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Rethinking Blended Learning When Technology Loses Its “Cool Factor”

  • 6 MIN READ

As the immediate need for technology usage dies down post-pandemic, a return to normal must mean a return to blended learning best practices.

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When Leyla Hagihossein, a middle school teacher in New York, returned to in-class teaching after two years of being partially online, she found that her students were different. Prior to the pandemic, a sure-fire way to get her students excited about their learning was to use technology. Her students loved the opportunity to hone their online research skills and present their ideas in new and creative ways using tech. But after nearly two years of hybrid and online schooling, things changed. Leyla explains that during the COVID-19 pandemic, her students were “forced to learn and interact with a melting pot of different sites and programs that were used by their different teachers. Very quickly, technology was becoming more of a burden for students than a tool to enhance their learning … These days, I’ve discovered that using technology does not always motivate my students.”

This is a common theme today: technology burnout. The forced nature of the shift to technology during the pandemic created a more haphazard approach to online and blended learning than many of us would have liked, and this had consequences. As the immediate need for technology usage dies down, the refrain of “Can’t we just go back to how things used to be?” has been heard widely and often from parents, teachers and students. But we need to be careful to ensure that our return to normal is a return to best practices and not a rejection of the critical skills and tools that our students will need for their future success.

Use Blended Learning to Offer Students More Choice, Not Some Cool Technology

Let’s take blended learning as an example. Over the past few years, the definition of what blended learning is has become confused, and it’s now often associated with the pandemic hybrid learning models many students and teachers experienced. But blended learning isn’t new; it’s an approach to learning that pairs the in-person classroom with online components to support student-centered learning. At its heart, blended learning is not about using technology because it’s cool. It’s about offering students choices, including the choice to engage in online learning elements when it makes sense for them and define their own pace and path of learning with the support of their teachers. A strong blended learning program is personal and student-centered, explained Dr. Catlin Tucker, best-selling author of Balance with Blended Learning, during a recent D2L webinar. “Regardless of the specific model and approach we are using, where do students get to make a decision? The best way to motivate them over time is to give them autonomy and agency, allowing them to make those key decisions about their learning.”

Leyla Hagihossein agrees, and this was a major revelation for her and her students this year. Using technology as just a “hook” to build student excitement was never going to be a long-term solution. Eventually, students were going to see tech as just a normal part of their lives and not as something new and flashy. Instead of overfocusing on the cool factor, the best practice teachers should embrace is offering students choices by providing learning options with and without technology. “Giving them choices has inspired my students to really immerse themselves in what they are learning and demonstrate their learning in a way that best fits their skill sets. After a break from being forced into using technology, my hope is that their love for the use of technology will return,” says Leyla.

Learning Models That Increase Student Choice and Autonomy

Considering the current student enrollment and engagement crisis many schools are facing, learning models that increase student choice and autonomy should be something we’re all leaning into. So, how do we empower our learners (and ourselves as educators) to create effective blended learning programs in schools? D2L’s Complete Guide to Blended Learning offers suggestions, as did the D2L webinar on the future of learning. But let me share a more personal response to this question with a story from my past as a seventh-grade teacher struggling to engage my students in the science curriculum.

At the time, my lessons were organized into two main—and fully offline—components: whole-class instruction followed by breakouts into small groups or independent work. The problem? Too many of my students were getting left behind, and as they started to feel disengaged, the behavioral issues mounted. I quickly realized that a more personalized approach was going to be critical to the success of all my students (and to my own sanity). So, I shifted my thinking and embraced blended.

Many of my students were on Individualized Education Plans and needed to engage with course material in specific ways, so whole-class instruction needed to be differentiated. By embracing a modified flipped classroom model, I was able to prioritize class time for supporting individual students and small groups. My students who needed different chunking/access to content were able to use our online classroom space to explore curriculum resources at their own pace, and students were given options around how they wanted to engage in activities to demonstrate their learning (through face-to-face or online methods).

Key Learnings That Helped Refine My Blended Classroom

Over the course of the year, I had some key learnings.

  1. Centralize digital resources: Expecting students (and their parents) to navigate through dozens of online digital tools is a recipe for burnout and confusion. Leverage technology that can centralize and organize online resources in one space, and preferably that allows you to set up specific learning pathways for students. A learning management system is usually a good bet.
  2. Leverage technology tools for teachers: Treat technology like an in-class teacher’s aide and find ways to make your blended classroom more efficient and effective. For example, use technology options that have embedded data tools for teachers so that you can monitor student progress through class content and assessments, and make informed decisions on how to support their next steps.
  3. Prioritize pedagogy before technology: Guard yourself against choosing technology just for its flashiness by never starting with the tools first. Always consider the learning goals and needs within your classroom, and then decide which digital resources best suit your needs and those of your learners.

Not all of my students loved using technology. Some preferred offline methods of learning, while others found technology to be the best for their needs, and more often than not, my students leaned into a combination of online and offline learning. The key elements of my successful blended classroom were balance (between when I used technology vs. face-to-face strategies) and choice (as much as possible!).

If you want to learn more about how to evolve your blended learning classroom, here are some resources to help:

The Complete Guide to Blended Learning

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

Harnessing the Full Potential of Blended Learning, Part Two: Best Practices and Classroom Adoption

Webinar: In the New Educational Landscape, the Future Is Blended (Learning)

And make sure to join us for our upcoming webinar on blended learning: Blended Learning: What Is it Really, and How Do We Do It Well?