The Complete Guide to Blended Learning
The future of work is hybrid, and educators intent on bringing together in-person and online experiences believe the future of learning is hybrid too.
In blended learning, the real-world classroom is paired with virtual components to create a more personalized and efficient learning experience. It enables schools, institutions and organizations to take advantage of the best of both worlds—the personal connections and engagement that come with in-person learning plus the flexibility, convenience and customization of online learning.
This guide will explore what blended learning is, how it works and why it’s becoming one of the most popular learning approaches for people of all ages, for everyone ranging from younger students to working professionals. We’ll also discuss the advantages, benefits and challenges of blended learning for both educators and learners. Finally, we’ll cover the role the right learning management system (LMS) plays in creating effective blended learning environments.
Definitions of Blended Learning
Not all experts agree on the definition of this term. Some say that blended learning must include some element of online learning, while others believe that you’re “doing” blended learning whenever you use any type of technology in the classroom.
The most common definition used for blended learning comes from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. It defines blended learning as “any instructional approach that combines face-to-face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities.” In other words, blended learning is when you use both traditional and digital approaches to learning.
Other definitions are more specific. For example, in their book “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools,” Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker of the Clayton Christensen Institute say blended learning is “any time a student learns, at least in part, through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.”
So, what is blended learning? At D2L, we agree with the iNACOL definition and define blended learning as an approach that pairs the real-world classroom with online components.
What Is Blended Learning?
Broadly, blended learning seeks to supplement physical experiences with digital ones. Learners will still have face-to-face interactions with peers, instructors and teachers, but these students will also be able to access online resources that complement and enhance their in-person learning. This helps create better, more personalized learning experiences, as traditional and digital elements play off of each other.
Blended learning also helps prepare students for a digital future, as they work through their coursework while also mastering the technology they’re using to consume, absorb and reflect on it.
The value of getting hands-on experience with technology can’t be overstated in light of the ever-evolving needs of the market. Skills such as information analysis, media, creativity and emotional intelligence are all in demand and critical when it comes to closing skill gaps. In designing blended learning programs for the 21st century, educators are encouraged to think about how information is communicated through technology to help students achieve mastery.
Examples of Blended Learning
There are many different blended learning models, but they all share a few common characteristics.
- A focus on student-centered learning: Students have more control over their education in blended learning. They can move at their own pace and learn in the best way for them.
- Increased use of technology: Blended learning uses digital resources to supplement in-person instruction. This could include online learning platforms, apps and even social media.
- A mix of in-person and online instruction: Students still have face-to-face interaction with their teachers and classmates in blended learning, but they also have access to digital resources that supplement their in-person learning.
Blended Learning Models
When you’re getting started with blended learning, it can help to look at examples of how blended learning can be implemented. Here are a few examples of blended learning strategies in classrooms today.
Benefits of Blended Learning
Blended learning is an effective way to improve experiences for learners, educators and instructors. Here are three of the most notable benefits.
Benefit #1: Increased Customization and Personalization
One of the most significant advantages of blended learning is that it encourages and enables increased customization and personalization. Depending on the setup, learners can move at their own pace in a blended learning environment and choose which digital content they want to consume. This allows them to focus on the areas where they need the most help and breeze through material they already know.
This customization also extends to how teachers deliver content in a blended classroom. With so much online content, they can curate lessons and materials tailored to their students’ needs and interests. This means every learner gets the specific help they need to succeed.
Benefit #2: Greater Flexibility
Another significant advantage of blended learning is that it’s more flexible than traditional approaches are. In a blended classroom, learners can access content and materials anytime, from anywhere. This allows them to learn on their own schedule and makes blended learning an excellent option for students with other commitments or adult learners who may be balancing their professional development with busy family and work lives.
Educators also have greater flexibility in delivering instruction in a blended learning model. They can be more efficient, freeing up time for individualized instruction and small-group work.
Benefit #3: Improved Achievement Outcomes
Finally, blended learning has been shown to improve student outcomes, with studies showing that blended learning environments can contribute positively to student achievement.
A blended learning strategy allows students to move at their own pace and focus on the areas where they may find the greatest struggle. It often includes small-group instruction and one-on-one time with learners, which allows educators to focus on individual needs. Additionally, it provides students with more opportunities to ask for and receive feedback and support from their teachers.
