Is Blended Learning the Digital Disruption We've Been Waiting For?

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Blending things makes them better. It’s scientifically proven. Blending ice cream makes a milk shake. Blending vinegar with baking soda makes a science project. Blending a Queen song with baggy pants makes Vanilla Ice. OK, actually, Vanilla Ice is definitely less than the sum of his parts.

So, maybe blending isn’t inherently better. Maybe it has to be done just right … which brings us to the much-debated subject of “blended learning.” According to its advocates, blending learning merges online and traditional forms of education to create a hybrid approach that yields better outcomes for students, educators, and schools. According to its critics, blended learning treats technology and privatization as the twin panaceas for the systemic failures of formal educational, all in pursuit of some mythological and unproven notion about the value of personalized learning.

But who’s right? Is blended learning the milkshake of education, a perfect, creamy, delicious enhancement of something already pretty great? Or is it the Vanilla Ice of education, a clunky mash-up that is ultimately inferior to its own ingredients, and as such, bound for rapid uptake, short shelf-life, and ultimate abandonment on the scrapheap of history?

The research is inconclusive, but then again, so is the evolution of blended learning itself. Many experts advocate for it, but as many decry it. Here at The Quad, we’re both technophiles and traditionalists, so we’d just as soon defer to the insight of both camps. The reality is, it’s not about what the experts advise so much as what they predict. Many foresee an immediate future in which some form of blended learning takes place in nearly every educational setting.

On this we agree. Blended learning is a disruptive force, even if it has yet to realize either its full potential or full permeation. In due time, it will realize both. So, for better or worse, we need to understand it.

What Is Blended Learning?

Key to understanding blended learning is that it doesn’t refer to a single educational approach but to combining aspects of traditional education with aspects of web- or computer-mediated learning. Of course, what this comprises varies, which is why it is neither logical to dismiss nor accept the benefits of blended learning wholesale.

An insightful article from the Alberta Teachers’ Association and cited in The Washington Post says that while the exact origin of the phrase “blended learning” isn’t totally clear, some have credited an Atlanta-based computer training company with the terminology, tracing its usage to around 1999. In that original context, the company was offering a new model of education that offered a combination of online courses and live instruction.

This fairly straightforward form of blended learning would become increasingly commonplace in professional training contexts in the two decades thereafter (and somewhat less so among traditional colleges).

But it doesn’t begin to capture the breadth of possibilities. According Dr. Norm Friesen, whom the teacher’ association article identifies as “a key academic in this area,” blended learning “designates the range of possibilities presented by combining Internet and digital media with established classroom forms that require the physical co-presence of teacher and students.”

That’s a pretty far-reaching definition that has come to encompass an ever-growing set of models. Prominent among them are the:

Clearly, the common denominator among these approaches is that they combine classroom learning and online learning. But beyond that, these approaches demonstrate the considerable variance in possibilities.

With many of these models invented, coined, and proliferated by private companies, it seems likely that these possibilities will only multiply. While this commercially-motivated proliferation may make for a challenging navigational experience, it is also fertile ground for innovation.

The Benefits

This is where the benefits come in. These are well-documented, at least by advocates. With blended learning, you get the feeling of a classroom and a community complete with access to your peers and educators, while setting your own pace, personalizing your areas of focus, and improving your own productivity.

Then there are the prospects for cutting costs while improving efficiency, a scenario in which noncredentialed staff can be dispatched to proctor online exams and monitor learning labs while teachers optimize their time working with small groups or one-on-one.

Access to the web during your learning process provides obvious advantages. It’s about far more than just formulaic learning modules. This experience also creates the opportunity for independent exploration, the ability to use sophisticated organization applications, and the chance to render a more analytically accurate form of student evaluation as well as to track student progress in real time.

Time, teachers, and technology are all used more efficiently, and all to the end of making students more productive, classrooms more engaging, and education more … educational.

