The proliferation of the internet over the past decade has led to a dramatic increase in the number of people online. There are now over 1.6 billion internet users in Asia, internet penetration in Europe and Australia is at 73%, North America has 87% internet penetration and internet access across Africa has grown by a staggering 7,000% since 2000.
Ever-increasing access to the internet and continual advancements in computing and mobile technologies are having a profound impact on everyday life, with communication, commerce, entertainment, employment and education all now operating in recently transformed paradigms.
A 2015 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that, from the 65 OECD countries surveyed, 96% of 15 year old students had a computer at home, 72% of these students reported using a computer at school and these students reported spending, on average, 2 hours online each day. In contrast only 4% of the students surveyed lived in houses without a computer. This generation of students, who have grown up in this digital age, and are often referred to as digital natives, have instant access to an unprecedented wealth of information, resources and production tools.
However, as has been shown in numerous reports, including the 2015 OECD report, ‘Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection’, simply having access to technology does not guarantee educational benefits. The results from the OECD report, and other similar findings, make it apparent that the adoption of technology in educational institutions needs to be strategically planned in order to maximize its potential.
As digital natives become increasingly tech savvy, teachers, educators and school leaders struggle to utilize the educational benefits of technology. The ability to effectively reap the rewards of educational technology remains a challenge that educators in the 21st Century must prioritize.
One approach to adopting educational technology in the classroom, which has been gaining popularity over the past decade, is blended learning. In essence, blended learning merges two previously distinct learning environments, the traditional face to face classroom and the distributed learning environment previously employed in distance learning.
As with many educational concepts, the term ‘blended learning’ has been defined and interpreted differently by various educators but there have been efforts to establish a broad universal definition. In 2006, Bonk and Graham challenged the breadth and ambiguity of the term’s definition in their book ‘Handbook of Blended Learning’ and offered their definition of blended learning as systems that “combine face-to-face instruction with computer mediated instruction”.
In recent years this definition has been further refined and for the purpose of this article I will refer to the definition offered by the Staker and Horn in 2012, “Blended learning is 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.”
One crucial aspect of this definition, which was further emphasized in the report, ‘Roadmap for Reform’, is that blended learning involves “some element of student control of time, place, path, and/or pace.” Learning is no longer restricted to the school day, no longer restricted to the classroom, no longer restricted to the pedagogy used by the teacher and no longer restricted to the pace of the school’s curriculum. In reality, the degree of freedom and flexibility afforded learners to control the ‘time, place, path and/or pace’ of learning will vary according to the content of study, the student’s grade level and the academic institution, with high school learners afforded considerably great flexibility than primary school students.
Early research on the success of blended learning has produced mixed results with a number of reports suggesting only a minimal impact on student learning. However, the results from some of this research may have missed the point due to its narrow focus on the relationship between educational technology and student achievement in standardized assessments – measuring the impact of 21st Century technologies using 19th Century assessment tools – while excluding a diverse range of equally important factors such as student engagement, motivation, learner satisfaction, completion rates, digital literacy and the impact on learners’ attitude towards self-study
One report which did indicate a positive relationship between blended learning and student achievement was a Harvard Business School report by DeLacey and Leonard which concluded that students learnt more when online sessions were added to face-to-face learning, learner satisfaction was higher and student interaction improved. Despite an absence of large scale empirical data supporting the benefits of blended learning, this model continues to gain support in schools and colleges, and, according to the authors of Blended Learning: A Disrupting Innovation, by 2019, 50% of all American high school courses will have content delivered online.
Blended learning appears to offer huge potential for 21st Century learners but the challenges of implementing successful blended learning programmes are numerous, as Garrison and Kanuka eloquently summarized in their 2004 report, ‘Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education’.