There are many more benefits and advantages associated with blended learning, but of course, it’s not without its challenges. Let’s consider a few of them.
Challenges in a Blended Learning Environment
Here are three of the most common challenges educators face in a blended classroom.
Challenge #1: Technology and Accessibility Issues
Because blended learning relies on technology, educators and students need the tools that enable it to work reliably. If students aren’t able to participate in the online portion of their lesson, that can lead to frustration and cause them to fall behind.
Experiences in a blended learning environment also need to be accessible for everyone. That means they need to work with assistive devices such as screen readers, and they need to enable alternate ways to consume content such as through closed captioning on videos.
Additionally, not all students will have the same experience with or access to technology. This can create a digital divide in the classroom—one in which some students struggle to keep up while others excel. The good news is that states in the U.S. are taking action to close those gaps. In North Carolina, the Wake County school district spent roughly $48 million in 2020 on new devices for its students. According to a national poll by the EdWeek Research Center,
Challenge #2: More Educator Preparation and Training
To create the best blended learning experiences possible, educators and instructors need to be trained on how to do that. They need to be familiar with the various digital tools and resources available to them and know how to integrate them into their lessons. Plus, they need to be able to troubleshoot any issues that come up.
Professional development for teachers is an essential step in implementing blended learning. Whether they’ve created blended learning experiences before or are new to the methodology, technology training and pedagogical or andragogical support will help them feel confident in bringing the practice into their classrooms and courses.
Challenge #3: Time and Scheduling Constraints
Although blended learning can bring added flexibility, it also requires educators and learners to use their time differently. Educators, for their part, will need to dedicate time to sourcing, creating and structuring digital content. Learners may also need to find time outside of traditional class or working hours to review and complete the material, a potential challenge for adults with busy lives and students with after-school commitments.
Putting Blended Learning Into Practice
Blended Learning Models in the K-12 Classroom
Now that you know all about the challenges and advantages of blended learning, you may be wondering which model would be best to implement in your K-12 classroom. The answer depends on various factors, including the age and needs of your students, the resources available to you and them, and your teaching goals.
Consider your students’ needs when choosing a blended learning model. For example, if you have a class of struggling readers, you might want to use a station rotation model to provide more individualized instruction. On the other hand, if you have advanced students, they might benefit from an individual rotation model, which allows them to work at their own pace and choose assignments that interest them.
Think about the resources you have at your disposal. Do you have a computer for every student in your class? Do your students have reliable internet access, both in the classroom and at home? If not, you might want to start with a blended learning model that doesn’t require as much technology, such as the A-B-A-B model or the flipped classroom.
Some educators start by trying out one blended learning model in their classroom. Then they adjust and adapt as needed to find what works best for their students. Others choose to use multiple blended learning models throughout the year to give their students a well-rounded experience. There’s no wrong way to approach blended learning—it’s all about finding what works for you and your students.
Blended Learning in Higher Education
Many universities now offer blended learning courses that mix online and in-person instruction. But even more so than at the K-12 level, higher education institutions will require far more complex and sophisticated education technology solutions to make this work.
As Stewart Watts, D2L’s vice president, EMEA, says about blended learning in universities, “For a blended learning programme to be successful, there has to be a sense of progression and continuity—and faculty and lecturers must consider the overall process. Courses should be devised very carefully with technology complementing all current learning and teaching objectives, rather than being treated simply as an ‘addition.’ This means the overall course structure may be different from programme to programme.”
As in a K-12 classroom, educators need to choose the blended learning approach that best suits the material of the course and the needs of their students. If it’s a science or computer course that includes labs, for example, an A-B-A-B or station rotation model may be appropriate.
Course objectives also need to be clearly defined and customized to suit a blended learning course, especially if they’re being adapted from one that was or is also delivered in person. In “Blended Course Design: A Synthesis of Best Practices,” Patricia McGee and Abby Reis explain it this way:
Finally, educators need to be intentional with how, where and when they use learning technologies and tools. Watts continues, saying, “There must … be a seamless, fully integrated experience for students, with lecturers referencing previous content to connect online and offline activities. Whether it’s an online test, an in-person seminar, or a prior video lecture, only by tying up all content and activities chronologically will they provide absolute clarity for students getting to grips with the course.”
