If you haven’t heard the claim that blended learning is the present and future of education, you haven’t been listening. It is one of the central features of modern school reform, with proponents proclaiming that it helps personalize education, cuts costs and allows students to be more productive. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But is it? Here’s a look at the hype, the harm and the hope of blended learning, by Phil McRae is an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and adjunct professor within the faculty of education at the University of Alberta, where he earned his PhD. This article was printed in the Summer 2015 edition of the ATA Magazine.
By Phil McRae
Blended learning, where students’ face-to-face education is blended with Internet resources or online courses, has been gaining considerable attention in education reform circles. It has become entangled with the ambiguous notion of personalized learning and is being positioned as the new way to individualize learning in competency-based education systems. Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and a key proponent of blended learning, claims that it is the “new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive, as it delivers dramatically better results at the same or lower cost” (Horn and Staker 2011, 13). To what extent is this a new model of learning in a digital age? How are private corporations employing old rhetoric to advance new avenues into public education? Most importantly, is blended learning becoming yet another overhyped myth on the crowded road of technology-as-education-reform panacea?
ORIGINS OF A MYTH
Students blending the use of technology with face-to-face instruction as a means of collaborating and extending their learning experiences is not unusual, revolutionary or foreign to the average Canadian classroom. As a concept, blended learning is now almost two decades old, having been imported into K–12 education in the late 1990s from corporate education, business training firms and the post-secondary education sector. Although the precise origin is unclear, it has been suggested that an Atlanta-based computer training business coined the term in 1999 (Friesen 2012), as it announced the release of a new generation of online courses for adults that were to be blended with live instruction.
Many blended learning practices already fit well with a vast array of hybrid face-to-face and digital experiences that students encounter in K–12 schools, including distributed learning, distance learning, or e-learning. Dr. Norm Friesen, a key academic in this area, suggests that blended learning “designates the range of possibilities presented by combining Internet and digital media with established classroom forms that require the physical co-presence of teacher and students” (Friesen 2012). As this broad definition illustrates, it would be difficult to find any use of technology in education that does not easily fit into this boundary.
Despite this fluidity of meaning, different models of blended learning have taken shape. In particular, Staker and Horn (2012) have attempted to classify blended learning environments into four models: rotation, flex, self-blend and enriched virtual. These four combinations range from those that are more connected to people and brick-and-mortar buildings (rotation, flex) to contexts in which the students are primarily self-directed through online courses or platforms that “deliver” the curriculum (self-blend and enriched virtual). In the more self-directed models, teachers or non-certificated facilitators are conditional and only scheduled for support as deemed necessary.
Although many models have been implemented over the last 20 years, there is scant evidence of the success of blended learning. Out of 46 robust research studies conducted between 1996 and 2008, only five have focused on results for students in K–12 settings (Murphy et al. 2014). As a recent article in Education Week illustrates, when looking for strong evidence of success around this strategy for K–12 students, very little “definitive evidence” or few significant results can be directly attributed to blended learning (Sparks 2015).
The current hype around blended learning models, especially in the United States, is that they bring to life personalized learning for each and every child. Personalized learning, as promoted under a new canopy of blended learning, is neither a pedagogic theory nor a coherent set of learning approaches, regardless of the proposed models. In fact, personalized learning is an idea struggling for an identity (McRae 2014, 2010). A description of personalization that’s tightly linked to technology-mediated individualization “anywhere, anytime” is premised on archaic ideas of teaching machines imagined early in the 20th century (McRae 2013).
Some blended learning rhetoric suggests that personalization is to be achieved through individualized self-paced computer programs (known as adaptive learning systems), combined with small-group instruction for students who have the most pressing academic needs. For those looking to specifically advance blended learning in times of severe economic constraints, a certificated teacher is optional.
Software companies selling their adaptive learning products boldly state that the “best personalized learning programs will give students millions of potential pathways to follow through curricula and end up with the desired result — true comprehension” (Green 2013). This is part of the myth of blended learning and is marketed using superficial math and reading software programs (adaptive learning systems) that make dubious claims of driving up scores on high-stakes tests. Corporate attempts to “standardize personalization” in this way are both ironic and absurd.
These adaptive learning systems (the new teaching machines) do not build more resilient, creative, entrepreneurial or empathetic citizens through their individualized, standardized, linear and mechanical software algorithms. On the contrary, they diminish the many opportunities for human relationships to flourish, which is a hallmark of high-quality learning environments.
