Blended learning is a term increasingly used to describe the way e-learning is being combined with traditional classroom methods and independent study to create a new, hybrid teaching methodology. It represents a much greater change in basic technique than simply adding computers to classrooms; it represents, in many cases, a fundamental change in the way teachers and students approach the learning experience. It has already produced an offshoot – the flipped classroom – that has quickly become a distinct approach of its own. No single, reliable definition of blended learning exists, or even a universal agreement on the term itself. Many use terms like hybrid, mixed, or integrative to describe the same trend. But the trend is significant. In 2000 an estimated 45,000 K-12 students took an online course, but almost a decade later more than 3 million took courses that way, many of them using computers in the schools themselves.
A learning model in three parts
There is a general consensus among education innovators that blended learning has three primary components:
- In-person classroom activities facilitated by a trained educator.
- Online learning materials, often including pre-recorded lectures given by that same instructor.
- Structured independent study time guided by the material in the lectures and skills developed during the classroom experience.
A course created in a blended learning model uses the classroom time for activities that benefit the most from direct interaction. Traditional education (especially at the college level) tends to place an emphasis on delivering material by way of a lecture, while in a blended learning model lectures can be videotaped ahead of time so the student can watch on their own time. The classroom time is more likely to be for structured exercises that emphasize the application of the curriculum to solve problems or work through tasks.
An individual semester of blended learning may emphasize classroom time at the beginning, then gradually increase the amount of work that students do online or during independent study. Many argue that class discussion boards, for example, are far more useful if the participants have met face-to-face first.
The “flipped” classroom, a more recent coinage, refers to classes that are structured almost exclusively around a reversal of expectations for lectures and homework. Students are expected to watch lectures online at home, and do homework while they are in class.
Blended learning redefining teaching roles
In some situations, the move to blended learning has inspired educators to redefine traditional roles. The word “facilitator” has emerged as an alternative to “teacher,” bringing with it a slightly different focus. The facilitator places an emphasis on empowering students with the skills and knowledge required to make the most of the online material and independent study time, guiding students toward the most meaningful experience possible. Facilitators focus on four key areas:
- Development of online and offline course content.
- Facilitation of communication with and among students, including the pedagogy of communicating content online without the contextual clues students would get in person.
- Guiding the learning experience of individual students, and customizing material wherever possible to strengthen the learning experience.
- Assessment and grading, not unlike the expectations for teachers within the traditional framework.
By putting an emphasis on learning through supervised activities, blended learning has proven to be very adaptable to what some corporations are calling blended training. Trainers can shift their focus from the delivery of knowledge to its application, and companies spend less flying trainers around to oversee all instruction in person.
Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user Sarah M Stewart.