Blended learning’s unfulfilled promise: Saving teachers time

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Jun 1, 2017

Time is one of a teacher’s most precious resources. Most teachers will tell you there is never enough time in the day to do all the things they need to do. Between teaching, planning, grading, supporting out-of-class activities, and building relationships with students and their families, there never seems to be enough time to go around.

Blended learning should help solve this problem. In my recent paper, “Teaching in the Machine Age,” I argue that technology, if used properly, can take on some aspects of planning, grading, and instruction, thereby freeing up teachers to spend more of the their time on high-impact activities. But data we’ve gathered from the field through surveys and interviews with teachers suggests that the time-saving benefits of blended learning are often not coming to fruition.

Here are a few reasons why blended learning may not live up to its time-saving potential. 

Blended learning has upfront costs
To one degree or another, most edtech products and blended-learning models require schools to change reconfigure their existing resources and processes. “Replumbing and rewiring” for a new instructional model inevitably requires teachers to spend time learning how to use new technologies and implement new classroom procedures. Even after figuring out the basics to launch a new model, blended-learning teachers still spend the first year or two tweaking, adjusting, and adapting their blended-learning model as they figure out how to get the new model and technologies to run smoothly. Additionally, some schools and teachers that adopt blended learning decide to build their own online-learning content, which adds an additional time demand to teachers’ plates.

Fortunately, we can reasonably expect these upfront time demands to diminish over time as schools and teachers adjust to their new instructional models and as edtech tools become more intuitive. These time demands should also decrease as blended learning scales beyond pilot classrooms and piloting teachers are able to train their colleagues on the best practices they had to figure out through trial and error. Upfront time demands will also diminish with the increased availability of blended-learning professional development.

Hybrids add complexity
A second reason why blended learning might not be saving teachers time is that some of the most popular blended-learning models are hybrid innovations. As Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Heather Staker point out in “Is K–12 Blended Learning Disruptive?,” hybrid innovations use old technology and new technology side-by-side in an attempt to capture the benefits of both. In hybrid blended-learning models—such as the Station Rotation and Lab Rotation—educators continue to use teacher-led, seat-time-based direct instruction as the primary instructional modality while creating time for students to gain additional practice and reinforcement through online learning.

Hybrids make sense in the early days of a new technology because new technologies are characteristically unreliable. It often takes a school or teacher years of iterative refinement to work out all the hiccups and kinks of a new blended-learning model so that it can offer performance comparable to traditional instruction. The problem with hybrids, however, is that they are inherently more complicated to operate than either the old technology or the new technology alone. For a mechanic to work on a hybrid electric car, he must understand not only the combustion engine, but also the electric drive train and the interfaces between the two drive systems. Similarly, for a teacher in a hybrid blended-learning classroom to excel, she has to master and manage traditional instruction, online instruction, and coordination between these two modalities. Thus by their very nature, hybrid blended-learning models cost teachers more time than they save. Fortunately, time should correct this problem. Disruptive blended-learning models—such as the Flex and Enriched Virtual—should eventually make hybrid models obsolete.

Technology misses the mark
A third reason why blended learning may not save teachers time is that current technologies might not be good enough yet at augmenting teachers’ capabilities. In “Teaching in the Machine Age,” I describe three ways in which technology can amplify teacher capacity. These include (1) streamlining the process for administering and grading basic assessments, (2) helping teachers quickly find standards-aligned lesson resources; and (3) taking on some aspects of basic content instruction. But it may be that the technologies most schools use just aren’t very good at these tasks. I’ve often heard teachers voice one or more of the following challenges with using online learning to enhance their practices:

  • They don’t trust online assessment data
  • Online student learning data can be hard to access and interpret
  • Free, standards-aligned, online lesson resources can be hard to find with consistency
  • Online learning tools are often good for review, but not for introducing new content or helping students that get stuck

If this is the case, we just need to keep putting the pressure on edtech providers to make their software better at helping teachers. Innovations evolve to address the problems we hire them to solve.

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Do you have other thoughts or observations related to why blended learning may not be saving teachers’ time and expanding teachers’ ability to do more with their time? Do you have suggestions for how to make blended learning more effective in helping teachers maximize their use of their limited time? If so, please share in the comments below.

