The changing role of blended learning in definition and in practice

Key research questions related to blended learning include:

  • How is blended learning commonly defined?
  • Should those definitions be broad or narrow?
  • Should those definitions be grounded in current practice or be expansive enough to encompass future changes?

And, finally:

  • Do any of these questions matter?

The argument that the questions do not matter is based on the view that there are so many implementations of education technology in schools that putting some into a category that we call “blended learning” is creating an artificial distinction that is not particularly valuable.

The counter argument starts from the same point (acknowledging that many implementations of education technology exist) but comes to the opposite conclusion, positing that we can and should create a separate category that we call “blended learning.” The key element of this argument is that there are some applications of educational technology that are more likely to improve student outcomes than others. These applications include those that provide students some level of control of their learning, allow teachers to personalize learning, and/or facilitate the move to competency-based learning.

The most commonly used blended learning definition—the one created by the Christensen Institute—is consistent with these ideas, with the fundamental aspects of the definition being student control over some aspect of time, place, path, and pace of learning, and the creation and use of data to allow teachers to individualize instruction. The various models of blended learning are then assumed to meet this definition.

As of early 2014, we are seeing several inflection points in the application of technology in education, some of which have the potential to determine whether the definitions and categories are important.

One change is the spread of ideas and practices that are likely to require technology—and perhaps fit blended learning definitions—being discussed with few references to technology and no mentions of blended learning.

Examples include discussions of college and career-readiness that are based on a student-centered approach to learning, foundations’ focus on personalized learning, and some of iNACOL’s competency work. Many of these discussions may lead to the use of technology in schools, but the conversations, studies, and policies don’t begin with the technology—and sometimes they touch on technology only briefly, if at all.

A good example is a new study published by the Nellie Mae Foundation: Ready for College and Career? Achieving the Common Core Standards and Beyond through Deeper, Student-Centered Learning. The discussion of “Student centered learning as one path to college and career readiness” includes this:

“Systematic integration of academic content and the three skill sets will require long-term approaches that:

  1. overhaul curriculum structure and design;
  2. reshape learning environments, learning tasks, and day-to-day instruction; and
  3. ultimately shift the roles of students and teachers in the learning process.”

Three “propositions” that could enable college and career readiness skill sets include:

  • “Redesign curriculum and instruction,
  • “Restructure the classroom and school day to create authentic learning opportunities
  • “Place students at the center of learning and expand the definition of teacher.”

To those of us who have been involved in blended learning for many years, those propositions sound like common reasons for, and goals of, blended learning. Yet the term “blended learning” is not in the report at all, and only a few references to technology exist. Technology is mentioned, but not explored in depth.

This is a change that we are seeing much more in recent months than in previous years and it represents a useful evolution of the field. In our work with schools we often stress “don’t focus on the technology, focus on educational outcomes.” Increasingly, it seems that researchers, foundations, and thought leaders are doing exactly that.