Pathway-Ed: There's nothing as good as a good blend!

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
24 February 2011
 

Tea, coffee and whisky all put great store by the quality of the blend. Now it is educations turn to consider its blend.

Being a sort of technophile in my own quiet sort of way, I get a number of daily feeds from education organisations and commentators. One came the other day which got my attention with a heading “What future is there for blended learning?”

The paragraph read:

Blended learning, in which students are taught partially online and partially in a brick-and-mortar setting could serve to transform education but may face some potential pitfalls, a new report shows. The Innosight Institute report found that blended learning – that has increased potentially in recent years has the potential to meet individual student needs, provided the policymakers and administrators are open to innovative models. The report also calls for better content and more integrated systems to provide the online learning portion.

I have wondered for a while whether blended delivery / blended learning could be a useful new pathway for students at all levels and especially in the secondary / tertiary interface. So I was interested to follow up the article in eSchool News warning that the benefits of blended learning might in fact be defeated by the intractability of the education institution with which it seeks to blended.

It was based on a report written by Michael B Horn and Heather Staker for the Innosight Institute[1]. Michael Horn is one of the authors of another interesting book[2] which introduces us to the notion of the “disruptive innovation”. This theory invites us to accept that what is sometimes seen as a breakthrough improvement is in fact simply an innovation that disrupts the traditional pattern of prevailing practice by introducing a new practice. The net result of the ostensible change is in fact no change.

This theory is interesting and rings bells for those frustrated by the lack or responsiveness of education institutions to the changing demands being made on them. It returns in many different ways to the basic theme that standardised approaches cannot hope to cater for the learning needs of a diverse student body.

The report warns that blended learning might just be one of those changes that has the look of a significant change which masks the reality that the teaching remains the same (albeit through new and perhaps more exciting conduits) with result that are the same.

I remember that back in the 1980’s computer technology was making in-roads into education. It was thought especially that it would enable education institutions to reach distant and remote learners and remove the tyranny of distance, especially in Australia. What in fact happened was that it was soon seen to be a useful addition to the array of techniques and aids for enhancing face-to-face teaching.

Instead of the trek to the library to get into the queue for resources, many of the same resources that once were supplied on paper were now available through the courseware developed to support not new ways of teaching and learning but the conventional approaches.

Blended learning, if we accept the Horn and Staker definition, is “…any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace.”

So teaching becomes a genuine partnership between the teacher and the learner and a bringing together of the face-to-face situation in which knowledge is both sought and given and the self-directed activity of the learner in which knowledge is to both sought and created, later to be tested against the work of others and the demands of a programme.

And there is no one way of approaching this dynamic. Technology can be blended in a programme and never leave the classroom, it can be rotated as a method but will always be characterised by flexibility. Perhaps online laboratories or supplemental instruction is made available where the learner mixes the blend that suits them or it could be that teachers are only loosely involved in a programme conducted essentially by the students themselves but monitored closely.

Blended learning seems to itself be a very flexible notion. Blend however is not the same as bland.

But the key challenge facing blended learning is whether it will make a difference to the outcomes of education. Will there be increased success for learners who previously might not have succeeded or will it simply provide an additional option for those who are doing well already and in fact might do well in education systems regardless of the approaches taken by those who teach them. They are pedagogy-proof learners.

Michael B Horn and his associates do not wish to see change that replicates current performance. Their notion of a “disruptive innovation” is where something is brought into an activity (in this case education) which runs the risk of being not as good as that which it replaces. Certainly I remember back in the 1980s how the early attempts to teach English with the help of computers mostly re-introduced the emphases and methods of the 1940s. Later in the 1990s distance / remote education through technology quickly became traditional instruction by screen.

Blended delivery has great potential. The key measure of its success will never be measured by the technology itself but only by the extent to which it transforms programmes so as to better contribute to success – for the under-represented, the disadvantaged, those with diverse learning styles and those who cannot from the factory in which they work to the factory we call an education institute.

That is probably why Christensen, Horn and Co called their book with delightful ambiguity, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will change the way the world learns. Is blended delivery a new pathway to better educational outcomes in a diverse community?

[1] Horn, Michael B and Staker, Heather et.al.(2011) The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning Innosight Institute
[2]Clayton M Christensen, Michael B Horn and Curtis W Johnson, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will change the way the world learns New York, McGraw-Hill 2008

Read or add to the 2 comments

  1. Fred says:

    In my experience so far in delivering some blended learning, students perceive they are being duped and not getting value for their fees if they are not getting a lecturer in front of them delivering content to them directly.

  2. Stuart,
    The definition you cited of blended learning proffered byHorn and Staker (2011), is interesting in a number of ways. They, as you cite them, think of blended learning as being applicable any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace”. As with all definitions, theirs is an account of what is; it is a tautology for an indeterminate configuration of learning activities comprising face-to-face pedagogy on the one hand and distance learning activities on the other. The extent to which each has to be present for the definition to apply is, not surprisingly, unspecified.
    Your blog teases out some aspects of this very clearly indeed – it’s possible to have classroom only blended learning where teachers and learners really do use electronic options in an augmentative way. It’s also just as feasible and just as valid to minimise the extent to which learners are classroom bound. Either way, however, a sliver of time devoted to intentionally engineered learning occurs which involves teachers and the learners being separated by space (virtual or real) and time (asynchronous). It is that factor of separation that has prompted this comment.
    Your blog, Stuart, quite rightly noted that blended learning has great potential. Indeed, it has an abundance of potential – providing it’s well prepared and providing also that enough time is allotted so that leaders of learning can thoroughly prepare!
    In my experience, preparing distance learning materials and activities takes twice as long as preparing materials for a face-to-face situation. Ideally, and it really does take time, instructional designers pay attention to designing strategies which will enable students to easily exchange information (inwards and outwards); they also pay attention to establishing platforms and strategies which will help learners to solve problems. In doing so, they guide and help learners to generate considered and informed decisions about how best to address those learning challenges with which they’ve been presented. As well, instructional designers worth their salt help learners to negotiate conflicting ideas and academic moots so that, amongst other things, they can exchange views.
    And all the while, the instructional designer is mindful of developing and maintaining a relational platform that ensures learners and teachers are at one with agreed upon learning goals, transparent learning processes, clearly stated outputs and achievable outcomes. It’s not an easy process and it’s never, ever, ever a rapid one!
    My view is that as teachers, we seriously underestimate the time involved in completing instructional design and at the same time, learning institutions seriously under-allocate the amount of time that is needed. Underestimating time factors can indeed lead to bland blended learning as you suggest, Stuart.
    However, if the mantra of working smarter rather than harder is adopted, there can be substantial rewards for teachers who pursue this mode of learning, whatever the configurations and proportions of the blended delivery. The formula is simple – at the very outset, thoroughly prepare material for learners who will be separated by time and space. If you do that at the very outset, the face-to-face pedagogy will more or less take care of itself. That way, blended delivery can be more assured of delivering better educational outcomes to the community.

    Dr Jens J. Hansen
    Director, Woodhill Park Research Retreat (www.woodhillpark.com)
    Research Fellow in Education and for the Faculty of Health and Nursing Studies,
    Manukau Institute of Technology

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *