In February 2016, the Christensen Institute debuted the Blended Learning Universe (BLU)—an online hub of blended learning resources—in response to more and more schools across the U.S. implementing a blended-learning strategy for students. Researchers at the Institute define blended learning as a formal education program that must have three components: it must be part online, with students having some control over the time, place, path, or pace of their learning; it must occur, in part, in a brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along a student’s learning path must be connected to provide an integrated learning experience.
The BLU houses a directory of blended schools around the world. This directory has helped researchers amass an informative database indicating changes over time across the blended-learning space. Of course, while this isn’t an exhaustive picture of K-12 blended implementations across the world, it is enough data to reveal insightful trends and debunk some of the most common myths surrounding blended learning.
As we kick off the new year, here are 5 myths that blended-learning educators should be aware of:
Myth 1. Blended learning is an exclusive approach. Make your choice now!
Fact: Blended learning is an engine that can power and accelerate many instructional approaches.
Blended learning doesn’t come at the expense of other innovative approaches. The seven blended-learning models can complement everything from competency-based education to project-based learning. That’s because blended learning affords the kind of structural flexibilities that benefit other innovative approaches, such as enabling students to work at their own pace, or freeing up teacher time to focus on advising student-driven projects.
Trailblazer Elementary in Colorado Springs School District 11 is a great example of how schools layer new approaches on top of blended learning. According to its profile on The Learning Accelerator, Trailblazer began doing blended learning in 2015 using the Station Rotation and Individual Rotation models. These two models operate in service of Trailblazer’s ongoing effort to build towards a mastery-based and personalized system.
Myth 2. I’m doing personalized learning, not blended learning.
Fact: Chances are that if you’re personalizing student learning using some form(s) of technology, you’re probably practicing blended learning, too.
Personalized learning doesn’t require technology—after all, if every student had an individual tutor, learning would be highly personalized! But blended learning is a critical driver for personalization at scale. It allows students to take a degree of control over their own learning path, pace, time, and even place, and takes pressure off teachers to differentiate “by hand” for each student all the time. Plus, as our emerging framework for teacher impact shows, teaching with technology using a blended-learning model can unlock teacher time for other non-technological aspects of personalized learning, such as building strong personal relationships with students.
For an example of personalized, blended learning in action, check out Freedom Elementary, where students—with tailored support from teachers as well as digital tools—personalize their education in accordance to their needs and preferences through mastery-based, blended learning.
Myth 3. Blended learning looks like kids in headphones in front of screens all day.
Fact: Blended learning complements a range of teaching and learning approaches, including highly collaborative project-based and experiential learning.
Blended learning offers flexibilities that allow students to make choices about how they learn best. Sometimes that means working individually with a computer, but often not. Many schools are using blended learning to free up time and space so that students can learn in more collaborative and hands-on ways. The “kids in headphones” visualization results from the design choices a school makes in its blended-learning implementation, rather than the blended-learning models themselves.
We recently visited Gibson Ek High School in Issaquah, WA. We knew about Gibson Ek’s Flex model—which lets students move on fluid schedules among learning activities according to their needs—from its BLU_ profile, and we were excited to see in action this model. We also got to visit during students’ exhibitions, and the message that came through most strongly from exhibitions was how learning happened in all kinds of contexts, including through design labs, student-driven interdisciplinary research projects, and internships. Sometimes students work individually on a computer, like when they move through math topics in ALEKS, but Gibson Ek underlined for us how blended-learning environments can be vibrant and collaborative, complemented by a range of innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
Myth 4. If I’m using technology in my school, I’m doing blended learning and disrupting the old system!
Fact: Blended learning isn’t the same as tech-rich learning—and it’s not always disruptive.
In tech-rich learning environments, technology upholds traditional systems and structures, many of which center around whole-class instruction. Blended learning, by contrast, unlocks flexibility in time and space, enabling greater customization to suit individual student needs. (Read more about what blended learning is—and isn’t.)
Furthermore, not all blended-learning models are disruptive—some are what we call “hybrids” that combine both the new technology (online learning) and the old design (traditional classroom) to improve along the traditional definition of a good classroom. Station
Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Lab Rotation are all hybrid models, and they are important drivers that can enable more student-centered learning without overhauling the whole system. However, these hybrid models are what we call sustaining innovations—they improve the existing system along the original measures of performance—rather than disruptive ones that are positioned to transform the classroom model and become engines of change over the longer term.
For examples of disruptive innovation in schools, see how the Enriched Virtual blended model— an alternative to full-time online school that allows students to complete the majority of coursework online at home or outside of school, but attend school for required face-to-face learning sessions with a teacher—works at a school in New York City and at a high school in Los Angeles County.
Myth 5. Flex is the pinnacle of blended.
Fact: The Flex model has many virtues…but the unique circumstances of your classroom and students’ needs will drive which blended model is the right fit.
Flex may or may not be the classroom of tomorrow, but addressing students’ needs now will help determine the best learning process for them today. By definition, the Flex model lets students move on fluid schedules among learning activities according to their needs. Teachers provide support and instruction on a flexible, as-needed basis while students work through course curriculum and content, giving students a high degree of control over their learning. Who wouldn’t want that for their students?
The caveat is that Flex is a disruptive model, meaning that teachers and students make a clean break from the traditional system. Of course, this isn’t feasible for every school or classroom, and without some stepping stones, disruptive models can be a tricky leap for many students to make—perhaps especially at the elementary school level. On the other hand, sustaining models like rotations can provide supportive, differentiated structures for students—and still leave room to provide some flexible learning options.
How to be a mythbuster
Getting familiar with what blended learning is and isn’t, and what it supports and enables, will make you a more convincing advocate and change agent for blended learning. To learn more about blended learning, visit the Blended Learning Universe (BLU_). Join the blended-learning educator community by creating a BLU_ profile to share your current practice.
[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on The Christensen Institute’s blog.]