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Understanding Blended Learning is the Key to Tapping its Potential

By Brian Gatens January 22, 2015

In Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, authors Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker go to exhaustive lengths to ensure readers understand the definition of blended learning and the different models for applying it in the classroom.

Part I of the book addresses the crucial question: Will all classrooms eventually adopt a blended model? This is a big deal for teachers because the transition away from a traditional classroom structure into the blended model can appear to be both daunting and perhaps even foolish.

The three essential components of blended learning

Blended learning is not just about adding more tech tools to a classroom. Rather, it consists of three separate ideas:

  • It’s part of a formal learning program using online learning that gives students some control over the time, place, path and/or pace of the learning.
  • At least part of the learning happens in a supervised, brick-and-mortar location.
  • The learning experience integrates online and face-to-face learning.

Classrooms filled wall-to-wall with computers, smartboards or other devices are not necessarily blended learning environments. A true blended environment must have all three components: student control, brick-and-mortar learning, and integration of online and in-person instruction.

Current models of blended learning

Horn and Staker do a good job of explaining several blended learning models, which I have summarized. As you read these, bear in mind that blended learning is still a rapidly evolving concept. Other models that do not appear in the book might well be effective. It is important to be open to evolving along with the technology and the model.

  • Rotation. This is the first model most teachers turn to, as it is similar to the common strategy of moving children between activities.
  • Station rotation. This model rotates between activities in the class, including small-group direct instruction, individual learning, and independent activities. This becomes blended learning when technology facilitates class activities.
  • Lab rotation. One of the more aggressive (and disruptive) models of blended learning, this model has students spend up to 25 percent of their school day in a learning lab with technology to practice necessary skills. This, in turn, frees up teacher time to offer individualized instruction to needier students.
  • Flipped classroom. Popularized by Khan Academy, the flipped classroom rotation model expects children to review and learn the broad information at home, and then use the classroom time to apply the knowledge. It also enables the teacher to individualize instruction.
  • Individual rotation. As the name implies, this model expects the students to take part in the most personal of learning activities. Technology helps to establish which learning areas need more emphasis and which ones have been mastered.

The individual rotation model seems the most promising to me. Education often suffers from a lack of individualized attention because teachers tend to target the middle to reach as many students as possible.

Individual rotation enables all students to work on their specific needs. This throws off many teachers because the student-teacher interaction is markedly different. Rather than leading a class on a broad topic and teaching to the masses, the instructor is expected to go shoulder-to-shoulder with the children. This is a radical change.

More disruptive models

The book’s three remaining models — flex, a la carte and enriched virtual — are much more drastic and disruptive to traditional teaching. All three models meet the expectations of blended learning with crucial differences: either they happen outside of brick-and-mortar schools or inside a school building with almost exclusively online learning, or they represent online learning with minimal face-to-face contact.

All three are used to reach highly needy populations who need credit-recovery options or have life situations that prevent them from attending traditional school settings.

It’s essential to have a strong understanding of what blended learning is — and what it isn’t. This is especially true if you come upon an administrator attempting to pass off an inaccurate attempt at blended learning.

Additional resources

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