If you were to ask us why blended learning was introduced to our building two years ago, my colleagues and I would probably hazard a multitude of answers:
- “Because we’re awesome”
- “The district probably got a grant and needs to make use of the money ASAP.”
- “It’s a government conspiracy. They’re trying to replace teachers with computers!”
Or the most cynical (and probably the most accurate by at last some degree)
- “The district is looking for ways to save money in the future by minimizing the need for teachers in the classrooms.”
I don’t know that any of us were actually dissecting the issue that closely. We were excited at this opportunity to learn a new skill set and grow our teaching practice. The idea of blended learning almost sells itself. If it was going to be good for our students and would help them be successful, why wouldn’t we want to be a part of it?
But that is the sticking point. You see the research on blended learning is fairly limited. In fact, the bulk of current research has been conducted in post-secondary settings. NOT in a high school or a middle school. And certainly not in an urban school where the poverty rate is upwards of 90% and the population of students with disabilities is around 25%.
The studies that have been conducted at the secondary setting are limited and are largely inconclusive. Attitude toward blended learning alone is variable. Some students find blended learning to be satisfying and positive. Others begin to resent the idea of technology as teacher.
I know my colleagues and I have certainly experiences both ends of these attitudes in our classrooms. Some of our students will immediately shut down when asked to do anything on the computer. After two years of blended learning, a portion of our student body that has been exposed to the BL model for 2 years is beginning to get the hang of it. They love having multiple opportunities to take assessments. Knowing their grades daily is a huge motivator. And they are learning to seize technology as a means to communicate and advocate for themselves. Taking notes and extracting information independently is still a challenge that we are trying to address.
There is also the population of students, however, that loathes the computer. Whether it is their course content, a tutorial video, a formative assessment tool, they refuse to work. If it is not pencil and paper and teacher-led, they will have nothing to do with it.
Part of this is unique to the cultural background and needs of the student body that we work with. The sage-on-the-stage concept is very much embedded into our students’ concept of education and changing that mindset is difficult. Our students are also immensely high needs both academically and socially. Without the teacher as their anchor, they feel lost and uncertain.
Research that looks at academic impact of blended learning is equally limited and conflicting. One study out of a carefully constructed blended learning school in suburban Colorado (Florian & Zimmerman, 2015) used the PISA as their measure of blended learning success. With socioeconomic status taken into account, they did perform higher than other schools in the United States. But with no prior history of PISA scores (it is my understanding that this was an experimental school designed specifically for blended learning which has only been open for 5 years), I find it difficult to support the idea that blended learning is the sole reason for this performance. The school’s hiring practices alone (they sought out teachers who were “innovators” and “leaders”) may have yielded a more competent group of teachers who would, of course, yield higher scores. At another school (located in New Zealand), the impact of blended learning was studied with the attempt of a control group- one class received traditional instruction while the other was blended. The performance assessment at the end indicated no significant difference in learning between the two groups (Smith, 2013).
With the jury out on BL as an effective instructional model, why do we still continue to press it as the next wave of educational innovation? Part of this, in my opinion, stems from a teaching myth: technology engages students. I promise you I will rail against this damaging misconception many times in future posts. Right now, suffice it to say technology is not a cure for poor teaching. A teacher who fails to engage students without technology will also fail with technology. As an great primer to this argument, I encourage you to read the article from the American Educator which I will link in under my references.
The other impetus for pursuing blended learning comes largely from businesses and higher education. Both realms maintain the claim that global education is changing (this may be tainted by some of the myths of education you can read about in the American Educator). However, there is also the somewhat substantive claim that students need to be able to compete globally and are entering college (and the business setting) with woefully inadequate 21st century skills. The core of those skills was defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as the four Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity, and connecting learning experiences.
I can testify from my own graduate experience (undergrad, not so much) that online learning and collaboration was a large component. However, I will also contend that I had no specialized preparation for that setting in high school and yet I thrived (so traditional instructional models must be able to satisfy these skills). And my workplace, of course, is infinitely saturated with the expectation that our staff will exemplify the 4Cs. It is true that many teachers who land at our school are unprepared for the level of collaboration and communication required to be successful. If my co-teachers and I couldn’t collaborate and create via email and shared documents, we’d probably lose our minds and/or start a teacher commune so we could plan 24/7.
I guess the question comes down to this:
Is blended learning the best way to teach 21st century skills (the 4Cs) to our students and does its benefits outweigh its challenges and limitations?
As a school, we are still exploring this issue. I imagine the answer will be different for every single student and teacher.
Florian, T. P., & Zimmerman, J. P. (2015). Understanding by design, Moodle, and blended learning: A secondary school case study. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 11, 120-128.
Smith, N.V. (2013). Face-to-face vs. blended learning: Effects on secondary students’ perceptions and performances. Procedia- Social and Behavioral Sciences. 89, 79-83.
Link to American Educator Article: Technology in Education