History of blended learning
Blended learning has been around in one form or another for over a century. As author Christopher Pappas found out, the first distance course was originally launched in the 1840s. This course was developed by Sir Isaac Pitman and taught students how to write in shorthand. Pitman would send shorthand postcards that students had to reply to. These replies were then corrected and graded.
However, the blended environment as we currently know it really didn’t take form until the advent of the computer. Computer based training originated in the 1970s. Lectures and training manuals were replaced as students learned through their interactions with a computer.
This system evolved in the 1980s when video networks became popular. These networks allowed instructors to broadcast themselves over a TV in a rudimentary predecessor to the modern webinar.
It was the creation of the first Learning Management System that truly pushed blended learning into the modern era. These systems allowed instructors to more easily track the progress of students.
Delivery of instructions shifted from the 1990s through the 2000s as computers took greater advantage of the internet. Instructional delivery shifted from software loaded onto a PC to web-based applications and learning.
Today, blended learning is a diverse field that takes advantage of the computer’s capabilities while retaining the in-person aspect of traditional learning. Blended learning now encompasses a variety of approaches, including webinars, online learning interactive scenarios, and a mix of in-person and computer-based learning. This shift in education has allowed instructors to develop new and exciting ways of instructing students.
The trend toward integrating technology speaks to the larger trend of blended learning. Blended learning shifts the traditional means of instruction. In a traditional model, teachers lecture students, who act as passive recipients of information.
Currently, there is an increasing shift that places students into more active roles. This will not necessarily be a shift that requires increased technology, though technology may be able to help schools become blended learning environments. Instead, blended learning only requires that students become more engaged and active, which can be done by independently conducting research, collaborating in classrooms, and watching different forms of educational media.
Authors at Concordia University-Portland reviewed four basic approaches to blended learning that included rotation, flex, enhanced virtual, and self-blend models Rotational models of learning require that a student learn part of the time in a traditional classroom setting and another part of the time in a virtual setting, with teachers setting schedules for when virtual learning occurs.
Flex learning involves students learning entirely through the internet, most often as part of a distance program. This flex approach allows for customized curriculums but also one-on-one support, which is provided when students visit their traditional school or by logging in to online support.
An enhanced virtual environment takes the in-class rotation approach and applies it schoolwide. This approach often requires a computer lab on campus, with some courses happening in a traditional environment, others happening in the lab, and yet other classes taking a mixed approach. Some schools also shift to entirely virtual teaching, though this still requires the creation of support systems that can help students complete their coursework.
Finally, the self-blend approach may be the approach that schools most commonly adopt. This approach allows students to choose the courses they want and how long it will take to finish those courses. This allows the student to entirely self-pace their work. Schools often adopt this approach because it allows them to provide a much wider number of courses, which allows students to take classes, such as advanced placement classes, that might not otherwise be available.
Schools also benefit because this approach allows individual classes to be shifted to virtual approaches without extensive time and financial investments, which are often required in other approaches to blended learning.
However blended learning takes place, it’s clear that it requires instructors to shift the emphasis off of themselves and onto the students. This can be difficult, especially with a lack of training and sometimes infrastructure. Importantly in blended learning, technology can be considered an enhancement to practice, but technology isn’t necessary for a blended environment.
What Is critically important in blended learning is that students be given the opportunity to work independently and collaboratively, owning their own projects while teachers act as a resource.
Factors that drive successful integration of technology
In a white paper produced by education officer Elizabeth Brooke, four keys to integrating technology into the blended approach were identified. First, teachers attempting to integrate technology into the classroom should ideally pick one that adapts to each student’s skills. Teachers have long been aware of the concept of scaffolding, which involves slowly escalating the challenge that students face.
The technology that is implemented in the classroom should be capable of doing something similar. If the lessons delivered have equal challenge across all students, some learners will find it difficult to progress at the same time that others are bored. Instructional programs should adapt to the student’s performance, increasing in challenge as students demonstrate increasing skill in a subject.
The best programs also feature adaptable instruction. In other words, they not only adapt the challenge to a student’s performance but provide tailored instruction that addresses whether a student is weak or strong in a subject.
A second important factor in choosing a program is to ensure that the program captures the appropriate data. The more granular the data, the more the program can help instructors address their students’ weaknesses. For instance, sometimes programs only assess the student at the very end of a lesson. Students can participate in a half dozen smaller activities within the lesson, but if the program doesn’t capture the student’s performance, a teacher may have to reassess the student to see where they’re failing to fully grasp a lesson.
Good programs should be able to help a teacher better understand the next steps to take with a student. When the data is more granular and constant throughout the lesson, a teacher can tailor future instruction to help a student address their weaknesses. Some programs make this even easier for teachers by identifying those weak areas and making recommendations for what interventions to use. Likewise, programs should provide resources that teachers can use during face-to-face instruction.
The best programs do not limit themselves to being standalone methods of instruction. Rather, they provide teachers with recommendations and resources that can aid them during the process of traditional teaching.
Examples of Blended Learning
There are numerous ways that teachers can switch to a blended approach. Writing for Applied Educational Systems, author Sarah Layton detailed a few real world examples that teachers could learn from. In one example, instructors led with traditional instruction and then transitioned their students into individualized, computer-based work. This allowed for general instruction that was then funneled into personalized engagement. While drawing on the strengths of the computer, this approach still allowed for the value a teacher brings in explaining concepts of a lesson.
A second example Layton pointed to where instructors who had to work with more students than could be effectively handled in a traditional lecture style. These classrooms switched over to being primarily computer based. Students worked on individualized online work within the classroom setting while instructors walked around the classroom. This allowed instructors to support students who became stuck with certain sections of their lesson while still allowing for independent work. Feedback from the programs still allowed teachers to see where students were struggling.
Finally, in an example of blended learning away from the computer, one instructor decided to assign projects away from the PC. In this example, students did receive basic instruction through a computer-based lesson, but their projects were based in the real world. The intent was to force students to apply their learning in a real-world context, working with traditional materials.
It’s clear that blended learning has a long history and involves many different approaches. While almost all references to blended learning in the modern context involve technology, the emphasis is on increasing engagement, personalizing lessons, and placing the learning focus on the student.
Software only plays one part in this process, but is most effective when it provides granular data, supports teachers with recommendations and resources, and allows for scaffolding of a student’s lesson.
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