Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Blenderized Learning

A short discourse on how I understand the concept of "blended learning."

For a while, now, experts in the field have been touting this advance in pedagogy called "blended learning." I have done some reading and come to terms with how I understand it and what my concerns with it are. I thought I'd commit them to writing so I can both self-critique by reviewing my thoughts, and invite explanation and commentary.

Blended learning, in its simplest form, is the shifting of the presentation of material from the classroom teacher to another mode. Sounds fancy, but it isn't. It also isn't new. Remember when your history teacher assigned chapters for you to read at home so he could discuss them? Blended learning. When your gemara rebbe told you to make a laining on the next 4 lines at home? Blended learning. When your English teacher told you to listen to the audio of Dylan Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle" before the next class's discussion? Blended learning. Worksheets which introduced the next topic in Physics or the vocabulary for the next Spanish story? Blended.

It has been a while since the classroom teacher felt that he or she needed pure frontal lecture to convey all the foundational knowledge. Blended learning has always been (sans the fancy name) a way of introducing other voices into that frontal presentation. Then, during classroom time, the teacher can assume that the material has been presented (and acquired...more on this later) and can engage in "guided practice," that is, the repetition and application of skills under the watchful eye of the teacher.

The newest incarnation of blended learning is called "blended online learning" in which the teacher has the students receive the material not from a textbook or a worksheet, but from a computerized source. The student often watches a video (which puts this on par with presenting a VHS to each student) or watches an app-rich presentation and often takes formative assessments which check for understanding (depending on the app). The extension to this is the "flipped classroom" in which the teacher, himself, creates the presentational content so the outside viewing is a displaced in-class presentation (just without the give-and-take of an actual classroom).

First the positives. We all do it at times because it is very useful. Certain disciplines, certain topics and certain alternate presentations work really well for certain students. Some students can be given the text book and told "see you in June" and they will fly high. Some won't even need the textbook.

Now my concerns:

1. shifting a unilateral presentation from the teacher to the internet is no less a lecture.
2. a student watching a video or a presentation cannot stop to ask question, investigate an unexpected tangent more deeply or ask for a different presentation of material.
3. the formative assessments are static
4. misunderstanding externally prepared material can lead (in the math area, specifically) to engrained mistakes which then have to be unlearned
5. this method assumes mastery outside and then moves to practice. A traditional teacher might see that students aren't "getting it" and change delivery, change the content or otherwise better prepare students for practice.
6. class time ends up being fragmented as distinctions in ability and understanding are highlighted by practice, so the teacher differentiates not in instruction or even content, but in the reviewing, after the distinctions are exacerbated
7. turning the teacher into a roving monitor means that a substantial number of students are not being guided at any one time. Any teacher who has assigned group work and has moved from group to group understands what this means.
8. external delivery systems set the agenda. If a teacher creates content then he does set the agenda but cannot change it based on student response.
9. in the liberal arts, group exploration and meaning(s) development is a foundational group activity, not a solitary one, and should be guided [I have discussed that]
10. instruction stops being about establishing relationships with students to inspire passion because it is the function of an outside resource.

Is this model more time and cost efficient? Yes and no. Theoretically, if I could be sure that every student "got it" by watching an outside presentation, I could leverage class time more effectively as a means for deep discussion or I could assess performance via review and move to the next topic more quickly. The curriculum could be covered either more thoroughly or more analytically. Sounds good. But this presumes that a single mode of external presentation will be more effective than standard instruction (which is NOT lecture based, mentioned tangentially here). This also assumes that practice and true understanding will follow closely and allow me to move to more advanced discussion instead of having to retread what I figured would have been gained at home. Not every student learns well in any particular mode -- there are learning styles out there and some don't favor the internet's presentation.

This also assumes an access to technology at home, and the time to devote to that technology. How many students do their homework at school or on the bus, or at a busy dining room table as they help care for siblings? How many don't do it at all for one reason or another? This flipped model puts the responsibility for focus and complete acquisition on the student while he or she is not under the watchful eye of the instructor. The costs to make all technology available in school and at home (including subscriptions to services, apps purchases, hardware etc.) are daunting and while grants exist, federal funding is still geared towards textbooks.

Blended learning isn't evil or wrong. Neither is lecture. And neither is group discussion or fishbowl or any other method. We assign our students topics to prepare so that we can hold a classroom debate. We tell our students to forge ahead in the textbook, or even, to use supplementary technology to help flesh out understanding. We realize, as teachers, that our voices should not be the only ones students hear. But we have a job to do, and that is to guide instruction from the ground up and create a classroom cohesiveness and a group identity while we are sympathetic to the individual needs (educational and not) of each student. But, as I have said before, each method is a single arrow in a full quiver. To base a course (let alone school) on any one method is dangerous because it forgets that students crave variety and a class must be dynamic and engaging, and human. So go and use some blended learning (either electronically infused or not) and use some frontal teaching, and some guided exercises and later guided application and practice. But don't assume that we can subcontract our future to the virtual voices because somehow, that will work better than actual interaction.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the detailed assessment. It is very helpful.


Feel free to comment and understand that no matter what you type, I still think you are a robot.