Commentary: 5 Myths to Bust About Blended Learning, What It Is, and the Benefits It Has for Students
Over the past several years, more and more schools across the U.S. have been implementing blended-learning strategies for their students. What is blended learning? It is a formal education program that must have three components: It must be part online, with students having some control over the time, place, path, or pace of their learning; it must occur, in part, in a brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along a student’s learning path must be connected to provide an integrated learning experience.
In support of these schools, the Christensen Institute debuted the Blended Learning Universe, an online hub of blended learning resources, among them a directory of blended schools around the world. This directory has helped researchers amass an informative database indicating changes over time across the blended-learning space.
While there is great diversity of practice, the institute identifies seven common models utilized by educators:
Station Rotation: Students rotate through learning stations on a fixed schedule; at least one of the stations is an online learning station.
Lab Rotation: The online learning station is located in a dedicated computer lab.
Individual Rotation: Students rotate through stations, but on individual schedules set by a teacher or software algorithm.
Flipped Classroom: Students learn at home via online coursework and lectures, and teachers use class time for teacher-guided practice or projects.
À La Carte: Students take at least one online course with an online teacher in addition to their face-to-face classes.
Enriched Virtual: Students complete the majority of coursework online outside of school but attend school for face-to-face learning sessions with a teacher. Programs usually don’t require daily school attendance.
Flex: Students move on fluid schedules among online learning activities according to their needs. Teachers provide support and instruction on a flexible, as-needed basis while students work through course curriculum and content.
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive picture of K-12 blended implementations across the world. But it provides a framework for busting some common myths about what blended learning is, and isn’t.
Myth #1. Blended learning is an exclusive approach.
Blended learning doesn’t come at the expense of other innovative approaches. The seven blended-learning models can complement everything from competency-based education to project-based learning. That’s because blended learning affords the kind of structural flexibilities that benefit other innovative approaches, such as enabling students to work at their own pace, or freeing up teacher time to focus on advising student-driven projects.
Trailblazer Elementary in Colorado Springs School District 11 is a great example of how schools layer new approaches on top of blended learning. According to its profile on The Learning Accelerator, Trailblazer began doing blended learning in 2015 using the Station Rotation and Individual Rotation models. These operate in service of Trailblazer’s ongoing effort to build toward a mastery-based and personalized system.
Myth #2. I’m doing personalized learning — not blended learning.
Personalized learning doesn’t require technology — after all, if every student had an individual tutor, learning would be highly personalized. But blended learning is a critical driver for personalization at scale. As our emerging framework for teacher impact shows, teaching with technology using a blended-learning model can unlock teacher time; for example, by allowing students a degree of control over their own learning path, pace, time and even place. Teacher time can then be used for other non-technological aspects of personalized learning, such as building strong personal relationships with students.
For an example of personalized, blended learning in action, check out Freedom Elementary, where students — with tailored support from teachers as well as digital tools — personalize their education in accordance to their needs and preferences through mastery-based, blended learning.
Myth #3. Blended learning looks like kids in headphones in front of screens all day.
Blended learning offers flexibilities that allow students to make choices about how they learn best. Sometimes that means working individually with a computer, but often not. Many schools use blended learning to free up time and space so students can learn in more collaborative and hands-on ways. The “kids in headphones” visualization results from the design choices a school makes in its blended-learning implementation, rather than the blended-learning models themselves.
We recently visited Gibson Ek High School in Issaquah, Washington, which uses a Flex model that lets students move on fluid schedules among learning activities according to their needs. As we viewed the students’ exhibitions, the message came through that the students’ learning happens in all kinds of contexts, including through design labs, student-driven interdisciplinary research projects, and internships. Sometimes students work individually on a computer, as when they move through math topics, but blended-learning environments can be vibrant and collaborative, complemented by a range of innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
Myth #4. If I’m using technology in my school, I’m doing blended learning and disrupting the old system!
In tech-rich learning environments, technology upholds traditional systems and structures, many of which center on whole-class instruction. Blended learning, by contrast, unlocks flexibility in time and space, enabling greater customization to suit individual student needs.
Not all blended-learning models are disruptive, either — some are hybrids, which combine new technology (online learning) and old design (traditional classroom) to improve the traditional definition of a good classroom. Station Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Lab Rotation are all hybrid models, and they are important drivers that can enable more student-centered learning without overhauling the whole system. However, these hybrid models are what we call sustaining innovations — they improve the existing system along the original measures of performance — rather than disruptive ones that are positioned to transform the classroom model and become engines of change over the longer term.
For examples of disruptive innovation in schools, see how the Enriched Virtual blended model — an alternative to full-time online school that allows students to complete the majority of coursework online at home or outside of school but attend school for required face-to-face learning sessions with a teacher — works at a school in New York City and at a high school in Los Angeles County.
Myth #5. Flex is the pinnacle of blended.
Flex may or may not be the classroom of tomorrow, but addressing students’ needs now will help determine the best learning process for them today. By definition, the Flex model lets students move on fluid schedules among learning activities according to their needs. Teachers provide support and instruction on a flexible, as-needed basis while students work through course curriculum and content, giving students a high degree of control over their learning.
The caveat is that Flex is a disruptive model, meaning that teachers and students make a clean break from the traditional system. This isn’t feasible for every school or classroom, and without some stepping stones, disruptive models can be a tricky leap for many students to make — perhaps especially at the elementary school level. On the other hand, sustaining models like rotations can provide supportive, differentiated structures for students and still leave room for some flexible learning options.
Getting familiar with what blended learning is and isn’t, and what it supports and enables, will make you a more convincing advocate and change agent for blended learning.
Jenny White is an education research associate at the Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation, and content manager of its Blended Learning Universe. Chelsea Waite is an education research fellow at Christensen.
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