One of the blended learning examples that has received perhaps the greatest attention is the “flipped classroom.” It is so named because it inverts classroom instruction during the day, so that students watch online video of lectures at home at their own pace, perhaps communicating with peers and teachers via online discussions in the evening, and spend their days doing homework in the classroom. Think of the popular media hype and mythical cure for math challenges sold to the public by the Khan Academy. There is nothing revolutionary or deeply engaging about pure lecture as a pedagogy, yet apparently adding hours of digitally distributed video each evening to a child’s life makes it so. In fact, research suggests that the use of this type of lecture recorded technology, as a primary approach to learning, can result in students falling behind in the curriculum (Gosper et al. 2008).
Many myths, when viewed up close, provide deep reflections of ourselves and society. Technologies in particular have amplified our North American desires for choice, flexibility and individualization, so it’s easy to be seduced by a vision of blended learning environments delivering only what we want, when and how we want it customized.
The marketing mantra from corporations as diverse as media conglomerates to banks is that of services at any time, in any place or at any pace. Many governments have in turn adopted this in an eagerness to reduce costs with businesslike customization and streamlined workforce productivity, all with the expectation that a flexible and blended education system will be more efficient and (cost) effective.
In the mythical space of blended learning, class sizes apparently no longer matter and new staffing patterns begin to emerge. The amount of time students spend in schools becomes irrelevant as brick-and-mortar structures fade away. However, this myth disregards the overwhelming parental desire and societal expectation that children and youth will gather together to learn in highly relational settings with knowledgeable and mindful professionals (teachers) who understand both the art and science of learning. As John F. Kennedy (1962) so eloquently stated: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”The U.S. Department of Education (2013) has clearly articulated a commitment to making blended learning come to life through nebulous ideas of competency-based systems and personalized learning.
“Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money … make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently .… Each of these presents an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity.”
The cost efficiency and effectiveness rhetoric must be given special attention as part of the myth of blended learning in competency based systems.
Schools and classrooms across North America are being subjected to economic volatility and severe constraints by reduced public education funding. Blended learning can be positioned as the vehicle to bring in third-party education providers to wipe out the expectations of small class sizes and certificated teachers in traditional classrooms. This idea is gaining momentum through a variety of U.S. virtual and charter schools that are radically reducing the numbers of teachers and executing increased class sizes under the banner of blended learning. As Michael Horn states when asked to give expert advice on blended learning models, “budget cuts and teacher shortages are an opportunity, not a threat” (Horn et al. 2014).
As school jurisdictions across the United States turn to online learning and blended models as a way to reallocate resources, the private providers are also advocating for “eradicating rules that restrict class size and student-teacher ratios” (Horn and Staker 2011, 13). To achieve this means lifting the rules around teacher certification so that schools can replace teachers at will with para-professionals or non-certificated individual learning specialists. As Christensen and Horn (2008) suggest, “Computer-based learning on a large scale is also less expensive than the current labor intensive system and could solve the financial dilemmas facing public schools” (13).
To enable this in an education system, several policies must be enshrined by governments that would allow private schools, virtual cyber-charter schools or educational technology companies direct access to students outside of a protected public system. The first is to open up multiple pathways of learning, which are more flexible in terms of time and space, and designed around technology solutions that only the company can deliver.
The Software & Information Industry Association, the principal trade association for the software and digital content industries in America, is a clear backer of redefining and expanding the role of the teacher, and advocates that “teacher contracts and other regulatory constraints may also need to be addressed to provide the flexibility in a teacher’s role needed to make this dramatic shift in instruction” (Wolf 2010, 15).
On the surface, this flexibility sounds promising, as teachers and school leaders certainly recognize that the industrial model of command and control does not fit with our hyper-connected world. Yet the flexibility of any-time, any-place learning is manifesting itself in the United States around adaptive learning software programs or mandatory online learning courses that are being delivered by private companies. New course access legislation (as found in Wisconsin, Texas, Utah, Florida, Michigan and Minnesota) now allows anyone to teach online courses to students regardless of jurisdiction, certification or geographic location (Dwinal 2015). In other words, every course, for every student, anywhere, anytime — and now — taught by anyone. Half the teachers, but sold as twice the fun?
In the case of K12 Inc., the United States’ largest private for-profit provider of online education for grades K–12, student-teacher ratios are as high as one teacher to 275 students (Aaronson and O’Connor 2012). As a former president and CEO at McGraw-Hill Education affirmed: “With this new method and capability, all of a sudden you could see a teacher handling many more students … the productivity could double or triple” (Olster 2013).
The harsh reality, however, is that private online schooling is not about new blended learning models, flexibility or choice, it is about profit through the constant cycle of enrollment and withdrawal of students known as the “churn rate” (Gibson and Clements 2013). In contrast, our current publicly funded and publicly delivered online schools across Alberta reinforce the important role of certificated teachers as compassionate and empathetic architects of learning who work relentlessly to reduce the drop-out rates and increase student engagement in virtual learning environments.
