George Lucas Educational Foundation
Blended Learning

Are We Innovating, or Just Digitizing Traditional Teaching?

Blended learning has the potential to transform the way teachers teach and students learn—if we take advantage of all that it offers.
A young boy and girl work together with a microscope and an iPad.
A young boy and girl work together with a microscope and an iPad.
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A few months ago, I noticed an increased amount of discussion around the notion of blended learning. Many of these conversations started on a similar note: “We’re blended—all of our teachers use Google Classroom” (or Edmodo, Schoology, Canvas, Moodle, etc.). However, in probing further, I often discovered that these tools had merely digitized existing content and classroom procedures.

Instead of filling an inbox on the teacher’s desk with packets and worksheets, students now completed the exact same procedures online. Rather than write homework assignments on the board, teachers posted them to the students’ digital news feeds. While blended learning brings with it the promise of innovation, there is the peril that it will perpetuate and replicate existing practices with newer, more expensive tools.

The Peril

The dissemination of digitized, teacher-driven content is not full blended learning. Though this can be viewed as a first step toward new models of learning, the peril lies in complacency. When blended learning is equated with digital workflow, students remain consumers of teacher-directed content instead of becoming creators of knowledge within a context that they can actively control.

The Promise

True blended learning affords students not only the opportunity to gain both content and instruction via online as well as traditional classroom means, but also an element of authority over this process. Freeing students from the confines of the school day, the walls of the classroom, the sole expertise of the teacher, and the pace of the rest of the class, blended learning could fundamentally change the system and structure of school, and provide students with a more personalized, active learning experience.

Last year, I interviewed three instructional coaches from Bellevue, Nebraska, about their 1:1 iPad initiative (where each student has an iPad) and their move to blended learning. They described efforts to provide multiple avenues for students to access content, strategies for using audio and video to scaffold independent learning, opportunities to adapt instruction based on real-time data, and the chance to engage in more meaningful face-to-face conversations. These coaches saw blended learning as providing students with control over how they learn, the pace of the learning experience, and where they might choose to learn within the classroom.

Screenshot of a teacher’s tweet and photos showing blended learning in kindergarten
Screenshot of a teacher’s tweet and photos showing blended learning in kindergarten

For example, Ann Feldmann (@AnnFeldmann1) described how teachers might harness the power of screencasting to read and explain content—allowing students to choose the pace of their learning as well as the mode through which they experienced the content. To prove that all students can benefit from these opportunities, Ann’s colleague Jeanette Carlson (@MrsJCarlson) tweeted the image at left. These kindergartners not only learned to work independently on an analog task but also leveraged videos to help them decipher directions and comprehend the material.

At a more advanced level, Jeanette found blended learning particularly helpful in teaching challenging concepts during her business class. Through screencasting, she essentially cloned herself, creating a video to walk students through a difficult task. This blended approach freed her from the front of the room so that she could work with students on an individual basis and provide customized instruction.

Ann and Jeanette’s colleague Jeffrey Bernadt (@JeffreyBernadt) elaborated on the concept and shared how he leveraged blended learning to provide his high school social studies students with multiple options for acquiring content knowledge—video, digital text, paper or e-books, or face-to-face conversation. Instead of requiring students to sit in desks and learn in lockstep, Jeffrey created an environment where his students could control the path, pace, and even place of their learning. These examples highlight how students can engage with blended learning to gain content and instruction, but the coaches also described how digital tools give students new voice and choice in demonstrating their learning.

Blended learning can mean a step forward toward something greater—giving students agency over their own learning, but that is dependent on the direction chosen by the teacher. In a recent blog post, Will Richardson raised the point that educators do not “give” agency to students through choice or technology or even blended learning. Instead, students acquire it when teachers “create the conditions under which agency can flourish.”

In a 2013 Christensen Institute report, the authors pose the question: “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive?” That is, does it create a new definition of what qualifies as “good”? They argue that to be disruptive, blended learning needs to replace the existing teacher-directed orientation of school with a more student-centered model. Blended learning could create a new definition of teaching and learning (the promise), or it could become nothing more than a digital version of a traditional notion of school (the peril).

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Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi.

Thanks for your reply. I agree that this needs to be a systems approach to change and not just a single effort by an individual teacher. In many ways, technology represents a culture more than just any particular device.

However, I also think that we need to stop seeing technology as an either/or or competing priority. Numerous studies going back to early 2000 have shown that students who engage in more intellectually demanding work perform higher on standardized assessments. Looking at the international testing scores further solidifies this as the top countries have embraced a more holistic and systems approach to school reform. I think the bigger question may be: how do we help teachers and school leaders to view learning as a component of a dynamic system and not a series of disparate parts.

A great starting place would be the TPACK framework from Mishra and Koehler. In fact, they claim that to develop deep knowledge and understanding requires problem solving with technology and not traditional professional development in a workshop model. Again, the challenge lies in seeing the system and working to find ways to use the technology to best support our students as learners.

Chelsea Allee's picture

I agree that often the technology just becomes a way of digitizing the teacher's current teaching style. Blended learning is supposed to be more than just digitizing content. However I think most teachers are just digitizing content, they are not requiring student input on the online work or anything interactive with the students. I think this is where we start though. If we want teachers to eventually have a blended classroom that blends technology into the classroom in a productive and useful way I would think digitizing content would at least be a place to start.