Blended Learning for Associations
Online programming has become critical for associations of all types and sizes over the past few years. According to the 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report released by Marketing General Incorporated (MGI), 80% of annual in-person meetings were canceled or postponed in 2020, and 85% of associations said they increased their digital professional development offerings. That being said, associations aren’t ready to ditch in-person programs entirely. They’re looking toward a hybrid future—giving members the in-person connection opportunities they crave while opening doors for them to pursue their continuing education journeys anytime, anywhere, via online learning.
Taking a blended approach gives members more options and flexibility. In addition to attending one or two sought-after face-to-face events each year, such as an annual conference, they can take part in a handful of virtual training and professional development opportunities on topics that are relevant and of interest to them.
Offering both in-person and online learning programs can also help associations grow and diversify their revenue streams. Going digital can allow an association to expand its geographic reach more easily. Plus, if there’s an up-and-coming topic or emerging issue an association wants to tackle, it can put together a course to gauge member interest.
Yet more than anything, leveraging blended learning for associations is about fostering long-term resiliency. Associations need to be ready to adapt in the face of disruption so they can maintain business continuity and give their members the support they expect. It’s no surprise that those associations that are maintaining virtual learning almost entirely also have stable post-COVID-19 business strategies.
Blended Learning in the Workplace
What is blended learning in the workplace? Similar to higher education, it’s the kind of training that uses both traditional (in-person) and digital methods to provide professional development opportunities for employees. It’s becoming a popular—and necessary—choice as companies adopt remote and hybrid work strategies. Buffer surveyed more than 2,000 workers across the U.S. for its 2022 State of Remote Work survey and found that 97% of respondents wanted to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.
Examples of blended learning in the workplace include:
- Asynchronous online courses that are supplemented by in-person workshops: Employees are empowered to take digital courses on their own time and at their own pace. They can also attend seminars and conferences to deepen their knowledge and learn from experts in person.
- eLearning modules integrated into employees’ daily work: Employees can complete digital learning activities to gain skills they can put to work right away and also take part in peer-to-peer learning groups.
Blended learning in the workplace can help improve employee training. It allows people to learn at their own pace and tailor learning paths to meet their needs. Plus, it can make professional development easier for off-site and remote employees to access.
“Modern learning technology creates a space where everyone within your organization can access the learning opportunities and social support they need to achieve their potential,” says Kiara Graham, learning strategy consultant at D2L. “Translate your face-to-face learning experiences into equivalent digital experiences to create a central virtual learning repository that everyone within your organization can access.”
Blended Learning for Customer Training
The more widespread shift to remote work we discussed in the previous section has a ripple effect on customer training too. The more geographically dispersed customers are, the more scalable the training you design for them must be. Adopting a blended learning approach can enable organizations to create versatile on-demand training that can be made available to all customers. As a result, subject-matter experts (SMEs) can focus on more strategic projects, including delivering in-person high-stakes, high-value training when the need arises.
Blended learning can also help build community, connecting customers with both each other and SMEs within the organization. Companies can use discussion forums, for example, to enable customers to post questions and ask for feedback, as well as announcements to bring learners up to speed quickly.
A customer training LMS can also be a great place to collect data on the content customers are engaging with and the challenges they’re facing to inform business intelligence.
Ultimately, as is the case with associations, leveraging blended learning is also about making customer training programs as resilient and future-proof as possible. According to a survey by Twilio of more than 2,500 enterprise decision-makers, 87% of respondents said they expected that engaging customers through digital channels would be critical to their continued success.
How to Implement a Blended Learning Plan
If you’re ready to get started with blended learning, we hope this guide has given you some solid context. We suggest checking out all our blended learning resources, but we’ve also included some helpful tips to keep in mind as you start planning.
Make sure you have a good understanding of the blended learning model (or models) you want to use before getting started. And remember—blended learning should be flexible and adaptable to meet your needs as well as those of your learners. Be willing to change things up.
Start small by incorporating one or two digital tools into your classroom and courses. If your goal is to get learners to participate more, using discussions may be the way to go. If you want to make feedback more engaging and relevant, consider adding a peer assessment piece.
Leverage premade content to complement and support your blended learning activities. In K-12 contexts, that means finding content that’s aligned with both state standards and student needs. In corporate and workplace settings, that could mean accessing content libraries from third-party providers such as BizLibrary and Go1 that can integrate directly with your LMS.
