Brick and click: The promise of blended learning
TG Senior Regional Account Executive
Blended learning, sometimes called “brick and click,” is the practice of combining in-person and online educational approaches. Its popularity has risen, and its research results are promising. Still, attempts to combine approaches can bring risk as well as excitement. Is the combination going to be like a new recipe that brings together complementary flavors to create something delicious? Or will it include the worst of both elements? What one doesn’t want is something like John F. Kennedy’s famous characterization of Washington, D.C. undefined that it combines Northern charm and Southern efficiency.
A list of the respective strengths of in-person and online learning might include the following:
• In-person education offers the possibility of specific engagement in a way that online education does not. For example, reading an FAQ online is not the same as having a teacher answer your specific question in real time during a teachable moment when the question occurred to you, using examples that come from the class’s shared frame of reference.
• In-person education offers the possibility not only of spontaneous and specific teacher-student interaction, but also the possibility of generative student-student interaction. For example, hearing a student who “gets it” make a point in a class discussion may help a struggling student grasp a concept more securely. Similarly, a question asked by a student who fails to understand some part of a concept may trigger an explanation that helps the whole class better understand the material.
• Online education works well for teaching students at different levels. Most students have, at one time or another, been in a classroom where some students felt bored while others felt lost or left behind. There is something very attractive about being in control of the flow of information, and this may be one of online education’s biggest strengths. Teachers have long sought creative solutions to the problem of students in the same class whose different levels of understanding call for different paces. With online education, no solution is required (because the problem doesn’t arise).
• Online education scales easily. Problems of personnel, available space, and calendar constraints (which are all problems of budget, to some extent) can be solved easily when one high-quality course is available online for many students to log in and complete at a time and place of their own choosing.
More respective strengths could be listed, but the idea should be clear: each approach has its own merits, while the challenge of blended learning is to create an educational experience that draws on these respective strengths. Given that goal, is blended learning getting good results?
Overview of research
Research suggests that the news is good. In 2009, the Department of Education released an Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. The analysis found that online education generated slightly better results than in-person education alone, but that the best student outcomes resulted from blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction. The analysis noted some complications with the results, two of which bear repeating: (1) the analysis resists generalizing to K–12 education because much of the data was drawn from adult learners, and (2) the online settings tended to have increased learning time.
In a college context, the first “complication” undefined that these positive results occurred with adult learners undefined is obviously promising. The second complication raises the question of causation in an interesting way. If it’s true that online settings only got better results because of increased learning time, might there be something about online settings which facilitates increased learning times? We don’t need to know the answers to those questions to see the Department’s analysis as encouraging.
Further, while academics have increasingly used online models for instruction, it is widely understood that some kinds of learning are better experienced in person. To elaborate, in Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States 2011, the Babson Survey Research Group noted that from 2003 to 2010, the percentage of college students taking at least one online course grew from around ten percent to 31 percent. That same report noted that in blended learning situations, the proportion of content that was delivered online can range from less than a third to more than three-fourths. A majority of academics surveyed felt that, while online chat and other features can offset the lack of direct student-student interaction in online education, student-student interactions were superior or somewhat superior in in-person settings.
These results suggest that part of the appeal of digital media and online education is the flexibility it allows an instructor. For example, Teresa Bobadilla, the product manager of the TG Learning Center, an online training resource (www.TG.org/TGLC), envisions how the resource could lend itself to a blended approach. She notes that, “In freshman orientation, or in a mandatory training class for students struggling with Satisfactory Academic Progress, our financial literacy content could work very well with a blended approach. For example, the student may be encountering a lot of material at once, and the online content could reinforce what they’ve learned. There’s also an assessment component, so they could attend an in-person session, then later go online to see what they’ve retained. The material could be used individually, or with a whole class at the same time, where you go through it together. There are a lot of ways an instructor could use the online resource along with in-person class time.”
One key to successfully blending the two, according to a 2011 National Education Association (NEA) Policy Brief, is that classroom time should be used primarily for experiential learning (rather than, say, lecture), and that the online portion of the course should provide multimedia-rich content. This approach is sometimes referred to as “the flipped classroom.” In this model, students experience direct instruction through an online channel such as a video lecture (perhaps posted on YouTube or on a class website), and then use class time for deeper discussions and/or experiential group exercises. This effectively prioritizes the human element for in-person instruction, “flipping” the standard idea that “instruction” is what happens in class. Instead, class time becomes a more engaging experience that complements, enriches, applies, or even challenges the concepts the student has encountered.
New roads and new destinations
Many educators have encountered a long list of pedagogical developments that have lost their shine. Whether we’re talking about multiple learning styles, decentralization, or an integrated curriculum, some formerly trendy ideas have proven to be less world changing than proponents had first promised. Education reporter John Merrow was recently quoted in The Washington Post expressing his view that the “potential of blended learning is vast, perhaps unlimited,” but he worried that blended learning’s current buzz would ultimately have a negative effect. There are a lot of ways good ideas can be badly implemented. For example, if online materials aren’t challenging or relevant, or if the in-person instruction doesn’t enrich what students have learned online , then real learning is unlikely to take place. In that scenario, this exciting development will devolve into a tired catch phrase rather than a positive change.
With the right approach, however, blending the strengths of two different educational approaches can create new and better educational experiences.
Doug Savage is a senior regional account executive with TG serving schools in TASFAA. You can reach Doug at (800) 252-9743, ext. 6711, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information about TG can be found online at www.TG.org.