What’s Your Main Purpose For Blended Learning?

This is the first of I hope many guest blog posts for my friends at Getting Smart. About me: I’m observing the education market conversation from the perspective of a non-profit digital content publisher with a focus on math. I’ve had the luxury for the past 10 years of laser-focus on how to make what’s now known as “blended learning” work on just one subject area. While we’ve grown to serve over 450,000 students and 14,000 teachers, we’ve drilled down to a pretty deep perspective I would like to share.
What’s your main purpose for blended learning? Is it improving learning resources efficiency/cost and time/access? Or is it improving the learning itself? Much of the attention and excitement about blended learning is on the former, with time-and-motion descriptions of where the teacher, the student, and the computer exist during the day.
The addition of digital content to the mix of place and time is a rich area of innovation and practice. Recently the Innosight Institute’s Heather Staker and Michael B. Horn revised their pioneering taxonomy of blended learning, classifying blended learning implementations. The attributes include modality (digital or face-to-face), location (lab, class or home), time (fixed schedule/pace vs. fluid), and content (fixed or customized). The 11 derived types of blended learning are school-centric: labels are exemplified by specific school examples. Explanatory diagrams show physical layouts of computers, teachers and students. And from these diagrams the potential for raising efficiency in use of learning resources — clock time, student time, and teacher time — is readily apparent.
Yet as a digital content publisher, my organization is focused on the other potential for blended learning: dramatically improving the learning itself. I mean more comprehension and sense-making, better transfer of knowledge and higher retention of new information.
This requires us to add another perspective on what’s being blended, specifically on instructional interaction as described by Matthew M. Chingos and Russ Whitehurst in their recent report from the Brown Center on Education Policy. They succinctly remind us that where the rubber hits the road in learning is the student’s direct interaction with the teacher and/or instructional materials. The instructional materials used by the teacher greatly influence the teacher/student interaction. Here is where the digital ingredient in the blender can be a game-changer when it comes to the quality of learning. Curriculum is not a commodity; quality and efficacy of curriculum is highly variable. Chingos and Whitehurst dramatically point out the “scandalous lack of information” at all user-levels, as if the instructional materials used are irrelevant.
So, let me briefly introduce five key factors to consider for blended learning, from this learning-centric perspective of instructional interaction between teacher, student, and digital content.
Note that instructional interaction doesn’t “care” where or when it is. It’s about “what” it is. One modality is the student interacting directly with digital content (i.e. without the teacher). For web-delivered digital content, which I will assume, clock and location drop out of the picture – the interaction is the same whether the access is during or after school, in classroom or lab or home or library. Another modality is the student-to-teacher interaction, which could be either a conversation face-to-face during a scheduled time, or an ad hoc conversation over Skype. The point is the students and teachers are engaged in a conversation around learning, not the time or place.
Factor 1: By its 1:1 nature, student interaction with digital content is self-paced. Even essentially passive interactions like studying a digital textbook on a tablet or viewing a video on YouTube can be more valuable because they can be paused and reviewed by the student. Of course active interactions like games add an additional self-pace dimension of correctly solving a problem to proceed in the game.
Factor 2: Digital content can be much than conventional-practice-on-a-computer of previously introduced procedures. It can be a way to introduce and explain concepts, whether in advance of, in parallel with, or even after they are introduced by a teacher. Yes, from my perspective of seeking better learning, there is always also a teacher ingredient in the mix. As Bob Wise, Alliance for Excellent Education President said at the SIIA Ed Tech Business Forum last November, to get better learning, “High Tech requires High Teach.”
Factor 3: Digital content can be highly interactive. Of course interactive means more than clicking a “next scene” arrow. Interaction means the student needs to respond to some problem-solving scenario, then see the results of her response. For example, that could be solving a math puzzle. Given appropriate strategy and quality of the digital content, this is a “minds-on” interaction about the academic subject matter, not just gameplay.
Factor 4: Digital content can provide immediate feedback. The quality of that feedback can vary widely. At the low end, but still a quantum improvement over text/paper/pencil, is the standard “red x” wrong or “green checkmark” right. At the high end, digital content can be used to provide immediate instructive feedback – an explicit explanation of why a solution was wrong, or why it was right. This instructive feedback facilitates a student’s learning (whether confirming a solution or showing what-to-correct) from each posed answer.
Factor 5: Digital content can provide an adaptive or custom sequence of learning objects for each individual. This can range from a beginning of year pre-assessment determining a grade-level syllabus, to real-time on-the-fly adjustment up or down of difficulty levels as needed, to longer term pattern recognition of student misconceptions, assigning specific corrective content.
Finally, consider this recently released IES report about math problem-solving. Aimed at curriculum developers as well as educators, its recommendations emphasize the teacher’s role in promoting deeper learning. I agree. A vital ingredient in the digital blender, to raise learning quality, is the teacher. The same content students are using 1:1 can inform and be used by the teacher, at the point of instructional interaction. The potential impact is enormous. As Chingos and Whitehurst say, “We can expect both theoretically and based on existing research that instructional materials either reduce the variability in performance across teachers, raise the overall performance level of the entire distribution of teachers, or both.”
Along with all the excitement and buzz around blended learning, to go beyond learning efficiencies, keep an eye out for game-changing aspects of digital content, for student and teacher use, to achieve deeper learning.

