By Daniel Maxwell
Ever-broadening access to the internet and continual advancements in computing and mobile technologies are having a profound impact on everyday life, with communication, commerce, entertainment, employment and education all now operating in radically transformed paradigms. This generation of students, who have grown up in the digital age and who are often referred to as digital natives, have instant access to an unprecedented wealth of information, resources and production tools. However, as has been shown in numerous reports, including the 2015 OECD report, ‘Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection’, simply having access to technology does not guarantee educational benefits.
The results from the OECD report and other similar findings make it apparent that the adoption of technology in educational institutions needs to be carefully planned in order to maximize its potential. One approach to adopting educational technology in the classroom that has been gaining popularity over the past decade is blended learning. In essence, blended learning merges two previously distinct learning environments: the traditional face to face classroom and the distributed learning environment previously employed in distance learning.
As with many educational concepts, the term ‘blended learning’ has been defined and interpreted differently by various educators, but one of the clearest definitions comes from Staker and Horn:
“Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.”
As with all educational innovations, measuring the success of this approach has been a challenge, but a number of reports have indicated a positive relationship between blended learning and student achievement. A report published by Harvard Business School concluded that students learnt more when online sessions were added to face-to-face learning, learner satisfaction was higher and student interaction improved. These results and other success stories have increased interest in blended learning and, according to the authors of Blended Learning: A Disrupting Innovation, by 2019, 50% of all American high school courses will have content delivered online.
Despite the increasing popularity of blended learning, the successfully implementation of these models remains a challenge, as Garrison and Kanuka eloquently summarized in their 2004 report, ‘Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education’:
“Blended learning described Blended learning is both simple and complex. At its simplest, blended learning is the thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online learning experiences… At the same time, there is considerable complexity in its implementation with the challenge of virtually limit less design possibilities and applicability to so many contexts’ In this respect, no two blended learning designs are identical. This introduces the great complexity of blended learning.”
For educators looking for guidance on implementing blended learning models, the 2012 report by Staker and Horn, Classifying K–12: Blended Learning, is particularly useful. This report identifies four distinct blended learning models:
— The rotation model, in which online engagement is combined, or rather embedded, within a range of face‐to‐face forms of instruction in a cyclical manner;
— The flex model, in which multiple students are engaged primarily online, but under the supervision of a teacher who is physically present;
— The self‐blending model, in which students choose different courses to take independently, but do so in a setting where a supervising teacher and other students are co‐present;
— The enriched‐virtual model, in which online virtual experiences are seen as being enriched only periodically through arrangements of physical co‐presence. (pp. 8‐15).
While these four models are prescribed as options for K-12 learners, the reality is that three of these models (flex model, self-blended model and enriched virtual model) are more applicable to high school students; without a fundamental reconceptualization and reorganization of traditional primary school structures, they would be difficult to implement with young learners. For educators working with primary school students in traditional schools, the most realistic option is the rotation model, which has two popular variations – the station rotation model, in which students rotate between stations within the classroom, and the lab rotation model, in which students rotate their learning between their classroom, a computer lab, and home.
Having decided which model to apply, the more challenging aspect of allocating which technologies will be applied and for what purpose remains. Educational technologies can be deployed for a variety of purposes including: content delivery, gamification, communicative activities, skill & drill test preparation, web research, report writing, blogs, online journals, infographic creation, video production, group collaboration and differentiated learning.
Given this abundance of options, the decision of which technologies to apply and how presents both a challenge and a valuable opportunity for teachers to work as teams and develop detailed blended learning models. By utilizing the skills and experiences of the institution’s teachers, schools can develop detailed learning models which are tailored to the school’s vision, the learners’ needs and the practical realities of the school environment – enabling more learners to benefit from the possibilities which educational technologies offer.