Efaith's picture

I loved your idea about teaching students self regulation with technology instead of taking it away because of the risk of distraction. All students can remained engaged if the lesson plan in engaging and exciting and I feel that technology gives you a wide arrange of resources to be able to make your lesson plan awesome! I agree with many others with the idea that although technology is amazing teacher instruction is also extremely vital. All teachers need to be trained in the appropriate uses of technology and taught how to balance that out with personal instruction and other teaching methods to be able to be the best educator possible. Thank you for your article!!

kelsey's picture

There is so many ways technology can be beneficial in the classroom and for students. But where does the line draw? I still believe students need be able to read a book not on the computer, gain social interaction, etc. There is some things that we just should not use technology for. Although, I think that our world is increasing so much with the activities for students it does become beneficial for the student. They are able to pace them selves, and it is also what our world is coming to..the advancement of technology.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Kelsey.

Thank you for the comment. Interestingly, I had a conversation yesterday about using technology to extend and enhance the experience that students may have with paper books. I really do not believe that it is an either/or with digital or analog. However, I also think that we need to look at the process versus the medium. For example, what kind of reading do we want our students to do? How do we want them to engage with the content? What do they need to support their learning?

More important than just having students use technology, we need to help them choose the conditions that best leverage the tool (digital or not). In a different post (https://www.edutopia.org/article/reframing-debate-screen-time-beth-holland), I reference the work of Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge. They argue that students need to develop the "triple focus" of inner, outer, and other. Students need the self-reflection and awareness skills to understand how their use of technology impacts their own learning, that of others, and the broader community.

So, to come back to your initial question about where to draw the line, the answer may be "it depends." It depends on the student, the context, the content, and the desired learning community.

Thanks again,
Beth

Amy Burns's picture

I am an English teacher and teach on a 1-to-1 iPad team. I fully understand the battle of blended learning with a subject that has so much richness in paper objects (in fact, I still read paper books because I love it so much)! What I always tell my students (and other teachers who do not support blended learning) is that I am not, by any means, stating that technology is the answer to all our educational questions. However, we live in the 21st century and teach a generation of students that live with technology in their hands. As an educator, it is up to us to teach them skills that they will desperately need. For example, instead of having students write a traditional research paper, what I am having them do is create a "documentary". Students are still learning researching skills and are exercising their writing skills through writing a script; however, they are forced to think critically about our focus question and must think about how they are going to portray what they know in a timely manner that answers this question. Students here are exercising creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills that is taking their knowledge deeper.

Mackenzie's picture

I agree that often times, integrating technology into the classroom is just digitizing the teacher's current way to traditional teaching. I think bringing technology into the classroom should be more than this. It should be creating a blended way of learning and allowing children to express and become interested in subjects through different mediums and ways of learning and thinking.

rforce's picture

I agree that technology should be blended into the classroom, I personally feel that kindergarten may be too young though. With all the time that children spend using technology throughout their day I don't want them to think using technology is the only way to learn. Maybe a more traditional approach in the first year or two of elementary schools can show them they don't always need to fall back on the use of technology to successfully solve a problem. I do however know that blending technology into the classroom has had very positive results when it is adapted to the students skill level rather than just having a blanket program for all children. I also love the idea of posting all homework, test dates, or even grades on a website or app for the students and parents to keep track of assignments that way it doesn't have to be written down somewhere where a family could loose it.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi.

Thank you for your comment. I agree with you that early learners need to interact in the physical world. A few years ago, I wrote about the balance of screentime - https://www.edutopia.org/blog/balance-of-screen-time-beth-holland. I think that we can use digital technologies with early learners to extend the physical experience, help them to articulate their learning in ways that may not be possible, and provide them with opportunities to connect with others and build their identities as global citizens.

Recently, I had an interesting conversation about the role of analogies with technology. Too often, we think of it as a "tool." Instead, what if we considered it a portal or a gateway to deeper learning and connections? We might think about it a little bit differently with our youngest students.

Beth

tron1138's picture

Kids want to do it their way; their way happens to be based in the employment of technology. They have a preexisting authority in this realm. If we transpose this competency into the learning environment the student will feel a dominion or authority over the process. When students use technology as a guide and a ready information resource they don't just find the answers, they redefine the questions that led to the answers in the first place. There is a sense of ownership when they use whatever technology or instrument afforded to them to build knowledge through their unique experiences. Furthermore, giving students the control to access information rather than just lecturing and drilling them in a conventional manner, be it in the classroom on a computer or via mobile device on a fieldtrip, maximizes learning potential; it expands the dimensions of the lesson. Beyond the lesson objective, students may gain a greater sense of self-efficacy by doing it themselves.
These amazing technologies at our disposal are truly a waste if only used to modernize and digitize the long-standing conventional process. If students are allowed to be self-guided by using an information technology, internet access for example, they will find the answers and more all by themselves. Furthermore, they will share these avenues with classmates; the class will be teaching the class provided passive technological self-guidance. The trick will be teaching technological competency; what good is such a powerful tool if no one knows how to use it?

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