Rocketship Education, one of the many rapidly growing charter schools out of the United States, has adopted a rotation model of blended learning known as the Rocketship Hybrid School Model for kindergarten to Grade 5 students. It combines online learning on campus with traditional classroom-based activities in order to save $500,000 per charter school per year in teacher salary costs (Danner 2010).To accomplish this, Rocketship Education has cut half its teachers, changed its scope of practice and hired low-paid adults to supervise and monitor students in computer labs. The new staffing patterns within this rotation blended learning model place the schools in a one to 100-plus student/teacher ratio, with one or two low-wage computer lab monitors. These support personnel are endowed with titles like “individual learning specialists,” “coaches” or “facilitators” (Public Broadcasting Service 2012).
Without certificated teachers present, there is a need to gather data on student performance, so the children spend a great deal of time in a computer lab with an adaptive learning program monitoring their every interaction. John Danner, former CEO of Rocketship Charter Schools and a former board member of DreamBox Learning Inc., promotes increased screen time during the day for children. He thinks that as the quality of software improves, “‘Rocketeers’ could spend as much as 50 percent of the school day with computers” (Strauss 2013). How many hours of development, in the minds and bodies of children and youth, are we willing to sacrifice for more individualized computer-human interactions under the guise of blended learning?
If blended learning through the rotation model is to be defined by reducing the number of certificated teachers in schools and placing students in computer labs to spend half of their day in front of math and reading software programs, then education in the 21st century is indeed heading down an antiquated and very dangerous path. This is not historically the way blended learning has come alive in Alberta classrooms, nor should it be our preferred future.
The growth of digital media and the Internet has led to an explosion of resources and opportunities for teachers, students and learning communities. A constant shift is occurring with different mobile apps, blogs, video podcasts, social media tools, e-learning courses, or learning management systems in schools that all promise to help teachers create and organize student work, provide (real-time) feedback or communicate more efficiently.
With the proliferation of digital tools in our lives, many K–12 students now experience learning through a blend of face-to-face and digital or online media and are able to access new ideas and resources where student attitudes and engagement towards their education can be positively supported. If blended learning is to lead to positive outcomes for students, then it must be highly relational, active and inquiry oriented (both online and offline), and commit to empowering students with digital tools.
If done right, blended learning can be used to support more equitable access to learning resources and discipline-specific expertise. It may also engage students (and teachers) in a variety of online and offline learning activities that differentiate instruction and bring greater diversity to the learning context. Improving communication between teachers, students and parents and extending relationships across boundaries and time may also be an outcome of blended learning.
It may also hold value by employing certain technologies that help teachers and students to formatively assess learning.To make this truly hopeful, school-based technology infrastructure must be robust and up-to-date, with equitable access, and the necessary resources (human and technology) must be made available to pedagogically support the blending. It is not tenable if Internet connectivity is unreliable or limited, or if there exists inequitable access to bandwidth or technology infrastructure in the school and home. Finally, if technical glitches are pervasive, or if dependable technical support is not available for students and teachers, then it is unlikely that blended learning will be a sustainable concept.
Blended learning is not a new term nor a revolutionary concept for classrooms in this second decade of the 21st century. However, the way it is being (re)interpreted could be hopeful or harmful depending on how it is implemented. It is an increasingly ambiguous and vague notion that is growing in popularity as many groups try to claim the space and establish the models, despite a lack of evidence and research. We should therefore be skeptical around the mythos of blended learning before endorsing or lauding it as the next great reform.
Blended learning has occupied a place in discourses of educational change for well over a decade, but it cannot be co-opted into a movement that displaces the human dimension of learning with an economic imperative to reduce labor costs by cutting the teaching population in half. Of particular concern in times of severe economic restraint is that high schools may become the testing ground for policymakers looking at ways to redesign by cutting certificated teachers in favor of massive online cohorts of students tutored by “facilitators” or “individual learning specialists.”
Technologies should be employed to help students become empowered citizens rather than passive consumers. Innovations are needed in education that will help to create a society where people can flourish within culturally rich, informed, democratic, digitally connected and diverse communities. We should not descend into a culture of individualism through technology where our students are fragmented by continuous partial attention.
For the vast majority of students within Alberta’s K–12 public education system, we must achieve a more nuanced balance that combines both digital technologies and the physical presence of a caring, knowledgeable and pedagogically thoughtful teacher. This is not an optional “nice to have,” but a “must have” if children and youth are to build resilience for the future. Blended learning may be (re)shaped by privatization myths, with adaptive learning systems as their voice, but in Alberta, our teachers still remain the quintessence of the human enterprise of paying it forward for our next generation. It is time for Alberta teachers to claim the space of blended learning and push back at the myths and questionable rhetoric.
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