Is Blended Learning the Magic Bullet?

14 Jun

The title is facetious, but I’m afraid the sentiment can be found throughout the US now.  Blended learning refers to using a mix of face-to-face instructional methods with computer-mediated learning, such as a mix of teacher instruction and computer learning programs, or the “flipped” classroom.  The primacy of technology in our everyday lives, combined with the rise of charter schools that use “individual learning modules” (i.e. children sitting at computers working on reading or math skills at different rates) has created a sentiment in some circles that if we just had KhanAcademy/Gigi math/RAZ-Kids etc in our classrooms (programs that target reading or math instruction to a student’s particular area of need and let him or her practice independently) we would see a meteoric rise in skills.

The problem is that this sentiment just isn’t true.  The New York Times published a review of a NAEP study that shows that not only is the case for blended learning questionable, but we see the same gap in instructional methods for low-income students vs. other students that we do in other areas of schooling.  Low-income students were more likely to use computers for basic drill activities, vs. more cognitively rich activities that other students engaged in.  Is blended learning just a new way to reinforce an old status quo?

Don’t get me wrong–I love computers, I love technology, and I love using both in the classroom.  I taught student to use animoto to create slideshows about themselves and then the Native Americans.  We use ALEKS to help remediate/reinforce/extend math skills for students at my school.  We introduced Tynker at the end of the year to help students learn basic coding skills.  My school recently received a class set of chromebooks through a grant that are in constant use (side plug for chromebooks: I have yet to experience a better bang for my buck than a $199 chromebook to help students learning typing, research skills, presentation skills, and use online apps.  They’re amazing.  If you have money, get them!)  My colleague, Jenny Maehara, has done some truly amazing things with google docs and google presentation, providing every student with an account and teaching them cloud-based skills and typing skills throughout the year.

My beef with blended learning is the idea that it’s an easy, people-proof way to improve student learning.  I don’t know who actually works with students who thinks we can plunk them in front of computers and have them magically overcome all obstacles.  We still need collaboration and instruction, especially to help students with something they are struggling with.  And we need to rethink how technology can help engage and illuminate, as opposed to just provide practice.  Every post by Dan Meyer is worth reading, but here’s one about What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Math Education Again and Again.  I’ll pair that with a way technology can engage and provide deeper levels of thinking: these 3-act problems (also by Meyers) such as this one on bubble wrap.

act1

 

I hope we use technology more and more in the future.  Education needs a real change-up in the way we deliver instruction and experience learning, and technology can be part of that.  But I’m skeptical that individualized cubicles with students clicking answers to questions on their own is really the way we’re going to revolutionize the learning process.  Those programs have their part to play (practice is important!) but they’re far from the whole story.

2 Responses to “Is Blended Learning the Magic Bullet?”

  1. jr June 25, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    Websites such as Khan or MathTV.com seem to be embracing the blended style of instruction to help students learn at their own pace.

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