SCD/Resources, Documentation and Downloads/What is Blended Learning?

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Taken from "Keeping Pace with K12 Online Learning, An annual review of policy and practice, Evergreen Education Group"

Blended Learning

One development capturing the online learning limelight is blended learning—schools, courses, and programs that combine online and supervised brick-and-mortar elements. (Such programs are often also described as “hybrid”—Keeping Pace has chosen to consider the terms interchangeable,
though some practitioners point to degrees of difference.)

The emergence and growth of blended learning creates a set of definitional, policy, and practice questions that in some ways mirror the questions that were being raised around online learning ten years ago. They include:

  • What is blended learning? Can it be precisely defined?
  • Does blended learning use significantly different practices than either online or face-to-face instruction?
  • Should blended learning be treated differently from online learning in terms of policy?

In the following sections we address each of these questions.

What is blended learning?

The simplest definition of blended learning is that it is an educational practice that combines elements of online and brick-and-mortar teaching and learning, but this definition is not nearly comprehensive. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) defines blended learning as having three dimensions that demarcate the concept:

1. Scope may be a “blended learning program” or a “blended course”;

2. Blended learning combines two delivery modes of instruction, online and face-to-face; the communication in both modes is enhanced by a learning management system;

3. The role of the teacher is critical, as blended learning requires a transformation of instruction as the teacher becomes a learning facilitator; instruction involves increased interaction between student-and-instructor, student-to-content and student-to-student.

Although “blended learning” is a noun, the term “blended” can also be an adjective that describes different units of education. “Blended” may describe:

• A course that combines face-to-face instruction and online instruction.

• A school that combines some fully face-to-face courses and some fully online courses.

• A school that offers mostly or entirely blended courses.

• A student’s coursework, if the student is self-blending by taking a la carte courses from a
virtual school while also attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

Because blended combines online and face-to-face instruction, primarily at either the course or school level, one might argue that any course that is not entirely face-to-face or entirely online is by definition blended. Although this may be true in a semantic sense, it is not helpful in terms of
defining practices or creating policies.

Two elements describe blended learning in a way that is useful in policy and practice:

1. Blended should describe courses and schools that have significant components of both online and face-to-face instruction and/or curriculum. A school that is online but has the option of a drop-in center for students, for example, should be considered online. A face-to-face course that adds a few digital resources but does not require their use, and does not shift instruction to the online environment, should be considered face-to-face.

2. Blended learning should significantly expand or transform instruction and learning.

Both of the above points defy easy categorization. Blended learning has sometimes been defined based on the percentage of instruction that takes place online, but the precision of a number (e.g., 65% of instruction take place online) obscures the fact that in practice determining a percentage
of instruction is difficult. The second point, that blended learning should expand or transform learning, may be the salient point, but the question of how to determine transformation remains.

One important way that a blended approach can transform instruction is by providing a rich data stream about a student’s learning that can be used by that student’s teachers—both online and offline—to provide truly differentiated instruction. For example, in a blended middle school, reading comprehension data from students’ online social studies course can be used by the face- to-face language arts teacher to determine small groups in the physical classroom. 

Does blended learning use significantly different practices than either online or traditional face-to-face instruction?

Blended learning can and should change educational practice in one of several ways. Among the possibilities are:

1. It can significantly expand the school day or school year by allowing instruction to take place outside of the classroom. Class discussions can occur before or after school, or conversely, can occur during school, building on assignments and learning activities that already have or will occur online, thereby using the time students and teacher are together to best advantage for meaningful conversation that furthers the work students have done in their time outside of the face-to-face classroom. Students can access their courses for self-study in the early morning, evenings or on weekends when the school is not open and a teacher may not be available. Assignments can be given and completed before school starts in the fall, or over the summer. Studies have shown correlations between student achievement and learning time; blended learning allows for an increase in instructional time without requiring school buildings to be open for longer periods.

2. It can significantly change the method of instruction, in one or more of many ways. Blended learning can personalize instruction to each student in a classroom, freeing the teacher to focus on working one-on-one with students in particular areas that they need additional help. It can
allow students to work through math problems, for example, at their own rate, moving on as they demonstrate mastery and providing additional instruction in areas where students need help—or highlighting for the teacher the students who need assistance in a particular area.

3. It can change the human capital or physical infrastructure equation in education. The role of teachers may change, shifting teachers away from mass lectures and towards one-on-one instruction. For school administrators, the role of physical classrooms and buildings may change as a significant percentage of students access their education from outside of the school building.

4. It can bridge the gap between traditional face-to-face instructional structures and practice and online structures and practice, paving the road toward mainstream online learning opportunities for all students.

