Skip to content

Tag: innovation

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

Stuart Middleton
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 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