The Future of Education is Bigger Than "Blended"

It’s time to stop talking about blended learning.

For more than a decade, I’ve been integrating technology into my teaching. For the last four years, I’ve been working almost entirely in the online learning environment. And, the more time I spend immersed in technology, the less time I spend thinking or talking about blended learning.

Why?

Take a look at this video, “What is Blended Learning?” from 2014:

And compare it with this advertisement from Apple, released in November, 2017:

In the first video, every depiction of students at work takes place in a brick and mortar school. The majority of time is given to teachers. You see a lot of computers, but you don’t get a strong sense of how they’re being used: What’s on those screens? What are students learning? How are they learning?

In the second video, you never see a school or a teacher. You do see a young person using technology to both complete tasks and experience the world. The majority of the footage occurs outside. The ways in which this young person engages with the device are multimodal, interactive, and personal. The iPad is part of life, not just part of school.

The Christensen Institute defines blended learning as “a formal education program in which a student learns:

  1. at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;

  2. at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;

  3. and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.”

This definition focuses on integrating online learning environments into existing school structures (“formal education program”). The language is incremental: “at least in part,” “some element of.” “Blending” is integration; it’s taking the school model we know and adding something new (the internet) in order to make it better.

Don’t get me wrong: better is good! Blended models like flipped classroom and station rotation are real and important improvements over traditional teacher-centered modes of instruction. Reconfiguring classroom spaces, tinkering with daily schedules, and differentiating the pace at which students learn are critical advancements in education, advancements enabled by wide adoption of blended learning practices.

The problem is that blended learning ties innovation (in the form of adaptive learning tools, adjustments to schedules, and redesign of learning spaces) to technology integration. The argument is that to move a classroom from teacher-centered to student-centered, you need technology in the form of certain devices and internet access. This is too limited a view, one that places too much responsibility on the tool and not enough on the approach. If I’ve learned anything after years of working in the online environment, it’s that the question implied in blended learning (“How might we use technology to enhance learning environments?”) isn’t broad or ambitious enough. We should be asking, “What’s a learning environment?”

This is why I keep thinking about that Apple ad. Technology is only one element in a constellation of ways that young person engages the world. And, when it is used, it’s a medium for connecting with friends, documenting life and surroundings, and creating art. Technology is not the end, it is the means.

Current research and thinking is calling for foundational, not incremental, change in education to ensure all students learn in a way that will allow them to thrive in the world outside of school. We need to be rethinking our definitions of classrooms, of schedules, of schools, of learning itself. The call is for reimagined learning environments, not merely blended ones. At the same time, technology is so powerful, has become so much more accessible, and is evolving so quickly, that it would be an enormous mistake not to give it an integral role in this change. Before we do that, though, we need to set clearer goals, establish core values, and spend more time listening to students about how they learn and what they care about. As educators we have so many powerful, innovative tools at our disposal, but we need to ground ourselves in a common understanding of learning and a commitment to ensuring all students have access to the tools we want to use before we use them.

I’m using new adjectives for learning: competency-based, mastery, hybrid. In the end, I’m working to understand learning better: what makes it happen, how we know it’s happening, and how we can make sure our students are doing it effectively. I also have questions about technology’s role in both expanding our imagination about what education is (for) and grounding us in what we already know and value about its importance to helping students develop the skills necessary to excel as learners, professionals, and citizens. None of these questions can be answered by simply blending technology into current practice, but I feel strongly that thoughtful use of technology will be an essential strategy — one of many — to finding the answers.

Global Online Academy (GOA) reimagines learning to empower students and teachers to thrive in a globally networked society. Professional learning opportunities are open to any educator. To sign up or to learn more, see our Professional Learning Opportunities for Educators or email hello@GlobalOnlineAcademy.org with the subject title “Professional Learning.” Follow us on Twitter @GOALearning. To stay up to date on GOA learning opportunities, sign up for our newsletter here.

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