o Blended learning is back, but faces a backlash for fear that online learning is diluting the quality of human-led instruction.
o The intention of blended learning is to exploit the best of online and offline instruction so that teachers are freed up to do their best work.
o Blended learning affords flexibility with respect to access, which is paramount in the context of Covid-19 but must also be embraced as part of education’s new normal.
Blended learning is undergoing a revival. With few certainties around the shape of schooling during Covid-19, there is a growing recognition that education must happen both online and offline, in school and at home.
But support for blended learning is far from unanimous. Many parents feel burdened by the expectation that they administer part of their children’s education from home – ‘Blended learning will break me’, says one, ‘that or the guilt of not doing much’. In response, some governments are rowing back on their commitment to this new delivery model – the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is among those adamant that ‘we don’t want blended learning to last a single minute longer than is necessary.’ The revival may be short-lived.
Much of the pushback against blended learning stems from a particular interpretation that online learning is a diluted form of instruction. The sight of talking heads presiding over Powerpoint presentations, or clunky attempts to replicate classroom dynamics via Zoom, has only added fuel to the scepticism.
What is blended learning, really?
Blended learning is not simply about switching one form of instruction for another, lesser form. The clue is in the name: it is a matter of understanding each delivery medium – whether the chalkface or the world wide web – and exploiting the affordances of each. Technology should not be thought of as a substitute for teachers but rather an aid; a means of augmenting and upskilling their capabilities. Put another way, blended learning challenges us to consider where teachers add distinct value, and which aspects of their role can be outsourced to online, automated delivery so that they can maximise the time they spend with their students.
No teacher can realistically assess and differentiate their teaching for upwards of thirty students consistently; no teacher among the many thousands we have worked with expresses a desire to do so. Digital technologies have given us new prospects: a virtual tutor, for instance, can automatically assess students, prepare individualised learning plans and adapt instruction according to their specific needs. In doing so, it relieves teachers of the burden of having to design content and assess students at every turn. Teachers can instead focus their precious time on analysing the resulting insights and planning more targeted lessons that build on that which students have covered online. Blended learning comes in many shapes and sizes, and is ultimately based on the premise that teachers will be empowered when they gain more time to devote to the higher-order aspects of their role.
This articulation of blended learning offers assurance to parents, too, that the learning their children undertake online need not be watered down. The online component is merely an effective means of ensuring students have acquired core knowledge and skills at their own pace (especially when the digital medium is tapped into to make content more interactive and engaging). The upshot is that, by delegating this part of instruction to technology, teachers are better equipped to tend to students’ individual needs when they do meet up, and to facilitate tasks that build on what they have encountered online.
Blended learning is no free lunch, of course. The design of online learning experiences, from the content itself to pacing and feedback, requires careful and deliberate consideration to prevent tame mimicry of traditional teaching. Teachers, in turn, must be trained and supported to utilise the potential of these technologies; to become literate in learning analytics, for example, and understand how they can inform more differentiation in their own teaching. Blended learning is achieved only when teachers feel secure and confident in the technologies at their disposal.
The access barrier
Perhaps the biggest caveat of all with blended learning comes with the question of access. Online learning remains a distant reality for many children. Our own data has brought into focus the stark digital divide that exists between and even within nations. At a recent conference organised by Whizz Education, ministry representatives from twelve African nations confirmed that the predominant medium for reaching their most marginalised communities was not the internet but broadcast (television and radio in particular). The technology divide is not merely a phenomenon of ‘developing’ countries: in the UK, some 34 percent of families currently lack access to internet-enabled devices, leaving their children with scant educational provision during school closures. As long as this access barrier remains, blended learning is something of a misnomer.
But to reject online learning outright is to deny children their right to a stable learning experience. UNESCO reports that over 60% of students have been affected by school closures. The traditional view of bricks-and-mortar schooling as the only means of acquiring knowledge has been brutally exposed by the pandemic. For many children right now, the internet is the only portal to quality learning content. With that recognition, a cross-party effort is underway in the UK to expand connectivity to the most deprived families, and similar initiatives are being pursued the world over.
Preparing for disruption
Several years ago, the Christensen Institute articulated blended learning as a means of providing increased student control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of learning. It was a framework rooted in Clayten Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation; a term that may have felt provocative at the time. Yet here we are, faced with a disruption of a different kind, the unprecedented threats of Covid-19, where the flexibility promoted by blended learning has never been more paramount.
There will be more disruptions to come; our preparedness will be determined by our ability to deal with short-term challenges in ways that foster long-term resilience. Blended learning must become part of our ‘new normal’ and understood not in terms of compromise and dilution, but flexibility and empowerment for both students and teachers. That feels like the right mix.