Build relationships with other blended learning experts. For K-12 and higher education educators, that could mean finding peers in your district or state. Corporate and association learning professionals may be keen to see what others within their industry are doing with blended learning. These connections can be a valuable source of support and information.
Have a plan for using data to inform your instruction and help your students grow. And remember to give yourself time to adjust to using new blended learning tools and resources. It might take a little while to get used to using them, but it’ll be worth it in the end.
Implementing blended learning in the classroom or workplace doesn’t have to be complicated. By starting small and adding new components gradually, you can avoid common blended learning blockers and create a blended learning environment that works for you and your learners.
The right technology can help. In an article looking at how to safely and effectively incorporate new tools, Kassia Gandhi encourages educators to ask these five questions:
Do you have access to approved technology that supports your needs? If technology is available through your school, district, institution or organization, it’s likely undergone stringent vetting processes to make sure it’s safe and secure.
If you want or need to use a new tool, is it safe? Especially with free apps, some of the biggest concerns typically revolve around privacy (or a lack of it). According to a 2021 study by Me2B Alliance, 60% of the apps schools were using were sending student data to third parties.
Have you used something in the past that can do what you need now? Using an already known tool means students or employees don’t have to figure out how to use something new before they can start learning. They can dive right in.
Can the tools you’re using help you make learning accessible and equitable? Despite best intentions, the wrong technology can limit access for a range of reasons. It could be that the content itself isn’t accessible, that the platform doesn’t work with assistive devices or across mobile, or something else.
Does the tool you’re using support your learning plan? Avoid the magpie effect—starting with or turning to technology simply because it looks exciting and shiny. As Gandhi says, “We should always make sure the technology enhances our teaching instead of guiding it.”
The key to delivering effective blended learning is choosing the right LMS to help balance learners’ and instructors’ needs, creating a seamless experience whether someone is at home or in the classroom.
LMS for Blended Learning
An LMS should complement existing teaching and training practices. It should support both online and offline content, provide flexible deployment options and include features that facilitate collaboration between learners and instructors.
In a K-12 classroom, for example, if you implement the flipped model (where students go through lessons at home and class time is spent answering questions about the content and solving problems), using the functionality of an LMS can take your teaching one step further.
Here are three ways implementing a blended learning LMS can enhance all your great efforts.
#1: Content Delivery
Using an LMS to facilitate blended learning can help make experiences more flexible and personalized.
By making asynchronous content available on demand, learners review it when it’s convenient for them. Hosting real-time lectures or office hours through a web-based platform means learners can also attend from almost anywhere.
Educators can set up badges, notifications and content to be automatically released based on a learner’s activity. Plus, if they observe awesome behavior or accomplishments in an in-person setting, they can manually give awards and send messages through the LMS too.
#2: Online Assessments
Creating or importing assessments in the LMS is a valuable and important feature. Instructors can create learning activities that enable learners to showcase what they know using the medium that makes the most sense for them. That could be a written assignment, audio recording or video presentation.
Educators can also set up accommodations for learners who may need additional options or flexibility. This could include giving them more time on a quiz or allowing more than one attempt.
Digital rubrics can help educators assess both in-person and online activities, and assessments can be auto-graded to make workflows easier.
#3: Community Building
LMSs can help create a sense of community beyond the course. Most include discussion board functionality, where instructors can expand on a topic that was brought up in person by asking learners to contribute at home. They can follow the discussion—or your course’s social media feeds—for news and to participate in current conversations.
For younger learners especially, technology can also improve communications between students, teachers and parents. Parents and guardians can get a lens into the classroom to see what students have been learning about and working on. Rather than asking how the day was, conversations can revolve around specific projects. Plus, teachers can more easily share regular feedback on how students are doing.
Wrapping Up Our Learning
Both in-person and online learning are here to stay, and blended learning is the hybrid approach that can bring the best of both worlds together. It’s an adaptable solution that can be tailored to the needs of any classroom or organization.
When blended learning is done well, it has the potential to improve student achievement, better prepare students for college and careers, and close opportunity gaps. And with the right LMS in place, blended learning can transform learning and take teaching to the next level.
Have more questions about blended learning? Check out some of the other blended learning articles available in our resource library: