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Harnessing the Full Potential of Blended Learning, Part 1: What, and Why Now

  • 6 MIN READ

We take a closer look at how blended learning models can reduce teacher stress while maximizing teacher impact and student success.

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Today’s classrooms hold increased promise for effective blending of technology when educators have the necessary methods and tools for success. Many are asking: What are the emerging expectations and best practices for blending technology with in-person learning? Such questions are not new, but it is important to periodically reexamine our assumptions and update our understanding.

To help inform school strategies and teacher practices around use of technology in the classroom, D2L gathered three researchers and coaches for a D2L webinar to share the why, what and how of blended learning.

Our panel consisted of:

The outcome provided practical guidance on how the intentionally designed blending of technology into the classroom can help elevate teachers and learning. D2L’s VP of Strategic Initiatives, Howie Bender, kicked off our panel by noting how “so many teachers are still experiencing fatigue and in some cases frustration” and that, therefore, a successful shift to blended learning must “better support teachers rather than making it harder for them.”

Let’s take a closer look at how to update our traditional classroom models to reduce teacher stress and maximize teacher impact and student success. In this first of a two-part blog series, we’ll update blended learning definitions and review the evolving research for why our schools and teachers should follow this approach. In Part 2, we’ll take a deeper look at the models, practices and school adoption strategies.

Defining Blended Learning

While not a new term or model, there has been some evolution in the understanding, definitions and application of blended learning emerging in recent years.

Traditionally, blended learning has referenced any combination of online learning and in-person instruction. But defining blended learning too broadly or loosely may undermine the opportunity. Our panelists noted that technology to simply digitize the traditional lecture model is far from optimal.

Instead, our experts defined blended learning as the use of technology in the classroom to:

  • pivot from a conventional classroom model centered around teacher as lecturer to one where “students access instruction online to gain some control of the time, place or path of their learning.” (Heather Staker)
  • enable variation in “pace” of learning and empower students as “active agent, and not [just] passive consumer of information.” (Catlin Tucker)
  • “Create a student-centered classroom that actually empowers educators to do the most powerful part of the learning experience, working one to one and with small groups of students” by “moving the educator from the front of the room as a live lecturer to the center of the room as a facilitator of learning.” (Kareem Farah)

Are Blended and Hybrid Learning the Same?

Blended and hybrid learning are often used interchangeably, which can cause confusion. Our panel weighed in on the importance of clear definitions to shape expectations—especially for teachers.

Both blended and hybrid learning refer to a mix of learning modalities such that the student alternates (ideally based on need) between in-person and online learning.

Traditionally, their distinction has been as follows:

  • Blended learning is an umbrella category that includes several online plus in-person instructional models, where in both cases the learning happens on campus in the classroom.
  • Hybrid learning describes a model where students alternate between some days on campus in the classroom and other days learning remotely online (likely from home). This model became more widely used during the COVID-19 pandemic and can be thought of along the same lines as the Enriched Virtual model of blended learning.

Integrating the underlying practices (definitions aside) is, in fact, appropriate and necessary to support a continuum of learning that can adjust to varying individual needs and schooling circumstances, so long as there is clear understanding of intent and design.

No matter the exact term or definition, the intended benefit of blended learning is “a more personalized and efficient learning experience … 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.”

Research and Experience: Why Blended Learning?

Heather Staker outlined the evolving research for blended learning. It starts with the assumptions that student learning variability is (and always will be) the reality and that student mastery is the goal.

According to Staker, moving students of varying needs to mastery is best advanced by:

  • “allowing students to move through their learning journey based on their proven competency and giving them the right lesson in the right way at the right time” (i.e., personalized learning pathways reflective of each student’s unique, dynamic needs)
  • teaching students individually or in small groups, enabling targeted real-time feedback and meaningful human connection premised on the teacher’s unconditional positive regard for the student

The question then becomes how to deliver that combination of structures. After all, as Staker explained: Pandemic emergency remote instruction demonstrated that often “when students are untethered from that synchronous in-class instruction … then they go adrift,” and that there can be too much screen time when a course is not well designed and balanced. Emergency remote instruction also revealed that simply shifting traditional practices to technology is, in fact, not easy or time freeing for teachers nor optimal in effectiveness.

Kareem Farah put it bluntly: “The pandemic exposed some of the core challenges that have been a reality in education forever.” The one-size model of live teacher lectures (whether in the classroom or live through a screen) “is not an effective way to move students across a continuum of learning,” including to meet learner variability, build important teacher and student relationships, or engage students.

In other words, we now better understand the importance of the teacher, ongoing guidance and structure, and that content delivery (from teacher or learning resource) must be balanced with mediated opportunities for reflection, practice, collaboration and application.

The “So What?”

And so, blended learning is an important method for achieving these research-based practices in a classroom environment with typically one teacher supporting from 15 to 150 students.

Catlin Tucker summarized the panel’s thesis as follows:

“If we accept that learner variability is the norm, then we automatically have to start questioning, why would we ever construct a single learning experience for such a diverse group of learners in a classroom? [The blending of technology in the classroom can] … free teachers to do what they do well to interact with learners … organically responding to their needs; and let technology do what it does well, which is transfer of information.”

With this understanding of why blended learning can help improve teacher practice and student success, we’ll take a closer look at how it works with operational strategies and best practices in Part 2 of our blog series on blended learning.