Thomas Arnett

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.

  • John Jacobs

    Interesting thought, but I have to challenge you to look at your own disruption theory. The short term disruption has a much higher cost of implementation. If you apply that to Blended Learning, sure there is an immediate cost and increase in time allocation. However, as you move into the long term sustainable model one has to assume the cost, quality, and efficiency will come. To make this statement seems a bit to premature as the implementation is still in it’s infancy. Scale will happen with lower costs and more efficiency as the market will demand it. Education is an interesting field that has resisted change longer than any other industry and you have to ask the question why? If this resistance to change could be broken down, the market and industry will bring cost effective technology to the table if the demand ultimately drives the supply at scale.

    I don’t disagree with your statements, but I believe it is still way too early to make this assumption and I also disagree with your statements because the sample size of the adoption is still very small scale in the grand scheme our educational system, and the tenure of blended is still so young.

    • John, thanks for your comment. You make some great points that people need to understand in order to accurately frame their thinking on the value and potential of blended learning.

      As blended learning continues to improve, it will become far more efficient and effective than traditional schooling. This should in turn save teachers a lot of time that they can then re-purpose for higher-value teaching activities. My hope with this post is to help people see why those benefits aren’t necessarily coming about immediately so that they’ll stick it out for the long run.

      One challenge, as it relates to disruption theory, is that many examples of blended learning in classrooms today are not getting implemented in a disruptive manner.

      • John Jacobs

        That is exactly right, the disruptive manner isn’t happening. In addition, as a whole the pedagogy around Blended goes much deeper and is more of an important conversation than the actual technology. Thanks for the comment. I appreciated the food for thought as it challenges one to think through many angles.

        Cheers!

      • Harry Keller

        All right. What is disruption anyway? Is flipping the classroom disruption? It’s just another mode of homework with videos replacing reading assignments.

        Okay, I have tunnel vision or myopia here because I focus so closely on science education. As I looked at science education two decades ago, I saw clearly that the typical science lab experience was rather poor. Years later, America’s Lab Report (ALR) said the same thing. As a scientist and educator who was working professionally with Java at the time, I sensed an opportunity to do something truly different. A great many school science labs have little purpose other than occupying student time according to ALR (and me). Sure, NGSS is attempting to change all that.

        By creating online science learning experiences that use real experiments and hands-on measurement, you truly can disrupt science education.

  • Harry Keller

    Mr. Arnett makes good points. On the first one, I argue that if you are adding technology into your classroom, then you are admitting the importance of change. Change, even without technology, will take time. The second point is right on the mark. Moving to an edtech solution while attempting to maintain traditional teaching techniques will tie you in knots. Do it all at once instead of slowly or piecemeal. The third point begins to address the real problem.

    Edtech solutions too often are created by inept, profit-oriented companies. Inept? Creating a true edtech learning solution (ignoring other edtech here), requires that you have a powerful team that understands the technology, the pedagogy, and the subject matter deeply. Education has been a tough market for making a profit, and the investment of time and money to create, deploy, and support strong edtech learning usually results in either business failure or weak products. Only a team dedicated to true learning improvement (and not overseen by hungry venture capitalists) will succeed.

    Really good learning edtech will fulfill NASA’s old motto: better, faster, cheaper. You should reduce costs, get good learning results in less time (especially teacher time), and have a learning result improvement.

    In my area, science education, you can “flip” the lab to create these gains, but you cannot just substitute any old edtech (i.e., online) technology here. The old-fashioned animated simulations, even when spiffied up with fancy graphics, have students investigating algorithms rather than the real world. The flipped part, outside of the classroom, should be a full lesson with real experiments and hands-on measurement. Only then do you obtain the full benefits of flipping science labs. This approach, even if used in classrooms, has already shown dramatic improvements in learning with less time and lower cost.

    Hold vendors to a high standard with respect to learning and ease of use. BTW, the latter will reduce the “energy barrier” to using learning edtech in classrooms.

    It’s a grand new learning world out there. Join in!