Jul 28 2020

Understanding Blended Learning: What Districts Need to Know

Blending technology with face-to-face instruction may be the future of education.

With the new school year fast approaching, school districts across the country are starting to finalize and announce their plans for a safe reopening.

After much deliberation, many are considering operating classrooms under a blended learning model, which entails a mix of onsite and remote schooling, to make social distancing more feasible in school buildings during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the adoption of blended learning today could be seen as more than a safety measure. Many experts say it’s a defining moment in K–12 education in which educators, students and parents can rethink what learning looks like and how instruction will be delivered moving forward.

Bruce Friend, previous COO of education organization the Aurora Institute, tells Education Dive that the pandemic was an eye-opener for many districts. “Districts now will understand that creating online and blended environments can no longer be just a luxury. They’re going to have to be prepared for it,” he says.

Blended learning isn’t a new approach. In fact, it has only gained popularity over the past few years with the influx of new technologies in schools, according to the Consortium for School Networking’s 2019 “Driving K-12 Innovation: Tech Enablers” report. Through this approach, educators can better personalize learning for students, enhance engagement and communication, and teach concepts more effectively and efficiently.

However, questions around blended learning still abound, particularly for districts looking to implement it on a larger scale as a permanent program. There’s plenty to think about — from which approach would best meet the needs of students to what tools need to be in place before rolling it out.

DISCOVER: Learn how to get started with blended learning.

The Types of Blended Learning You Should Know About Today

The concept of blended learning is fairly simple to understand.

It’s an instructional model in which students learn partly online and partly in a brick-and-mortar setting through an integrated learning experience, explains Thomas Arnett, senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank that’s been at the forefront of blended learning research. “It gives them more control over the time, pace, path and place of their learning,” he says.

But there are numerous ways in which schools can implement blended learning, depending on factors such as their goals, classroom design and technology use, according to Blended Learning Universe, a comprehensive resource hub curated by the Christensen Institute.

For example, a station rotation model, where students essentially move between learning stations — one of which involves student-led online learning — might be the right fit for schools that want to give students more control over their learning pace and path but have limited classroom space and devices.

In some learning models, online learning acts as a supplement to conventional instruction, while others make online learning the backbone of it, Arnett says. The latter, which includes the enriched virtual model, is often more difficult for schools to implement under normal circumstances because it requires a bigger shift in curriculum, technology and professional development. But it could be part of the answer to reopening schools safely.

61%

The percentage of U.S. K–12 schools that expect to start the next school year in a hybrid environment

Source: educationblog.microsoft.com, “What educators have learned from remote learning prepares them for the new school year,” June 15, 2020

Through fully designed online classes, the enriched virtual model allows students to do most of their coursework outside of school and receive face-to-face instruction periodically, which could fit the adjusted schedules some districts plan to have in the fall.

There are also other models that allow districts to limit the number of students in a school building on any given day and better accommodate social distancing. Schools should consider a flipped classroom, in which students learn at home through online coursework and prerecorded lectures and use in-person class time for teacher-guided assignments or projects. Another option is the a la carte model, in which students typically pick classes to take online for a more flexible schedule or because their school doesn’t offer particular courses.

“There are some real heath considerations that need to be accounted for if schools open their doors. At the same time, it’s not totally unfeasible to have some schools open and practice social distancing with some of these blended learning models,” Arnett says. “Blended learning can be a middle way for figuring out how to utilize campus resources and on-campus time as much as possible to the extent you can, and also have it integrated with independent, distance learning.”

READ MORE: Here’s what to know about moving classroom management online.

Blended Learning Considerations for Back to School and Beyond

But the reality is that many educators haven’t been formally trained to teach in a blended learning environment. That’s why it’s important for them to have a clear understanding of the differences between online and face-to-face learning, explains Michele Eaton, director of virtual and blended learning for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis and author of The Perfect Blend.

“For example, we read differently online, on the screen, than we do with print resources,” Eaton says. “That has major implications for how you teach with digital text and how you organize an online lesson.”

Lauren Tavarez, director of instructional technology at Ector County Independent School District in Texas, also says that professional development is crucial to a successful blended learning program.

Since many districts are implementing this approach on a shorter time frame, Tavarez suggests building teachers’ comfort level with using digital tools to support learning goals first. “Identify what you want kids to walk away with and what you want them to learn, and find out how to support that growth through digital outlets,” she says.

Educators will also need to address potential challenges such as miscommunication and disengagement as students learn independently online, with many doing so extensively for the first time.

One thing educators can do to combat those issues is by thinking intentionally about interaction, Eaton says. “We should be thinking deeply about how students are actively engaging with content instead of just giving a text for them to read with a quiz after,” she says.

When designing an active, engaging digital lesson, Eaton says she makes sure she’s providing three types of interaction: student-to-student, student-to-teacher and student-to-content. Teachers can foster these interactions by leveraging videoconferencing platforms, such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, which come with collaboration features like screen sharing, co-annotation and digital whiteboards. Many also use learning management systems such as Google Classroom, Canvas or Schoology to post messages on a daily basis, and encourage students to post on a class stream or discussion board.

Michele Eaton, Director of Virtual and Blended Learning, Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis
We should be thinking deeply about how students are actively engaging with content instead of just giving a text for them to read with a quiz after."

Michele Eaton Director of Virtual and Blended Learning, Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis

Educators should also use formative assessment tools, which learning management systems often have, to give students timely feedback as they’re learning independently, Tavarez says. For example, teachers using Google Classroom can use the platform’s question tool or integrate Google Forms to evaluate students’ understanding of a topic and provide feedback. “That way, they can steer the learning based on how students did and what they need,” Tavarez says. “It also lets teachers know whether what they did that day was effective.”

On a foundational level, Arnett says, there are basic technologies all districts need to make blended learning work: internet connectivity solutions and electronic devices for students to access online content. He adds that most online learning can now happen through a browser, so even mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones can be used to complete online coursework.

Still, it’s important to have a consistent level of technology and connectivity, Arnett says. “It can be a challenge for teachers if one kid is on an Android tablet and other kids are on a Chromebook,” he says. “Teachers might have to deal with different types of technical hurdles that students are facing.”

Eaton agrees, saying that simplifying your arsenal of tools for blended learning is crucial. “It’s a little bit misguided to say that students are digital natives, that they inherently know how to use digital tools for learning,” she says. “They have to learn the tools, just like we do.”

ake1150sb/Getty Images; Illustration by Amira Martin