What is Blended Learning?

Do you know what blended learning means? There’s a lot of talk about it. Many people seem super excited about its possibilities to revolutionize the education. One can’t go to an education website, conference, facebook page, blog or twitter stream without hearing or reading about “blended learning.” But what does blended learning actually mean? Is it just having computers in the classroom? Is it education through osmosis? Confusion over the meaning is just one step toward education reform.

Recently, Edrefomer, a huge proponent of blended learning, posted a response to a blog post by Eric Williams, a Virginia Superintendent. Edrefomer disagreed with William’s description of how technology is used in the classroom. Edrefomer argued that Williams’ description of technology in the classroom, while commendable is not blended learning, rather Williams describes

[A] rich tech-aided learning–teachers incorporating tech tools to expand and deepen the learning experience. These are obviously good things, but they are not blended learning which involves an intentional shift for at least a portion of the day to an online environment to boost learning and operating productivity.

In a response post, Williams contends that “Not all blended learning opportunities are equal or equally valuable.”

The question though, is what are we talking about?

The difficulty with blended learning, is defining it. On the surface, blended learning is often described as an approach that integrates elearning techniques (or technology) with traditional classroom based learning. This is along the lines of what Williams describes. Since elearning techniques have evolved, however, so have the assumptions underlying what it means to integrate elarning techniques. A point, we suspect Edreformer would highlight. A glance at Wikipedia, surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, depending on your view of Wikipedia, provides a very good description of blended learning -it depends. More specifically,

Blended Learning refers to a mixing of different learning environments. The phrase has many specific meanings based upon the context in which it is used. Blended learning gives learners and teachers a potential environment to learn and teach more effectively.

The point is that blended learning still lacks a hard and fast definition that can be easily exported to all of the conversations that use the term.

Nonetheless, Edrefomer makes a good distinction that educators should keep in mind: a tech-rich environment is not blended learning. A tech-rich environment merely supports the traditional model of education, think laser pointers and white boards that capture content with a click of the button. Better tools, sure, but they are often solely for use by the teacher and are merely evolutionary steps to already existing techniques -a teacher from a 100 years ago would easily recognize the tools for what they are.

Whatever blended learning might mean, it’s clear, at minimum, that it must alter the learning environment. Thus, any technology or elearning techniques must affect everyone -teachers and students. Think, for instance, of asymmetric learning, where students students study math only on a computer whenever they feel like it, but there is no class.

In this sense, Williams too makes a valid point. One that highlights the difficulty in defining blended learning or using the term absent a clearly agreed upon definition before the conversation begins. That is, multiple blended learning models exist. Moreover, (1) we don’t know which models work best; and, (2) some models might work better for different people, hence we cannot be overly rigid in our definitions.

The concept of blended learning is likely to gain steam as the education reform continues (has it ever really stopped?). And, the beauty of blended learning is that it does require a shift in mentality, namely how we view learning must change. But in that shift, we have to be careful to remember that there is no generally agreed upon term to define blended learning, and that lack of a clear definition reflects an underlying truth blended learning should remind us of -people learn differently.

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