can sit at a computer and learn, even with the best online curriculum."

Kevin Crosby's picture
Kevin Crosby
Educator and School Counselor / Trinidad School District #1

Jeff Colosimo: "I think if we start with the teacher in mind, we can best chart the course for a productive learning model for the students."

There is power in this, but we must start with the learner in mind in order to better provide PD for teachers.

Online programs pose some of the same risks as F2F classrooms, especially in a standards-driven system. The problem with online programming is that it has the potential to teach to the middle, just like a typical classroom. Online, however, one can accelerate through the program (not that this is impossible in the classroom - it's just not done often enough).

I've seen many students who were not particularly successful in the classroom transfer to an online school only to return to the classroom after a year of spinning their wheels. One size fits all online programming is akin to one size fits all classroom instruction. Both serve many, but not all, students. Those on the far ends of the bell curve tend to need something different, regardless of the environment. This could be adjustments to curriculum, instruction, or possibly the need for more F2F assistance.

I believe it is clear that there is no one best way to do blended instruction and there never will be. It depends on the individual student's maturity, academic motivation, academic skills, parental involvement, etc., whether in the classroom and/or online.

I am a student who thrives in an online environment. I find classrooms tend to waste too much time. This applies to middle school and grad school, alike. I have found my online grad courses more demanding and more efficient. Hour for hour I learned more and didn't have to travel to class. Email-based conversations were often of higher quality than classroom discussions because students had time to research and think clearly about their contributions. Students posted papers and got feedback from other students in addition to instructor feedback.

When I think of "blended" instruction I envision students who spend more time learning, less time in a school building, and the time they spend at school is devoted to that which only F2F can offer effectively: science labs, team competitions, physical education, drama, seminars, F2F tutoring...

Blended systems have the potential to better serve all students by taking the lid off for those who are bored or possibly stagnating in the classroom, and providing more F2F assistance to those who struggle in the typical classroom.

I'm convinced our students would learn more if they spent less time in school and more time learning. For those without a home structure that allows this, we should provide learning labs where students can do online work with adult assistance. We need more evidence to learn whether my hunch is correct, and that evidence needs to be conducted by skilled, neutral parties.

It is also important to keep in mind that many parents who homeschool or enroll their children online are as much concerned about the influence of what they perceive as a society gone wrong as they are about quality education. Blended schooling and small K-12 learning centers are attractive to those who don't want to send their children into large middle and high schools.

Sally Nold's picture
Sally Nold
High School Assitant Principal/Virtual School Director

Jeff, I totally agree with your description of what online learning needs to be, which is basically "learning", here, there, everywhere - self-directed or people directed. You stated well that our quest for 21st century skills must include learning outside walls, yet guided and purposeful. Thank you for sharing.

SP's picture

I think you've hit it on the head. Teacher interaction is still very important. Technology shouldn't replace the teacher, but make their lives easier and their teaching more effective.
I built a free site called which enables students to manage group projects online and teachers to create virtual classrooms. It's a tool for sharing, collaborating and getting organized. Students need to learn technology, how to work in groups on top of their assigned work.
Virtual classrooms are the answer to the problems of over-crowded and outdated classrooms. It will take awhile for the majority to embrace the concept, but it's coming!

Julie Thomas's picture
Julie Thomas
7th Grade Language Arts Teacher from Minneapolis, Minnesota

I enjoyed reading this post. I have only been teaching for four years, but each year the district that I work in continues to push the envelope regarding technology. Our school website allows teachers to post grades where students and parents can access them. They even have the ability to receive emails from missing assignments. We have drop boxes, blogs, wikis, and access to many other tools that take our F2F classroom online. One of the things that I appreciate about online learning is that it can provide students who are too shy to speak up in class with a voice. Students that I never hear from will say very intriguing things in an online format. I was able to get to know my students better using online learning this year.

It is interesting to see an increase of technology in the classroom because some teachers are embracing it and others are fighting it. I agree with Heather that those teachers that fight it will get left behind. Our students are more comfortable with technology than they are with a textbook. Technology will continue to be a staple in their learning and we must be creative in how we apply it to our classrooms. My principal once said, "Education, up to this point, has been like flying on a plane. Students, just like passengers, are expected to disconnect from technology when they board the plane/enter the school. Yet, when they exit, they reconnect and can't image not being connected." My principal believes that we need to keep students connected. Utilizing technology in the classrooms is one method of achieving that goal.

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