Blended learning is a formal education program that involves combining Internet and digital media with traditional classroom methods that require the physical present of both a teacher and students, with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.
The term blended learning is generally applied to the practice of using both online and in-person learning experiences when teaching students. In a blended-learning course, for example, students might attend a class taught by a teacher in a traditional classroom setting, while also independently completing online components of the course outside of the classroom. In this case, in-class time may be either replaced or supplemented by online learning experiences, and students would learn about the same topics online as they do in class—i.e., the online and in-person learning experiences would parallel and complement one another.
Also called hybrid learning and mixed-mode learning, blended-learning experiences may vary widely in design and execution from school to school. For example, blended learning may be provided in an existing school by only a few teachers or it may be the dominant learning-delivery model around which a school’s academic program is designed. Online learning may be a minor component part of a classroom-based course, or video-recorded lectures, live video and text chats, and other digitally enabled learning activities may be a student’s primary instructional interactions with a teacher. In some cases, students may work independently on online lessons, projects, and assignments at home or elsewhere, only periodically meeting with teachers to review their learning progress, discuss their work, ask questions, or receive assistance with difficult concepts. In other cases, students may spend their entire day in a traditional school building, but they will spend more time working online and independently than they do receiving instruction from a teacher. Again, the potential variations are numerous.
Over the past decade, digital- and online-learning options have become more popular and more widely used in public schools, although many schools have been slow or reluctant to adopt new technologies for number of complex reasons, ranging from inadequate funding, technologies, and computing networks to general organizational recalcitrance and resistance to change. Given the fact that the internet and most digital learning technologies are still relatively new, instructional alternatives such as blended learning could be seen as de facto reform strategies—i.e., by incorporating blended learning, schools and teachers are forced to change the ways in which they have historically instructed and interacted with students. For example, if students begin learning both in-person and online, it might lead schools to reexamine their traditional school schedule and rethink how the typical school day is structured. In many cases, blended learning is one component of a larger reform initiative in a school or district.
Generally speaking, blended learning offers many potential advantages and disadvantages that will largely depend on the quality of the design and execution of a given blended-learning model. Advocates may argue that blended learning gives students the benefits of both online learning and in-person instruction. For example, students can work independently and at their own pace online, but still have access to the personal attention of a teacher and all the assistance, knowledge, and resources such an educator provides. At the same time, teachers can structure courses and deliver instruction more flexibly or creatively than in a traditional classroom setting. That said, advocates of blended learning may also argue that online learning, on its own, is insufficient without in-person or one-on-one interactions with a teacher.
Blended learning may also allow teachers to spend less time giving whole-class lessons, and more time meeting with students individually or in small groups to help them with specific concepts, skills, questions, or learning problems—the basic educational rationale behind “flipped classrooms” or “flipped instruction,” a form of blended learning. Blended learning may also allow schools to teach more students more efficiently at a lower cost to the school and—in the case of higher education—the student. And because students are required to use digital and online technologies in blended-learning situations, they naturally acquire more technological literacy and greater confidence using new technologies. Some supporters may also argue that the blended-learning approach more closely resembles modern workplaces, in which employees may work largely on their own to meet specific objectives, only periodically checking in with their supervisors to give them updates or seek assistance. In this case, students would also be learning skills such as self-discipline, self-motivation, and organizational habits they will need in adult life.
In general, skepticism of digital and online learning (and its many variants) is widespread, at least in part because many technology-enabled educational practices are still largely untested, and their educational utility and value remain in question. For example, one common argument made against online learning is that it lends itself to rote, formulaic tasks that do not promote the kind of higher-order thinking skills that lead to deeper and more meaningful learning for students (although such outcomes will depend largely on the quality of the specific program or model in question).
Critics of blended-learning experiences may also question whether the practice can provide students with enough personal attention, guidance, and assistance from teachers, especially for students who may not be self-directed, self-disciplined, or organized enough to learn effectively without regular supervision from teachers and adults. Without in-person supervision, for example, students could easily spend more of their study time using social media and chatting with friends than doing their schoolwork. Critics also question whether teachers have received or will receive adequate training in how to instruct students effectively in a blended-learning context, given that the practice requires teachers to use new technologies and, possibly, more sophisticated instructional practices. Some educators also express concern that blended learning is merely a way for states or schools to reduce labor costs by substituting technology for people, which could result in teacher lay-offs, higher student-teacher ratios, unforeseen educational deficits, and other potential negative outcomes. Still other critics may simply dismiss blended learning as a passing educational fad. Another complicating factor is the rapid proliferation of for-profit enterprises that are selling digital-learning packages and online-learning systems to schools—a trend that has raised significant concerns about the potential for profiteering and low-quality educational services and products.
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