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 Student & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi.

If you don't mind, I may push back a bit. Given the rapid rate of technology advancement, I am not sure if "ahead of the curve" is a reasonable expectation. One of the challenges is for teachers to realize that they are no longer the only expert in the room. Too often, students are limited by what the teachers are comfortable and knowledgeable about, when instead they need to experience conditions for growth. Sugata Mitra epitomized this back in the late 1990s/early 2000s with his "hole in the wall" experiment. He literally put a computer in the wall in numerous locations around India and watched what happened. With NO teacher, the students learned an incredible amount.

Sometimes, I wonder if innovation is thwarted because of the assumption that the teacher needs to be the one directing the learning. I think this comes back to the point that Will Richardson makes that true innovation comes from student agency. Yes, I agree that teachers do need to have technology literacy and fluency such that they can help students make sense of the world. However, if we have to wait for every teacher to gain the requisite knowledge and skills within a traditional mindset of them becoming ahead of the curve, then I worry that we will only fall behind.

Thoughts on this?
Beth

Ramiro Lobo's picture

I think this is something very important to consider as technology is becoming more and more prevalent at all levels of education. Reflecting upon my K-12 schooling, whenever teachers attempted to incorporate technology it largely resulted in simply digitizing their current teaching style, as you describe. Furthermore, certain types of technology such as Powerpoint and document cameras gave teachers an opportunity to simply project their information to the class with even less explanation or personalization than if they had been writing it on the board. Thus, it is not enough to give teachers technology and expect them to revolutionize their teaching simply because they have new toys, there needs to be some sort of educational component that explains how these technologies allow teachers to empower students and motivate them to invest in their own learning.

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

Hi Ramiro.

Thanks for the response. There is definitely a history of replication when it comes to technology in schools. Mishra and Koehler developed the TPACK framework to describe the new type of knowledge that teachers need (http://tpack.org).

Beth

Nilda Ruiz's picture

There's plenty of ways that technology can be useful, such as with the use of Edmodo (I was able to use it myself for two years in high school), and provide interaction between students and their teachers. There is no doubt that technology can provide in a student's learning process but how can teachers and staff be assured that students won't get distracted and use the technology provided to them for other purposes? Is it possible that administration expects this and will go about implementing a way to prevent this?

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

Hi Nilda.

Thank you for your reply. Let me ask you a different question. Imagine that the only technology in class was pen and paper. How could you be assured that your students were not distracted and using those tools to draw pictures, pass notes, or work on a different assignment?

While technology affords new types of distractions, that is really nothing new. A student who is not engaged will be distracted with whatever may be around - as a frequent daydreamer who could spend an entire class staring out a window, I can tell you that technology is not the only way to be off task...
As a student, I find that technology can be insanely distracting while in class, and I am a completely digital learner. However, (1) I turn on do-not-disturb on all devices before class so that not a single notification can pop up on anything to take me off task; and (2) I close all apps EXCEPT for what I need to take notes. Sure, this takes a bit of self-regulation, but it puts a few mechanisms in place to help stay focused.

Artificially preventing distraction won't help with building self-regulation; so maybe the question is how do we teach students to take control of their technology and how do we help students to develop self-regulation skills?

Finally, and I don't mean to be cheeky about this, maybe the problem does not lie in the technology but in the lesson. If students are engrossed in what they are doing and challenged to actively engage in the lesson, then they won't have time to be distracted by technology. One strategy is to break the lesson in to small time chunks with constant check-in points. The pace of the class won't allow students time to get off task.

I hope this helps.
Beth

Melissa's picture

I agree Chris I also feel that we are creating an injustice to our students if we don't teach them that the digitized world is merely another learning tool for them to use in their learning experience but not a substitute for learning. I feel reform needs to be done regarding this as well.

Jarred Wagner's picture

One aspect you brought up in the second paragraph was posting everything online. This is a great thing to do so that all students have access to any material needed for future assessments. They do not need to come get the information from you if you or they are gone for any reason. We are in such a tech savey world that we need to use it to our advantage. By adding online lessons and things like that we also help break that 15 minute span of learning. This allows for changes to be made, but yet still learning the proper material. This is one major aspect I hope to implement as we start to go into a blended learning model.

tiffjany's picture

I love this statement that Will Richardson made in the article as well. It makes you realize that we need to step our game as teachers to mentor success. I believe that this is definitely a better tool for individualized learning. As stated from a previous post, we as teachers have limited time, which I think can be solved using the blended learning approach. I think this allows students to take ownership of their learning at any stage of their learning abilities. I also think this supports the parents role in their child's education-at whatever degree they want to be involved.

cmatteson's picture

I agree that using various modes of learning needs to occur for students to be prepared for the changing global classroom as well as allowing them to exhibit agency over their learning and the ways in which they demonstrate how and what they have learned. However, with teachers at various levels of experience, comfort, and expertise with the various modes if digital learning, how can there be equitable access to digital learning and how can administration support this? With common core and test scores at the top of the heap, how do we prioritize this? Without meaningful and relevant professional development, many classrooms, as you mention could end up with digitized versions of "existing content and classroom procedures?"

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Student & 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.

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