Photo Courtesy of Northern Michigan University

By Brian Page

There are three moments that addict me to teaching. When students have “light up,” “light bulb,” and “lead” moments. Creating an environment that fosters the space for these is becoming easier as the tools at our fingertips continue to improve.  I see technology as a cornerstone of education that can help bring to life content for students.  For the purpose of this article, I am defining blended learning as the combination of multiple approaches to learning, although as you can read in this article, it can be defined in many ways. Blended learning can be accomplished through the use of “blended” virtual and physical, with technology being used as another tool for educators to provide student centered instruction and interaction.  Most teachers are embracing these tools when they are being introduced as a student-centered approach to education.

I follow Diane Ravitch on my Twitter account, among many other education leaders. What I find consistent about Ravitch’s positions is her undying passion to protect what makes a classroom special – – the environment, the learning process, and putting students first. Clearly one of the country’s educational leaders, she fights for what she knows is necessary for a positive student experience and superior education.  In my opinion, she is fighting to prevent any disingenuous corporate and political infusion that could destroy education, which leads me to how I fear blended learning is being wrongly defined.

Across the country, charter schools and educational services are popping up that use computers to teach just as a VCR and worksheet could be used for hundreds of kids at once, being overseen by a few adults. I see this being done in the name of blending learning. Defining such a process as blended learning slaps a label on a process that should be more accurately defined as a “corporate-centered” or “politician-centered” approach to education. Both ignore overwhelming research that illustrates the quality of the educator is the most important variable in student achievement, and both seem to share a goal in providing educational services at the lowest possible price. I understand why some politicians are considering this approach, as residents of many states are forced to face austerity measures because of a loss of tax revenue. Raising taxes in this environment is a textbook macro-economic “no-no,” and would probably lead to an even greater loss in state revenue. It is a bind politicians are in that I am not sure I could ever face.

Pedagogy that uses technology as the primary leader in instruction sacrifice the critical social interaction that students receive with other students and teachers in promoting the goal to providing educational services at the lowest possible price.  We must ask ourselves what end product do these approaches envision?  Do we want graduates who can comfortably sit in front of a computer screen but freeze up when it comes to looking someone in the eye?  Will graduates of schools using these approaches be able to carry out coherent conversations?  Will they leave school prepared to be able to socially function in an increasingly complicated world? Our responsibility is to prepare our students for the 21st century, and as you can read in this article, many 21st century skills necessary for students to thrive cannot be learned in an online environment.

I am equally as fearful that a label associating blended learning with call center classrooms could stand in the way of a genuine evolution of education through blended learning. Imagine small classroom settings and educators who are supported and held to the same standard as the Finnish using interactive student-centered technology as a blended learning tool. Consider the benefits of the “flipped-classroom,” as illustrated in this article, which highlights how my friend Stacey Roshan is using the flipped-classroom in her classroom. This is an approach that makes sense when you have a classroom full of students who all do their homework, an approach that I am going to partially adopt in my AP Macroeconomics course.

Some corporations already provide valuable teaching tools that can be used to support a blended learning environment, and these tools need to be embraced.  To be clear, I believe technology provides educators with education’s greatest learning tool. For example, Khan Academy and Brainpop are widely accepted teaching tools that can be used for homework, hooks, or differentiated instruction. As you can read here, even M.I.T. is jumping on board providing free online course offerings. Surely other tools exist that have a more narrow subject matter focus such as in financial education. FinLitTV provides video clips for educators to use as hooks. Their FLiC’s offer students the opportunity to engage and inform each other. Budget Challenge is an online personal finance simulation that bridges content understanding with behavior modification.  Using tools such as these enhance the learning process for students.

Imagine the possibilities. Imagine students across the country creating their own video clips or instructional videos; students collaborating using Skype, wiki’s, or Google docs; Consider Vicki Davis’ flat classroom, who I hope to collaborate with myself in the near future. It almost goes without mentioning the countless benefits of 1:1 schools, originally developed by one of our country’s finest schools, the Cincinnati Country Day School. I have not even touched on game-based and project-based learning possibilities. I could go on and on. You get the point, and in many environments this is already occurring. To be clear, these are blended learning tools that can be used for students to experience light up, light bulb and lead moments.

Teachers do not fear technology, as most are embracing it. Teachers do not fear reform that is good for kids, as many are leading it. Teachers fear a political push that uses technology as a cost cutting tool, promoting processes that build learning walls impossible for students to climb. Teachers fear a politician-centered or corporate-centered approach to education that does not put the student first. Or as Tom Whitby put it here, another tarnished silver bullet.

When blended learning is teacher-led, student-centered and a part of the bigger picture rather than the bigger picture, students win.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Good article Brian!It sounds great but with the speed of developing technology it is difficult for middle age teachers+ to grasp all these new developments and for them it is scary and difficult.I also see problems with those students who don’t have access to these technologies and parents who are unable to help them with it and or not be able to afford things like internet access and computers.But,I agree with your point and assesment.

    • Bob, over the next three years (while preparing for online assessment) states and districts will need to improve student access to technology. This will include shifting from print to primarily digital instructional materials. In many schools tablets will be the core access device. Many schools will encourage students to bring their own devices to supplement school provided devices. Cities and states will need to help with universal affordable access to broadband. In the mean time for kids without broadband at home it will soon be easy to cache a custom playlist on a take home tablet.

  2. Thank you for the article, your viewpoint that some teachers are embracing some e- technology, I think is right on. You could break it down further, into categories where technology could be used, and then ask yourself, what percentage of teachers use all of these? Which teachers use one or two technologies to enhance their classrooms? Or are there any curriculums out there that incorporate all of these things, fully utilizing available technology? What would your statistics show? How many teachers use all of these things, creating a blended situation with a warm body directing the technology? (or vice versa, with the technology leading the teacher, who then insures the transfer of information and answers questions immediately)?

    1. instructional tools (like Kahn Academy) or links to youtube videos on sites like NASA
    2. Game type learning for practicing skills.
    3. Organizational technology (calendars, lesson planning schedules, Lesson plans (like some art lessons, which list all materials needed, how it ties into history or literature, etc…)and logically listed sequential lessons, that allow for kids to move at faster or slower paces.
    4. Communication technologies, like blogs for posting assignments, class videos,parental communications, or portals for students to access their lessons from home.
    5.Online textbooks, practice sheets, review sheets, tests onine, etc…

    What I see as the main piece of the puzzle that is missing, is a complete curriculum that incorporates all areas of technology available to make it user friendly for teachers, students and parents. And, the public school curriculums or lack thereof, don’t support or take advantage of alot of organizational e- technologies available today.

    What I am hearing in alot of articles written by teachers, is that they are afraid that a child will be sitting alone in front of a computer not learning social skills. But what lacks getting mention in some of these articles, is all of the huge benefits (mostly organizational presentation of information of all types) that are provided by using these complete electronic curriculums. I believe that Technology as the Primary Leader, as you mentioned above, is good as a tool. It’s harnessing technology that should be used to “lead”, as Merriam Webster describes leading, “to guide on a way especially by going in advance b : to direct on a course or in a direction c : to serve as a channel for” That using all of the above mentioned technology in a traditional classroom, led by a teacher, is what I envision a blended classroom should look like.

    • Thanks Gretchen. The flipped or blended classroom holds promise for teachers and kids. A blended school creates the potential for additional benefits including 1) competency-based progress, 2) team-based teaching, 3) differentiated staffing that extends time (e.g., long day/yr), and 4) additional options for students (particularly in high school)

  3. I agree this is an exciting look at the future of education. I think the key to success is support for the teachers in this transition of education and availability for all students.

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