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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Blended Learning: Combining Face-to-Face and Online Education

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.

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jeff Colosimo's picture
Jeff Colosimo
Eduplanet Inc.

This is a great topic. Let's focus on the teacher for a moment as the way they teach is also affected by the way they learn. My company, Eduplanet, focuses on a blended learning model but in a different capacity, with a primary emphasis on professional development for educators. Our social learning model is a blended Professional Development model that combines social networking and e-Learning technologies together to create an effective model for 21st Century Learning. Our Social Learning Institutes create learning opportunities that build new knowledge to enhance best practices through a rich exchange with educators from around the world. I think if we start with the teacher in mind, we can best chart the course for a productive learning model for the students.

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

I have experienced many challenging and valuable on-line college courses. Post-secondary institutes have benn building quality in online learning for years, understanding students learning abilities. Our challenge with K - 12 online learning is incorporating what we are trained to do; prepare instruction appropriate for each development stage of learning. For a K-12 student, face-2-face can be key in supporting a student's learning growth. Could the independence of on-line options supported with live experiences excel development of cognitive skills?

Shannon Cde Baca's picture

Heather you are right on the money with online needing the relationships and some shared experiences. My online classes change for the better the moment I have a synchronous experience with them. That builds trust and accountability. I am not an avitar...I am a real human. I am frightened by the lack on vendors including face to face tools. It is all about building relationships. Students need that connection to learn, construct knowledge, get motivation, check out ideas, and receive feedback. This cannot occur in large classes. Online will require more ... not fewer teachers because of the individualization that is necessary and the key strength of effective online learning. I hope administrators and others do not hang to the idea that online classes look like some of those early classes that were so static, general and unconnected to the instructor. Those were early first attempts and there are thousands that should be used as examples of what not to do.
Shannon Cde Baca

Raymond Rose's picture
Raymond Rose
Online Learning Evangelist

Heather: I agree with you about the need for communications, but don't blame the LMS providers. It's the teachers who put the content into the course, not the LMS provider. Your complaint against the LMS is like complaining that the building architect told you you'd need a podium if you wanted to have more interactions. You can use a variety of strategies in a brick-and-mortar classroom, some of them very interactive and some boring. Same is true online.

A well-designed asynchronous course will have lots of interactions, lots of community building, and the students and teachers will get to know each other as good or better than they do in a F2F situation.

I know, for those who's lives have been spent in the synchronous F2F world, it's easier to believe that all online education is second best, even with research that shows that's not necessarily the case. That it's easy to point to the bad online eduction instruction, and say look all online education is bad. But, you don't do that with the on-ground education. If anything, you'll ignore the bad, and say all on-ground education is so much better than online.

I'm not advocating online education sans teacher, the teacher plays a critical part in online learning, but in a different role. There's a different, and very effective pedagogy for online that's not a repetition of on-ground pedagogy. In fact it's clear that keeping with the traditional on-ground pedagogy is flawed.

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
http://www.luria-learning.blogspot.com (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: http://www.qualitymatters.org. 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 http://chattyprof.blogspot.com

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

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." http://bit.ly/kTlubH

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