Most of these outcomes seem likely. In many educational contexts — from private and charter schools to colleges and professional training programs — student performance seems to support these claims. According to a 2009 meta-analysis conducted by the Department of Education, little statistical difference separated the performance of students in traditional classroom settings and those taking courses exclusively online. By contrast, students in traditional classrooms who completed more than 25% of their courses or work online performed roughly a third of a standard deviation above the norm.

According to Inside Higher Education, this means that a student performing around the 50th percentile could see a bounce to roughly the 64th percentile thanks to blended learning.

Experts Love It … Except All the Ones That Don’t

Still, there are doubts about just how effective blended learning really is. The article from the Alberta Teachers’ Association grinds a pretty hard axe against blended learning, pointing to the limitations of research surrounding it, and the uncertainty of its true impact, especially in the K–12 setting.

The article notes that “out of 46 robust research studies conducted between 1996 and 2008, only five have focused on results for students in K–12 settings (Murphy et al. 2014). As a recent article in Education Week illustrates, when looking for strong evidence of success around this strategy for K–12 students, very little ‘definitive evidence’ or few significant results can be directly attributed to blended learning.”

To be fair, the author offers a begrudging take on the subject, one that belies a cantankerous defensiveness of the old way. But the takeaway is not unfounded. We really don’t know what the long-term benefits or consequences blended learning promises, most particularly because it takes on so many different manifestations. While research abounds — check out this solid scholarly compilation of blended learning’s greatest hits in Education Week — every one of the nearly infinite blended learning models out there probably requires its own empirical review.

This matter is only further complicated by the inextricable connection between blended learning and the privatization of education. Charter schools, for-profit institutions, and certification programs are often the proving ground for technology-driven strategies which themselves have been formulated by private companies. The upshot? Plenty of reasons to proceed with caution.

The benefits of blended learning are not really up for dispute, at least when it’s done well. But the motives behind each model bear scrutinizing. Some are designed strictly with profitability in mind. Others are well-tested and backed by proven outcomes. Like the education landscape itself — which, to say it euphemistically, is diverse in quality — approaches to blended learning are myriad in strategy and value.

Don’t trust somebody who tells you that blended learning strategies are overrated, but don’t necessarily trust anybody who says they’ve got the technological magic bullet for the deep and numerous flaws in our education infrastructure.

Always conduct your due diligence, and not simply to avoid the danger of a crummy, and possibly expensive, blended learning fad. But also because the benefits of an excellent blended learning strategy can be enormous, because the experience can be both enriching and liberating, and because if you do find the right synthesis of digital and corporeal media, your learning experience could be exponentially more valuable.

Digital Disruption

In other words, with full recognition to the inconsistencies and uncertainties in blended learning, this is an irreversible stage in its evolution. If one wishes to make the argument that the traditional model of education is working perfectly, we welcome the discussion, and frankly can’t wait to hear what you come up with.

If, on the other hand, you agree that we might consider transitioning away from a model that is older than any teacher living on earth, and that technology may offer us some direction as we do, you’ll be pleased to know that blended learning has many promises yet to unlock.

Blended learning marks a leaping off point as we seek escape from the old model in which a single teacher presides over a room full of students with limited time and capacity to convey complex and nuanced ideas. In many ways, we are still in a transitional stage, the threshold between the old way of doing things and a not-too-distant future in which blended learning strategies have fully dismantled and replaced the traditional classroom model.

At present, we’re focused on critiquing the countless blended learning models competing for the next big innovation (and yes, also competing for a piece of a very profitable pie). But these competing models are all part of a much bigger moment of digital disruption. The classroom is changing and its symbiosis with technology promises to be a defining aspect of that change. It’s up to us to understand these changes and make the most of the opportunities they make possible.

Part of making the most of these opportunities is conducting your due diligence as you seek out the learning experience that makes the most sense for you. Fortunately, we’ve already done some of the legwork for you.

Check out our list of the 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019 and learn about the innovative ways that these top schools channel traditional modes of instruction through rapidly evolving technology.

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