Three false dichotomies in blended learning
With the rise of blended learning, skeptics are quick to point out why children may miss out if some of their learning happens in front of a computer. Champions of blended learning may sometimes oversimplify the benefits of online instruction despite room for improvement. Debates about the merits of these models, though, can fall into a trap of erecting false dichotomies that simply don’t have to pose tradeoffs to schools considering going blended. Here are the top three false dichotomies I’ve been hearing lately:
(1) Learning online versus learning to think critically
Some see integrating technology as detracting from students’ chances to engage as critical, creative thinkers. Take for example a piece on NPR last week, “Meet The Classroom Of The Future”— or, as MindShift retitled it on its blog, “Some benefits and drawbacks of blended learning.” The piece focuses on Teach To One, a math curriculum used to power the Individual Rotation blended-learning model whereby students receive an individualized schedule and instructional plan each day based on their performance the day prior. To describe the model, the reporter drew on a Teacher’s College study of Teach to One’s efficacy as well as a visit to one classroom implementing the software. The piece has strong undertones of the fear that automated learning environments fail to challenge students to learn at deeper levels or to take charge of their own learning. The reporter’s concluding remarks put a point on this: “What remains unclear is the point at which standardization could begins to take away from those other educational hallmarks: creativity and critical thinking.”
The Teach to One model may indeed have room for improvement. But what this closing comment misses is that in fact technology appears to be one of the best available tools to move away from standardization in the traditional sense—teachers in a Teach to One classroom actually have up-to-date information on how every student is progressing through the material. Standardization, then, is actually occurring at the level of automating certain lessons based on this individual student data, in a manner that ensures that students are not progressing with gaps in their understanding of basic concepts. Moreover, as Teach to One’s CEO Joel Rose pointed out to me in an email, “Standardization is not the enemy of creativity and critical thinking. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Critical thinking and creativity are deeply connected to long-term factual knowledge. Students need a deep reserve of practices and strategies in order to explore complex ideas and problems.” Blended learning, in other words, offers a method for schools to deliver building blocks toward these higher order skills. “It’s why painters spend years studying the masters, software programmers memorize commands and functions, and doctors spend nearly a decade learning about standardized responses to symptoms,” Rose wrote.
(2) Blended curriculum versus teacher autonomy
Another concern looming in debates about edtech is that shifting some content delivery online eclipses or ignores teachers’ instructional expertise. But a new report out today paints a very different picture. In “Supporting Student Success through Time and Technology,” the National Center on Time and Learning offers six in depth case studies of school systems implementing blended learning and an accompanying implementation guide based on those schools’ experiences. What struck me most in the report were its testimonials from teachers living the realities of blended learning day-to-day in their classrooms. Linda Howard, for example, a sixth-grade English teacher at Morton Middle School in Fall River, Mass., describes her experience teaching in a Station Rotation model: “I get to work with small groups a lot more. I understand my kids so much better now. Working with them individually and having their data from i-Ready [one of the school’s digital content providers] has really opened my eyes to each kid’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Howard’s description exemplifies how using technology can actually free up teachers to teach in smaller groups—rather than simply lecture at or manage an entire classroom. According to the report, the very opportunity to increase and improve small group instruction was one motivation that drew Sheryl Rabbit, the school’s principal, to blended learning. As she describes, “Our district has really stressed the workshop model … so we thought blended learning was something that could help to reinforce that, not replace it.” In other words, the school’s focus on teachers teaching remained constant, with blended learning as a tool to support rather than detract from face-to-face instruction.
(3) Investing in technology versus investing in relationships
In a similar vein, the rise of edtech also tends to conjure a post-apocalyptic vision of highly isolated students learning in asynchronous online environments, with little to no human interaction. Although this certainly may be happening in pockets of the education system, this fear cuts short what I think could be a fruitful discussion about how edtech can actually enhance human relationships rather than stunt them. As I’ve noted before, there’s already some important activity in this space. For example, video technology applications can serve to bring classrooms together with other classrooms or subject matter experts with whom they would otherwise never have contact. Online mentoring and guidance platforms are starting to gain more traction and investment, especially in the college guidance space. And even online tutoring services, such as MindLaunch, are starting to match tutors with students based on personality assessments that make it more likely that students and teachers can build good rapport. In other words, investing in edtech can be a mechanism to forge promising relationships and connections far beyond students’ immediate context, rather than depriving them of human contact.
All three of these areas may be provoking real concerns about how students are experiencing school as technology becomes more engrained in 21st-century life. Indeed, as Michael Horn often puts it, blended-learning implementation is not always synonymous with its potential benefits. As with any instructional model, quality in blended learning may vary widely along these and other spectra, particularly as schools experience the growing pains of transitioning to brand new models. The discussion, however, should resist assuming that by adding blended learning, we must automatically be detracting from something else.