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Blended learning and the paradox of the experienced teacher


The move to blended learning can be threatening, even for good teachers. Being aware of their possible concerns is vital for those leading change in organizations.

blended-learning-teacherAssuming a good teacher in the traditional classroom will be a good teacher in a blended learning environment is wrong. The terminology alone provides a clue; after all, it is “blended learning”—not “blended teaching.”

A teacher hopefully will be good in both environments, but this is not a given.

The rules of education have changed, yet some persist in believing old solutions will remain successful. The teacher is no longer the main source of information for a student. The flood of information that is now available online has changed that concept forever. Yet, students still need help in many ways. Teachers need to be educators—guides, mentors, encouragers, and providers of deeper learning and understanding, while allowing students to access basic knowledge in a variety of other ways.

Eddie Obeng makes some powerful observations in his excellent TED Talk, “Smart failure for a fast-changing world”:

“What’s happened to our pace of learning as the world has accelerated? The pace of change overtakes that of learning. This is what happened to us in the 21st century—someone changed the rules about how our world works. The way to successfully run a business, an organization, even a country has been deleted. Flipped! There’s a completely new set of rules in operation. … My simple idea is that the real 21st century around us isn’t so obvious to us, so instead we spend our time responding rationally to a world we understand but which no longer exists.”

What I do works. Why should I change?

An experienced teacher is often a successful teacher. Past knowledge and experience has reinforced the concept that what he or she has been doing works. Average student grades have been good, student engagement (at least, according to the rules of the traditional classroom) has been good, rapport with students has been good, and so on.

Thus, the obvious question in the mind of the teacher is, “Why change?”

Yet this ignores the fact that even good things can be improved. If this weren’t true, we would all be driving Model T cars. We would still be using a fax to communicate instead of using the internet, we would be using portable cassette players for music instead of MP3 files on solid state memory devices, and we would be using pagers instead of cell phones.

Limiting the pace of learning to the pace of teaching provided by the teacher is no longer necessary. Limiting the major parts of learning to a particular time and physical location (a timetabled lesson when the teacher is present) is no longer necessary. Learning from the person who physically stands at the front of a classroom, instead of drawing on the resources of the best minds from anywhere on the planet, is no longer necessary.

No matter how effective a teacher is, he or she cannot provide all of these things all of the time. This is something that the successful, experienced teacher might find difficult to understand.

Yet by letting go of some of these things, and by allowing students greater flexibility, the effective teacher can move to even more rewarding areas of student learning and engagement.

The alternative is that we have “pager” teachers and “pager” education in a cell phone world.

‘On the fly’ lesson preparation

A successful experienced teacher knows a topic well and has enough experience to teach a lesson on the fly. However, a blended learning environment, where the learning resources (as compared to teaching resources—see “It’s called blended learning (not blended teaching) for a reason”) are provided in a structured Online Learning Environment (OLE) or Learning Management System (LMS), cannot be built on the run. These courses must be built well ahead of the current learning topic. Experience has shown that some students will work at a very fast pace and will absorb material as quickly as the teacher loads it into the system.

The teacher is no longer the gatekeeper of knowledge, and there is no such thing as teaching on the fly in the world of blended learning.

‘My’ resources

Teachers often create good teaching and learning resources, such as worksheets, revision documents, practice tests, and presentations.

Experienced teachers know what works and what doesn’t work.

Blended learning delivered through an OLE requires the resources to be placed into a system that can be accessed any time and from anywhere. As a result, the teacher loses control of the resources.

For some, this is confronting. Whether we like it or not, some teachers just do not like to share and thus resist moves to place “their” resources online.

The gift of giving

Effective teachers are often hard working, investing heavily on a number of levels in the success of their students. This is excellent, and nobody is suggesting this should change.

However, this can also provide feedback that the teacher is reluctant to lose. The “my students need me” approach can seem to be threatened by the increased independence provided by blended learning. This can be a concern for some teachers, even though it might not be explicitly stated.

Another aspect of this is time. The “my students need me for extra help outside class time, and I am vital for their success” feelings exist with some. Teachers like to give, and it’s good for their self-esteem. Handing some of the education process over to technology can be seen to threaten this.

The paradox is that removing this reliance and “time bottleneck” of the capable teacher allows even more valuable interaction and richer teaching experiences. However, for some, this is counterintuitive and needs to be handed carefully.

The move to blended learning can be threatening, even for good teachers. Being aware of their possible concerns is vital for those leading change in organizations.

Peter West is director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College in Australia. He has more than 15 years’ experience leading K-12 schools in technology enhanced education, particularly blended learning using online learning environments. He can be contacted at pwest@ssc.qld.edu.au.

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