Redefining Blended Learning

In over a year of writing about blended learning—largely defined as using an online delivery of content to augment face-to-face instruction—I’ve heard the same, tired criticism from too many well-meaning critics. They associate the approach with 
  • all parties needing to master overly intricate programming and Web 2.0 skills, 
  • cheapening the traditional classroom environment and t
  • he sacred student-teacher relationship.
Certainly, an advanced familiarity with all things technical comes in handy with blended learning. But set aside the
  • most engaging screencasts,
  • inspiring flipped classroom models, and
  • nifty online teaching and assessment tools.

At its core, blended learning enhances and promotes entrepreneurship and risk-taking, while giving students the skills they need to succeed in an increasingly flat, competitive, and digital 21st century. That’s it. It doesn’t really matter how “tech savvy” you are, as long as you feel inspired to rethink how you approach teaching.

With the Internet at my students’ fingertips—with smartphones, quite literally—I’m not the only or even the best source of knowledge. What I do possess, though, and what no computer could ever replicate, is a deep passion for my subjects. I’m excited and energetic about history and journalism, and I do whatever I can to infect my students with a similar love of learning and discovery. To the best of my ability, I allow and encourage self-directed learning (which is a large component of blended learning), and I don’t penalize failure harshly, so long as I see a clear passion for improvement.
How else do I define blended learning, and how do I employ it in my classroom? Here are five approaches that every teacher should consider.
  1. A large component of blended learning is self-directed learning. Whenever I assign a project or an essay, I allow students to propose their own topics. Too often, students are dependent on adults for guidance and direction. More often, we need to allow and encourage students to make their own decisions, even if that sometimes means seeing the consequences of their actions. After all, we learn equally from success and failure. At home and during class, my students explore online resources to inform their understanding. As challenging as it sometimes is, I refrain from offering immediate answers and solutions. If students can use the Internet to figure something out for themselves, they do. I might look like the bad guy, but I know it’s for their development.
  2. Along these lines, I also coach and encourage students to think about what constitutes “credible information,” and where to find it online. This is a crucial skill for students to master, no matter what profession they ultimately pursue. At home, students use the Internet to learn about their own subjects, whether from videos, articles, or other media. This is blended learning, but it’s also self-directed learning. As online learning tools advance, teachers will become increasingly responsible for guiding students to appropriate sources, rather than teaching material directly themselves.
  3. As I see it, a crucial part of the blended classroom environment includes teachers and students working and learning together. In my experience, this often involves using online tools. Three years ago, I worked with a former student to launch The Falconer, an online student news site. I can’t recount how many hours he and I spent watching “how-to” YouTube videos, learning not only about coding and maintaining a website, but also about recording podcasts, editing video, and streaming live events.
  4. Blended learning also calls for rethinking how we assess, with or without online tools. In the near future, competency-based learning, where students progress at their own pace to master a predetermined set of skills, will lead the way. Grades will become less and less significant, eventually vanishing completely. Higher education is already making this a reality. At College for America at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), students demonstrate mastery of 120 “competencies” rather than earn class credit. “Students show their mastery by completing tasks,” SNHU President Paul J. LeBlanc told me last May. “These are real-world hypotheticals. They’re not exams, they’re not the kind of isolated assignments you might get in a college class. They’re meant to be hypothetical, which mimic more closely how that competency is used in the real world.” I give grades because I have to, but in most cases, I allow students an infinite number of retakes.
  5. Similarly, blended learning also calls for rethinking how we teach, with or without online tools. Students want to see the relevance in what they learn, and that’s hard to accomplish by studying subjects in isolation. On that front, I admit that my own teaching needs improvement. I should do more to reach out to teachers in other fields who are interested in having students work on a shared project. After all, students might be told that learning about the Civil War or the quadratic formula is important, but unless they can put such knowledge to practical use, they will eventually forget it. But if students can see that a concept has multiple applications, especially to real-world scenarios, they will be much much likely to remember.
What are your thoughts on blended learning, and how it’s defined? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.