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

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Comments (26) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Raymond Rose's picture
Raymond Rose
Online Learning Evangelist

The problem in building relationships online is that most folks haven't been told it's possible or shown how to do it. If you start from the perspective that you can't build effective and powerful relationships online you never will. If, on the other hand you're told it's possible, then you'll work at it, and even if the first attempt doesn't work you'll try something else.... just like you do when F2F relationships don't develop the way you thought they would. We've been building online classes based on developing the online community and strong online relationships for over 15 years. It can be done. Believe it!

Rachel Schneider's picture

I couldn't agree more! As a teacher, I've had the opportunity to teach in both face-to-face environments and strictly online ones. I now spend my days training teachers how to combine the best of both worlds to create rich, rigorous, engaging blended classrooms for their students.

As to your synch/asynch issue of only finding proprietary online classroom environments, Heather, let me suggest that everyone interested in creating a blended classroom check out Canvas K12. Their LMS is free to teachers and includes Big Blue Button (an online learning environment) as one of their essential tools. Start using their LMS for free, read more about them and then start bugging your administrators to bring their proprietary version on board - it's a fabulous product that I recommend to everyone interested in creating their own virtual or blended classroom.

If you or your school would like some guidance as to how to create a blended learning environment, please check out our website at This summer, we will be adding many video tutorials on how to use some of the most effective open source (free) online teaching resources out there, so stay tuned and keep moving forward! :)

adrienne a.'s picture

Agreed! The more information we have on digital curriculum integration the better! There are so many wonderful ways to use online learning programs, it can just get overwhelming... but every classroom, every school district, every students has specific needs. Keep the blogs about edtech coming!

Wowzers's picture
Wowzers offers online Game-based Math curriculum for Grades 3-8

Blended learning is obviously a great evolution in the classroom model, but there's so much more than just differentiation.

Creating an "accordion" effect of working the students from class instruction, to peer work, to individual practice, and back through the spectrum mirrors real-life application and work environments. By combining this with blended learning activities that build on the basic skills learned from individual learning, the educator can create and foster strong upper-level Bloom's thinking skills.

Read more about how we believe the "flipped classroom" model can revolutionize blended learning at

Rudy Rodriguez's picture
Rudy Rodriguez
High school math teacher

Virtual classrooms without human interaction is much like learning how to fly a plane by simply reading a book on flying a plane. I don't think that simply reading material on flying planes will make me a successful pilot. There has to be someone present who will provide constructive criticism and explain what I am doing correctly and incorrectly. Someone who will provide an example as to how pilots should carry themselves. Someone who will help build my confidence and provide support for me during that pivotal moment when I take over the controls. Someone who will show me the ins, the outs, the shortcuts, the way to react when things are not going as originally planned. These things come from human interaction, not a computer screen.

Vignesh Kathiresan's picture

Education is going the on-line way with every passing year. I strongly believe with growing technology on-line education is something we need to embrace as it provides quick and cheap access to learning. But at the same time a learning without the face to face interactions will lack the real time interaction with teachers which is very important for learning. Any on-line learning management system like any other learning system should have the synchronous interactions between students and teachers. This should be the case at least in early stages of education. Probably when grads or working professionals need specific skills to learn they can go for the self-directed asynchronous way of learning. Another point I agree strongly with the author is the class size. Although on-line learning pitches for larger class size, to utilize the maximum potential of the on-line learning the class rooms have to be limited. When it becomes larger it is just a correspondence course.

SAHIL MADAN's picture

I strongly agree with the fact as to how there should be the right amount of balance balance between online and F2F learning. Technology should act as something that aids learning, but does not replace completely the classroom studying scenario. Conducting the classroom discussions synchronously is a very good method which should be enforced, to make sure one is not completely hidden from the F2F learning environment.

Vijay Manavalan's picture

As the author says, the five components listed out will definitely help blended model a success. Though blended learning has its advantages like time saving and cost saving, care should be taken that there should be a framework that guides a proper mix and effective use. Implementing a framework in the blended learning is in the hands of the teacher/instructor. Some have their own framework and some don't. Lack of a firm framework will need a high level of self-discipline and students with low motivation or bad study habits may lag. Hence, if implemented in a right way blended learning will be a huge success in the current world.

Lisa's picture

I feel station rotation would be a good place to start with blended learning. One of the schools I'm currently coaching at has started this model during math station time. Students move through rotations of computer time using Kahn Academy, small group work on specific math skills currently taught during the math block, and individual math station time where students are given the opportunity to practice the skills learned during the math block. Math data scores have increased in this particular grade level.

MarioBrutus's picture

During my undergrad and in grad school I took several online courses (over 25). While most were asynchronous, a few were either entirely synchronous or had components that were synchronous. It was in these classes that I felt the most learning took place for myself. I am currently presenting an online course at a university in NH. I structured the course to have a mixture of synchronous meetings to review specific aspects of the course, and asynchronous components so the students could work independently. I post twice weekly video-lectures and include a variety of media to present the content. Students can respond in a variety of methods, from video and audio posts to standard written responses. By incorporating a variety of methods for presentation AND response, students can get the best learning experience. To communicate outside of class, I hold "virtual office hours" where I am in my office and available on Skype. Rather than a chat or phone call, Skype gives me a chance to communicate F2F with my students in as normal a condition as if I was in a brick and mortar office. Essentially, it is the combination of platforms and methods that creates the best learning experience. If you are trying this method for the first time, jump in with both feet. You can figure it all out as you move through the process.

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