Befuddled by Blended Learning

By Paul Curtis, New Tech Network
I don’t think anyone who knows me would consider me a technophobe. As a high school student in the 80s, I was one of the first kids to take a computer coding class. As a new teacher in the 90’s, I was the first teacher on campus to use an electronic gradebook and produce my lessons on a word processor. And when Napa opened New Technology High School that outfitted each classroom with internet connected desktops and gave each student an e-mail account, I eagerly jump at the opportunity to teach there. So, when I say it’s time to retire the term “blended learning”, it doesn’t come from a fear of technology or a failure to understand the power technology can play in improving student learning. I oppose the term blended learning not because it’s a bad idea to leverage computers to improve student learning, but because it fails to clearly chart a path for educators in establishing a more meaningful model for student learning. In fact, conversations about blended learning can even become a distraction to the more significant conversations our schools need to be having and typically produces instructional approaches poorly aligned to what’s required for students to be well prepared for life outside of school.
Missteps in Blended Learning
The big promise of blending technology with traditional instruction is that it will act as a disruptive force and lead to fundamental changes in the way students experience school. Advocates believe that blending the learning will lead to increased personalization with individual pacing and will free up instructional time to make the face-to-face interactions students have with their teachers and peers more effective and meaningful. Unfortunately, there are many ways to implement blended learning programs that fail to alter the basic structures of schools. Despite the efforts of groups like the Christensen Institute to define the best practices of blended learning, for the majority of the education sector, “blended learning” has been distilled to mean simply that students experience part of their learning through computers instead of teachers.
While blended learning can result in more personalized learning and free up time for enrichment activities, it doesn’t guarantee those outcomes. In too many instances, technology is used as a way to make-up credit for failed courses or in unblended labs or stations meant to address areas where teachers have not been successful (math). Too often, “blended solutions” are not blended. Educators who want to see significant change broadly implemented are better served by not advocating for blended learning. Instead, we need concrete languages that puts the goal, and not the vehicle, as the driver for change.
A Better “Disruptive” Model for Empowering Student Learning
How do we best prepare our students with the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for college, careers and civic life in a world of rapidly advancing technology, structural shifts in our economy, and a shrinking globe? Whether through the use of technology or not, what most progressive education reformers want is to see students working in an environment that empowers them to own their learning and realize their potential. To achieve this, we need deeper, more personalized learning supported by digital and virtual learning experiences.

Empowered Learning Modes

Systemic Approach To A Common Vision
Although at times it can feel like there is a battle between these approaches, in reality they are each part of a larger picture and work best when viewed as components of a learning ecosystem that creates powerful learning experiences for students. Each of these structures for framing and organizing student learning works best when integrated with the others. Deeper learning is more possible if technology is supporting the instruction and freeing class time for more complex and collaborative work. Technology also opens the door to the self-pacing, a key element in personalization. Virtual learning would be enhanced if deeper learning strategies helped increase the engagement level of students. The question is not which of these four approaches we should chose, but how do we make all four work together as a entirely new way for students to learn.
The push for blended learning as a Trojan horse for more significant and systemic change of instructional practice has not yielded the results we hoped for, nor is it likely to. Big change needs to be framed as big changes with clear goals in mind. Let’s redefine what we want learning to look like and then leverage what we have learned about blended learning to bring it about.
Every teacher, school and school system should be asking if their students have a personal learning plan to guide their work, if student learning experiences are complex and authentic, and if digital tools and virtual learning are an integrated and integral part of how students learn. Rather than a proxies for change, these four approaches of learning modes get to the heart of the kind of instruction education reformers want to see happening in the classroom. The sooner we make clear the outcomes we want, the sooner educators can build the practices to support it.
For more on deeper and personalized learning and digital and virtual learning experiences, see:

Paul Curtis is the Director of Curriculum at New Tech Network, a non-profit organization that engages with education organizations to develop innovative schools. Find Paul on Twitter at

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Ricardo Turullols-Bonilla

There are too many trees and very little forest in education today. Blend is just a smoke screen to cover up lack of understanding on the part of admin and lack of grassroots involvement. It is all too top-down. The problem is that it neither starts nor ends with education, it is a civilization malady. The solution is Reconstitution.

Ricardo Turullols-Bonilla

To blend or not to blend, is not the issue. Rather, how is the whole constituted out of the parts.

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