Blended Learning and the 21st Century Classroom

Education in the 21st Century

Education in the 21st century is changing rapidly. From preschool to graduate school, teaching methods, curricula and modes of delivering subject content have undergone a radical transformation.

At the preschool and kindergarten levels, alternative approaches such as Waldorf, Montessori. and others have altered the landscape of early education. In the elementary, middle, and high school phase, the emergence of the charter school movement has opened up new options for students, teachers, and school districts across the country. At the post-secondary and graduate levels, the proliferation of online and distance programs have opened up avenues for individuals – at both traditional and non-traditional ages – to advance their education in ways that were previously unattainable.

Not all of these new developments come from our near-universal Internet access facilitated by the advent of the information age. There is one new approach, however, that’s particularly relevant to elementary, middle, and high school students and is directly related to computers and the Internet.

Educators call this new approach blended learning.

Blended Learning: Education in the Information Age

Blended learning first emerged in the late 1990s in colleges and universities. In this higher learning context, institutions used blended learning in various ways across the country with varying degrees of success. Blended learning was loosely defined as “the thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online learning experiences.” Since then, blended learning made its way into schools across the country. In the K-12 context, blended learning became more standardized and codified. It’s now commonly defined as:

“A formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace, and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.”

Research shows that blended learning can improve academic achievement by offering students a variety of ways to interact with academic material. Blended learning combines academics with things that young people are generally more enthusiastic about. It mixes things like computer games, instant messaging, and social networking with in-class assignments, homework, and out-of-school projects.

Types of Blended Learning

There are currently four primary modes of blended learning in use in K-12 schools across the country:

  • Rotation Model: This teacher-directed model occurs in a traditional, brick and mortar school setting. It involves the teacher offering both traditional and non-traditional methods of teaching subject material. This can include both in-class and at-home online learning.
  • Flex Model: This model occurs mostly in an online setting, but involves a designated, certified, live-person teacher or instructor who guides student learning. In-person instruction and tutoring is delivered as needed in a collaborative manner determined by the student, instructor and family.
  • Self-Blend Model: This model involves a combination of online and brick-and-mortar education experiences. In the self-blend model, a student takes some classes entirely online and some classes at school. A teacher from the student’s brick-and-mortar school supervises the online content, but the entire course is delivered via Internet technology.
  • Enhanced-Virtual Model: This model involves total integration of online and brick-and-mortar educational experiences. A student typically begins the education experience with online instruction through virtual lessons and interaction with live instructors. Then, the online experience transforms into a blended experience. Students can experience a brick-and-mortar approach and take advantage of live, in-person interaction with both instructors and peers.

Blended, Virtual, or Traditional: Which Works Best?

The transformation of education in the 21st century has sparked a great deal of debate and controversy. Some professional educators completely support blended and virtual education. They believe it heralds the beginning of a new and exciting direction in teaching and learning because it utilizes the latest trends in technology while optimizing student fascination with online activity. Other professional educators lament the impersonal, disconnected elements of blended and online education and believe that virtual and blended classrooms eliminate the human element of teaching and learning by minimizing in-person contact with peers and teachers.

A study released in 2013 shows that there are kernels of truth in both opinions. Students learn best when schools combine both approaches  in a seamless, efficiency-oriented whole. In-person instruction results in a give-and-take between student and instructor that leads to a greater understanding of subject matter. The independent online experience gives students an ownership of the same material which further increases subject-specific knowledge. In other words, the integration of in-class interaction and online support boosts student scores.  This leads to the conclusion that blended learning – a well thought out combination of both in-person and online instruction – means both an important step forward in education and a valuable new way to prepare students for success in the 21st century.