Blended Learning, But To What End?

One high point of an interesting week was a meeting of The Philanthropy Roundtable, where a few hundred people were wrapping their heads around “Blended Learning,” the latest and most promising next new thing in education. Most in the audience were funders focused on education, and, judging from their body language and comments, most were sold on the idea.

Quickly, blended learning is some mix of traditional classroom instruction (which in itself varies considerably) and instruction mediated by technology. The latter can be one student with a tablet or laptop, or small groups of kids working together on devices.

The best known practitioner of what everyone at the meeting shorthanded to ‘blended’ is Salman Khan, whose Khan Academy is serving 5 million unique users every month, and about 15,000 classrooms were using Mr. Khan’s lessons as part of their regular instruction. His inspiring story, already told on 60 Minutes and in Time Magazine, will be widely available next month when his book, The One World Schoolhouse, comes out. And on Tuesday he will receive the McGraw Prize in Education, arguably the field’s most prestigious honor.

I am inclined to be a fan of blended learning because I have watched kids at work, and the contrast between what happens in too many classrooms and what blended learning makes possible is striking.

For blended learning, to soar, teachers cannot be controlling the action, and they don’t have to. They aren’t walking away, of course, but they are mentoring and monitoring and coaching, and sometimes instructing. This article speaks to that point.

However, my enthusiasm is tempered by three fears; you can call them ‘concerns’ if you like. They involve faddishness, greed, and limited vision.

Here's the general methodology behind blended learning. How sustainable is the model?

Faddishness: I worry that blended learning will be increasingly vague and undefined as it grows in popularity. Right now almost everyone in education seems to be waving the blended flag, saying “We’re doing blended learning,” even if they don’t have a clue. At the Philanthropy Roundtable meeting a number of very savvy people, including Dave Levin of KIPP, emphasized that blended learning begins with, and relies upon, skilled teachers. So be skeptical when you hear educators endorse blended learning; ask a lot of questions.

Greed: The faddishness is an open invitation to hucksters, who can sense when educators are desperate to prove they are au courant. Technology is big business, and I can just hear the marketing guys pitching their products as ‘perfect’ for blended learning, blah blah blah. See Dave Levin’s comment above — it begins with teachers and teaching.

Limited Vision: My biggest fear is that blended learning is going to turn out to be just another crash and burn disappointment. This will happen unless its adherents also participate in a serious conversation about the goals of schooling. Right now it seems to me that blended learning is being used to get to the same old benchmarks, just faster and more individually. But those benchmarks — basically bubble tests — are limited and limiting.

Defenders of using blended learning to get to the accepted benchmarks say, in effect, “First things first. Let us get our low performing children to pass reading and math tests, and then we will let them loose.” But those goals — truth be told — are of dubious value. Why go there?

The potential of blended learning is vast, perhaps unlimited. Why not use it to find other pathways to a larger set of skills that includes literacy and numeracy? I’ve seen too many classrooms where the focus on basic skills is of such intensity that achieving them has become both the floor and the ceiling. This piece we did for PBS NewsHour comes to mind:

I think there’s an analogy with charter schools here. The charter school movement, which I have been following since the historic meeting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1988, has been generally disappointing — most charter schools do no better than traditional schools — for three reasons. Eerily similar reasons: Greed, deception and limited vision. We know about for-profit charter groups cutting corners and paying multi-million dollar salaries to their bosses; that’s greed at work. As for deception, we know how some politicians supported (and support) charter schools as a first step toward their goal of dismantling public education, leading them to create rules that allow just about anyone to give and/or receive a charter. In some places it’s almost impossible to lose a charter, short of a felony conviction.

But it’s the limited vision in the charter world that disturbs me most. As I see it, the charter school movement has fallen into the test score obsession that entangles regular public schools. That was not the dreamers’ vision — they wanted charter schools to take risks, to try stuff and then share what works and doesn’t work with traditional public schools.

I fear that blended learning is going to fall into this trap. I believe that those who champion blended learning must be showing the rest of us how it allows students to travel new roads and reach new destinations, while their teachers ensure that they are also writing clearly, calculating accurately, et cetera.

Education needs to “measure what counts,” and the blended learning community has to be part of that conversation about what really matters.

Most classrooms and schools are outmoded ‘answer factories,’ and regurgitation is not a skill that is marketable. Kids today are growing up in a sea of information, 24/7, and schools must be helping them formulate questions, encouraging them to dig deep, to prepare them for a world which values the ability to formulate questions and then find answers to those questions. Who is going to hire young people skilled at regurgitation?

Of course, blended learning can turn out better workers for those answer factories, but what a waste that would be. But if its advocates limit their vision to merely producing kids who do well on standardized tests, blended learning will end up being yet another disappointment, and we will all lose.

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9 Responses to “Blended Learning, But To What End?”

  1. Kathleen Wright 17. Sep, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Thank you for a wonderfully cogent set of caveats with regard to blended learning. While I share your view, the issue of achieving basic literacy and numeracy as the floor and the ceiling is a problem I would love to have. Frankly, we have so many children who cannot get their footing on that floor that I side with the folks who would seek that goal by any means necessary.

    Testing can never hope to make promises beyond ensuring the basic toolkit for knowledge acquisition. As educators, we should take every child beyond the basics. And that is where the multiple measures of teacher effective come into play.

    Suppose, for example, we could say that all children would be empowered with enough basic knowledge and skill to pursue grade level challenges as active thinkers by 2019. That would mean every child entering 6th grade or lower today would be truly prepared for college and life through a mixture of remediation and accelerated progress.

    Such an accomplishment would break the failure mentality of educators, which I consider to be a major part of the problem. In addition, it would take enough time that our innovators should have come up with solutions to the very good concern you have voiced…that of raising the ceiling toward infinity.

