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Blended Learning (Re)Defined

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This post is by Frank LaBanca, a Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow and the founding principal of the Westside Middle School Academy Magnet in Danbury, Connecticut.

Maggie and Daniel, seventh-grade students, participated in a field trip where they learned about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was lynched in 1955 and is often recognized as a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. Moved by his story, they decided to collaborate and create a documentary about Till's life for a school project, with the overall goal of making a product with the theme "take a stand."

The students conducted online research, collected images and b-roll footage, and designed a storyboard. Serendipitously, their teacher was able to introduce them to a local civil rights leader who was a friend of Till's more than 60 years ago. The students interviewed him as part of their documentary. They shared their final 10-minute video, "Till Death Do Us Justice: The Lynching that Changed History," at the school's Project Expo.

To ensure autonomy for all students working on these types of projects, their teacher created a digital module in the school's online learning management system that included graphic organizers, video resources, online activities, and standards-aligned rubrics to guide project planning and execution. The online components of the project allowed students to work independently, with control over their path and pace of learning, while the teacher was available both virtually and face-to-face to provide guidance and advice. Students were excited about learning because they were able to use technology to both conduct research and create an exciting product that they could share with others!

Student-centered educators are always looking for ways to give students what they need, when they need it, in a way that doesn't restrict learning to school buildings and school days. Effective use of technology, as demonstrated by Maggie and Daniel, offers that flexibility. Blended learning, broadly defined as an instructional strategy that utilizes both online and face-to-face components, has become a crucial tool in the student-centered learning toolbox.

When blended learning is designed well, emerging and existing instructional technologies can be personalized to individual student needs and can also provide a platform for virtual collaboration and communication with peers and educators in and outside of school. A well-conceived, technology-enhanced instructional model can facilitate multiple forms of student-centered learning, making it more personalized, student owned, competency based, and available anywhere, anytime.

There's a need for caution, however. While blended learning can be powerfully utilized to support student-centered practices, it is often described and implemented with teacher- or school-centered designs. (For some examples, see here, here, and here.) Of course, school and district infrastructure is important, as is training and support for the educators charged with using it. But it's what students do with technology that is most critical. For this reason, a student-centered blended learning model and philosophy that positions student outcomes and learning as the primary focus will be far more beneficial to students than models that focus more on adult roles and responsibilities.

There are two ways to describe how students can use blended learning: consumption and production. Both practices are important for student learning and complement each other.

  • In a consumption model, students seek or, more passively, teachers provide them with information that helps them gain knowledge and skills. Most of the virtual learning experiences available for students today are consumption based; adaptive platforms to assist with literacy and mathematics skill development are classic examples (e.g., Read180, MobyMax, IXL). In addition, students often conduct their own research using search engines to retrieve and evaluate resources in ways that demonstrate information literacy. In such cases, students are taking what they find and using it to advance their understanding.
  • In a production model, however, students go beyond taking resources to actually making them. They use technology to develop and share emerging ideas and final products that they create. To maximize the outcomes of the production model, educators often integrate a level of flexibility and choice so that students are supported to develop diverse ways of identifying and solving problems. In this approach, there is rarely one right answer. Consequently, educators emphasize the creative/innovative and problem-solving skills, using high-quality content as a support. A wide variety of digital media products, including podcasts, infographics, animations, simulations, and documentaries, can fall into this category. In this way, blended learning becomes extended learning.

For learners and teachers, knowing how to engage in learning is a necessary component of doing it well. For educators implementing blended learning, it's important to determine whether the purposeful intention is to focus more on consumption or production. Doing so is a simple way to categorize instructional design choices that will help illuminate which tools and techniques will be most helpful, and also what kinds of outcomes to expect.

Ensuring that students understand the purpose of the blended learning activity can create an environment in which students own their learning as they use technology to solve problems that are important to them. And when we move increasingly toward more production-oriented tasks in blended learning, we'll be using digital tools for knowledge acquisition and for collaboration, communication, and creation.

Plus, if sufficient opportunities for revising, showcasing, and reflecting are provided, we will be helping students develop deeper learning skills, independence, self-direction, and problem-solving capacities. That sets them up for success in college, career, and civic life.

This is why a commitment to keeping students' needs, voices, outcomes, and ideas at the center of their learning experience will ensure our instructional planning and technology integration will have the greatest impact.

This article was created with support from Jobs for the Future's Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative and its funders. Learn more at sclresearchcollab.org.

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