Examples of blended learning from schools around the country that include some of these approaches fall into several categories, although the categories are not precise. For example:

Schools that are primarily online but require some level of face-to-face instruction.  Odyssey Charter Schools in Clark County, Nevada, requires its students to be in a classroom one day per week for four hours, where they receive face-to-face instruction and individualized attention. They then complete their coursework for the week online.

Miami Dade’s I-Prep Academy (currently in a pilot phase) provides online students with an optional “learning café” site where they can complete their Florida Virtual School courses. Participating students are provided with laptops so they can work from the site or extend their learning time to evenings and weekends. Students attend this non-traditional environment (complete with couches, comfortable chairs, and colorfully painted walls) to work individually, collaborate on projects, attend virtual tutoring sessions, or to take advantage of other planned activities. Face-to-face participation is optional, but encouraged and readily available.

Schools that are primarily face-to-face but offer a significant online component. Another school in Clark County, Valley High School, offers online credit retrieval courses taught by Valley HS teachers; the school has achieved High Achieving/Exemplary Turnaround status since
implementing the online courses.

Other schools combine online and face-to-face instruction at different percentages of each; the online instruction takes place at a distance.

Schools that have students in a classroom for most of the school day, but have some or most of the instruction take place online. Rocketship Education in San Jose, California, has its elementary students spend 20% of their day working independently online, allowing students to focus on their specific learning needs. School of One in New York and VOISE Academy in Chicago also use online content extensively. For these schools, the online component is important because it allows for learning to be personalized to the student, and allows for data to be generated that guides both the online content and the face-to-face teaching. These schools often use a combination of frequent online assessments, self-paced instruction, and detailed progress monitoring systems.

Nearly 150 schools in Florida have implemented ELCs (ELearning Centers, defined as less than 50 students) or VLLs (Virtual Learning Labs, defined as 50 or more students) in partnership with Florida Virtual School. The traditional school provides scheduled time and a workspace (such as a computer lab or library) and FLVS provides the teacher and an online course.  This model provides increased curriculum options to students, and access to a highly qualified teacher who is practicing proven online methods for student success. ELCs and VLLs each have a facilitator to work in
tandem with the online teacher to ensure achievement. Statewide, the number of VLLs has greatly expanded (especially in Miami-Dade) due to class size reduction legislation, as districts implement virtual options as a way to meet the amendment requirements.

Schools that are using mobile learning to extend the school day. In North Carolina, Project K-nect gives at-risk high schoolers in a small number of public schools smartphones in order to access content that aligns with their math teachers’ lesson plans and course objectives. Students can communicate with each other, as well as tutors, outside the school day.

Benefits of blended learning

The most important potential benefit of blended learning isincreased student engagement and learning. While many blended learning programs are so new that data over multiple years are not yet available, some programs are already showing promising results.

In addition to the most important benefit, student learning, there are several additional potential benefits:

  • Potential cost savings in physical infrastructure: Data comparing the costs of online, blended, and face-to-face instruction are limited, but there is a lack of evidence that the operating costs of online and blended are significantly lower than the cost of face-to-face instruction. However, potential cost savings exist in physical infrastructure, as blended learning can reduce the amount of classroom space that is necessary for a school with a given number of students. For example, Albuquerque’s new eCADEMY is intended to serve students with 80% online instruction and 20% onsite instruction. The building cost 1/7 as much as a new school building that is serving half the number of students entirely onsite.
  •  21 st century skills development: When blended learning is used to enhance classroom instruction, it can foster the development of 21st century literacies, which do not merely hinge on technological proficiency. Quality blended learning prepares students to think critically, to build collaborative relationships, to problem solve, and to communicate in a diverse global community.
  • Enriched experience for the student: Experience with online learning shows that in many areas an online learning experience can match or improve upon that of a face-to-face classroom. Yet an even higher level of achievement comes when face-to-face teacher contact is involved as well. For the struggling student, this can help keep the student on track, help with specific issues, and possibly provide face time with fellow students as well to reinforce peer-to-peer support and interaction. For the solid or advanced student it helps to identify opportunities for further growth and also provides reinforcing interaction with peers.
  • Enhanced personalization of learning: Done right, blended learning should allow students to move seamlessly and as needed from an independent, online-based instructional world to 1:1 interaction with qualified professional instructors with opportunities in-between for small group, peer-to-peer interaction online or offline. No more all or nothing, either/or.
  •  Increased communication and support: One key advantage of blended learning is an extra adult in the communication and monitoring processes. In addition to the student/ parent/teacher aspect of online learning, students in blended environments potentially get an “extra parent” through a face-to-face teacher or qualified lab facilitator.