  2. Barbara Cervone 17. Sep, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    John, your three caveats are, indeed, wonderful and cogent. What you see and fear, I do too. I also worry about blending learning and the ever-widening gap between schools that have the means to integrate technology with learning (i.e., they have working computers available to each and every student or at least a good ratio and wifi access, not to mention adept teachers) and those that are still struggling to fix leaks in the ceiling and with a faculty on overload. I, too, am a big fan of blended learning. One of the best examples I’ve seen is right on your doorstep: the NYC i-School. But I worry lots how technology may become yet another wedge between the have-schools and the have-nots.

  3. Kathleen Wright 17. Sep, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    I would like to add a link addressing this issue in the context of benchmarks…

  4. Gisele Huff 17. Sep, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    I attended the same meeting that John Merrow references and heard several comments that differentiated this blended learning revolution from all other attempts at “reforming” education made since the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk.” These included the ubiquity of technology and its inevitability, the “new normal” environment that requires new solutions, and the undeniable fact that American children come to the classroom as digital natives – entirely different from their 20th century counterparts.

    With regard to John’s caveats and his concern about floors and ceilings, what must be borne in mind is that the technology that is in use today is just the very beginning of what is possible. If you read last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine section: r=1

    you will see that the potential is open-ended. At the very least, the use of teacher-led blended learning will empower teachers to relegate the grunt work to the computer, allowing them to spend more time differentiating learning for each one of their students and leading them to engage in critical thinking.

    In the not too distant future, technology will eliminate the need for bubble tests, will provide objective assessments that help teachers know exactly what each student needs, and will incorporate adaptive features that provide immediate interventions.

    • Christine Langhoff 18. Sep, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

      Perhaps technology is ubiquitous and inevitable in some places, but by no means in all places. Students whose families are living in poverty do not have the degree of access or familiarity to be “digital natives”, unless you mean perhaps a parent’s touchpad cell phone. The “under-resourced” public schools which serve a disproportionate number of these children also cannot or do not provide much in the way of technology due to budget restraints. In Boston a couple of years ago, individual teachers were given Mac Books for use in their classrooms, for connecting to the internet and for email access. The few outdated PC’s that had been available for student use were never replaced or re-furbished and computer education was dropped from the curriculum, laying off computer teachers in the process. The reasoning was that students didn’t need instruction in using a computer anyway.

  5. Joe Beckmann 17. Sep, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    I had the remarkable “pleasure” of working with two different “blended” programs last year. One used bubble-test criteria to move from unit to unit; the other used often boring online videos to deliver instruction, and asked teachers only to hover. For the bubble testers, any kid could google the same question, and would (a) repeat the question and (b) list which answer the test wanted. For those hovering, students developed a pattern of dismissing the video lecture or skimming it as quickly as possible, and provoking some interesting questions before facing similar – but not quite as stultifying – bubble test criteria.

    In other words, it varied from bad to worse, and was only bearable – to both kids and teachers – through conspiring to undermine what fragile credibility the “levels,” “sequence” and “standards” allowed.

    That’s not blended learning – although they sure thought it was in Boston and Somerville and Cambridge, MA., as did they in allowing such courses for state alternative cures to past failures in the same fields. It was bearable because I’m a very good teacher, and kids knew it when they came to me. I could blend oil and water, and they had pablum and fast food with which to work.

    A blend is when the classroom becomes a laboratory, and students can find many online alternatives to answer interesting, open ended, unstructured questions raised by reasonable state standards. In other words, when kids handle the curriculum and teachers coach standards. Ironically, that is precisely what happens when a good teacher and intrigued kids collaborate – whether it’s reading Dick & Jane or manipulating a Khan Academy lesson.

    In other words, innovation remains innovation, regardless of the setting.

  6. Bob Lenz 17. Sep, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Thanks for raising these questions. We subscribe to the tenet that Michael Fullan encourages: Pedagogy not Technology should be the driver for improved student learning. Most “Blended Learning” strategies use ineffective teaching and learning approaches. Here are a few links for a project where Envision turned the Kahn Academy upside down:

  7. Mr. Patrick 30. Sep, 2012 at 2:53 am #

    John -

    “Blended” learning seems to me to be a misnomer. Schools should always – and they seem to always have – used the latest technology their dollars can buy. One hundred years ago, that might have meant a woodshop or ceramics studio. Now, we tend to think of it as computers. The only difference between a chisel and a computer, in my opinion, is that a chisel tends to show you what its used best for with or without a human teacher. Without a teacher actively-guiding the process, a computer simply becomes a vastly more versatile TV.

    The “blended” classroom isn’t just about computers – it’s about access to resources. I love having five to eight computers in my classroom at a time. I find it limiting to have that many computers with twelve kids. Computer literacy – just like literacy with handheld tools – needs an investment in infrastructure and teachers’ professional development. As you point out in your critic of “blended” learning, just waving the banner isn’t enough. You have to build something on that computer, not just consume a video.

  8. Nikki 22. Oct, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    I am in the college level and the school I attend just started using this blended learning technique half way through the semester and as a student I absolutely HATE it. This is college, not middle school. Why am I paying good money and driving 50 miles each way to play on the computer when I can just as well do that at home? Using games as learning tools is completely juvenile and unacceptable to me. I never thought I’d miss a 2 hour lecture but I do… I’m not learning ANYTHING in class with this blended learning technique. I feel as if it’s not an efficient use of class time AT ALL. Also as a 30 year old student who graduated with my bachelors in 2005 and is returning for a different degree I’m having a much harder time adapting to it than true freshmen in my class but from what I’ve heard, not many people like it. I get that everyone learns differently… I myself am generally a hands on learner but this just seems like a joke/waste of time.

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