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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Heather Staker

Andrew, I like this smart dimension you've added to the descriptors of blended learning. There's so much work to be done to understand the cognitive science behind blended-learning models and what will work best for each student. I hope the thinking and research will continue to improve. Nice post.


I really enjoyed this article. As someone who interacts with 16 different content vendors in helping teachers try blended learning in their classrooms, it is evident that some of the stakeholders who make choices about online content aren't as concerned about the "quality and efficacy of curriculum". It seems they often think that providing some part of the learning online will engage students. However, I've seen much online content that does just the opposite.
***I would like to alert you to the fact that your first sentence in paragraph #4 is missing the the word "to" (This requires us(missing here) add another perspective on what’s being blended, specifically on instructional interaction as described by Matthew M. Chingos and Russ Whitehurst in their recent report from the Brown Center on Education Policy.

Andrew R. Coulson

Hi Eileen,
Yes, just delivering the same-old-content in a digital way is not going to be game-changer. Thanks for the correction of the typo too.

Carol Gonella

Very interesting and thought provoking statement. Probably most salient to me is the link between immediate feedback and learning. Can this be feedback between students? Or are we only working on the teacher-student feedback. Between students carries some ground for error, but at the same time it carries room for growth of the initial provider and the one attempting correction or comment. There's much here to contemplate and work with.
I was drawn to blended learning by my student's attachment to their Smart Phones. Here's a medium that they love and enjoy, that's no threat to them, that can be used for learning as well as interpersonal communication. What better mode of transmission could I find. the main impediment as I perceive it is the amount of time a teacher spends interacting with the students, where interaction is so individual.
If other students in class could learn the value of reviewing their peer's work and comments thereon this might be mitigated somewhat.

GEraldine De Leon

I am not a Math teacher, but, I would like to know how this works in Science aside from research

Andrew R. Coulson

@Geraldine: thanks for that question about implications for science. From my perspective the potential is there for digital tools to provide *deeper* understanding, when used as part of normal science instruction. All the factors are there, and applicable. I would advise that discerning the *quality* of the instructional design is tricky however. Just checking boxes for the factors isn't good enough.
(1) self-pacing is an 'automatic' in digital
(2) 'digital' introduction of concepts can be passive lecture - and no game-changer if so
(3) interaction is also an 'automatic' in digital; the quality and depth is found in the specific, sometimes subtle, pedagogical underpinnings of that interaction
(4) instructive feedback also needs to be more than a "here's the right answer" explanation - so the quality is in having the student learn (not just recognize) 'why'?
(5) adaptive sequences are also of varying quality and pedagogical usefulness; they can range from silly (moving a student to easier problems when they struggle) to disconnected and confusing (providing different learning objects from different publishers using different approaches and different pedagogies).
So, yes to digital science content's potential for deeper understanding, but, yes also to an intense focus on the learners' needs.

GEraldine De Leon

Blended learning caters to individuality and the trait of being responsible. I amjust wondering if the lack of personal interaction would not tip the balance for the students who have issues with socialization to be more unsociable. How will blended learning relate to the Common Core and the CCLS Standards and teh NGSS standards?

Andrew R. Coulson

@Geraldine: Blended learning as my organization uses it, keeps the social interaction, the face-to-face with the teacher as part of the blend. And re Common Core: Common Core asks for higher goals, for deeper understanding, than previous wide and shallow content. Achieving this, in my opinion, will be faciliated greatly by blended learning: by providing teachers and students with appropriate, quality, effective digital content and tools. For example, digital tools for students which allow them to proceed at their own pace, moving along when they have mastered content in a meaningful way.

Mickey Obermire

The digital content is where the publishers can really assist the teachers. We are not programmers, but our ideas can be placed in creative activities that encourage the student to become engaged without realizing it. This then allows them to take ownership for their learning and allows the teachers to provide the individual assistance they need.

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