‘Blended learning described Blended learning is both simple and complex. At its simplest, blended learning is the thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online learning experiences. …… At the same time, there is considerable complexity in its implementation with the challenge of virtually limit less design possibilities and applicability to so many contexts’ In this respect, no two blended learning designs are identical. This introduces the great complexity of blended learning’
The 2011 report ,‘The Rise of K–12 Blended learning’, suggests there are six primary models for blended learning; Face-to-Face Driver, Rotation, Flex Programs, Online Lab, Self-Blend and Online Driver. However, there appears to be some duplication and ambiguity between these six models and this led to the publication of a follow up report by Staker and Horn in 2012, Classifying K–12: Blended Learning, which further revised and refined the original classifications from six models to four and ‘eliminates two of the six blended-learning models—Face to-Face Driver and Online Lab—because they appear to duplicate other models and make the categorization scheme too rigid to accommodate the diversity of blended-learning models in practice.’
The four models identified by Staker and B. Horn are:
- The rotation model, in which online engagement is combined or rather, embedded, within a range of face‐to‐face forms of instruction in a cyclical manner;
- The flex model, in which multiple students are engaged primarily online, but under the supervision of a teacher who is physically present;”
- The self‐blending model, in which students choose different courses to take independently, but do so in a setting where a supervising teacher and other students are co‐present
- The enriched‐virtual model, in which online, virtual experiences are seen as being enriched only periodically through arrangements of physical co‐ (pp. 8‐15)
While these models are useful, the support they offer to classroom teachers hoping to adopt blended learning remains limited for two reasons.
Firstly, while these four models are prescribed as options for K-12 learners, the reality is that three of these models (flex model, self-blended model & enriched virtual model) are more applicable to high school students and without a fundamental reconceptualization and reorganization of traditional primary school structures they would be infeasible. The second and the third models in which students take courses online while being in the physical presence of situated with a physically co‐present teacher, would provide inadequate authentic face-to-face learning stimulation and flexibility to appropriately cater for the needs of young learners and the fourth model, the enriched‐virtual model, is primarily a virtual learning experience for students studying away from school, with only occasional face-to-face interactions with the teacher. These three models would all be better suited to learners in higher education, vocational education and community college.
For educators working with primary school students in a traditional school, there is only one realistic option – the rotation model, which has two popular variations – the station rotation model, in which students rotate between stations within the classroom, and the lab rotation model, in which students rotate their learning between their classroom, a computer lab and home.
Another shortfall of Horn’s models are that they only provide the practical details for blended learning, the logistics, and may be more suitably labelled templates rather than models. Horn’s templates neglect the more challenging aspect of allocating how, and which, technology will be applied. Technology in the learning environment can be used for a wealth of applications including; content delivery, virtual classroom learning, gamification, communicative activities, skill & drill test preparation, web research, report writing, blogs, online journals, infographic creation, video production, group collaboration and differentiated learning – to name but a few.
Given the abundance of technological options, the decision of which technologies to apply and how, presents both a challenge and a valuable opportunity for teams of teachers to developed detailed blended learning models which are tailored to meet the needs of the learners in their school.
There is a wealth of research on group dynamics which indicates that results from teamwork are both more productive and innovative than the results of individuals working alone. Engeström’s theory of Activity System provides an excellent example of how the application of skills and experience from a diverse range of individuals led to greater productivity and innovation than individuals working alone (Engeström, 1999).
School departments consist of professionals with a diverse range of skills, experiences and backgrounds. By utilizing this diversity, schools can develop detailed and specific blended learning models in accordance with the school’s vision, their learners’ needs and the practical realities of the school environment.
Alongside the development of tailored learning models, another advantage of including classroom teachers in the development of these approaches is that, ‘when teachers share in decision-making, they become committed to the decisions that emerge. They buy into the decision; they feel a sense of ownership; therefore, they are more likely to see that decisions are actually implemented” (Weiss, Cambone, & Wyeth, 1992, p. 350).
To develop successful models for blended learning, primary school teachers may benefit from using Horn’s blended learning rotation model as a template and then through collaboration with teachers within the department, develop a detailed blended learning model tailored specifically for the school’s learners… and begin to reap the rewards that educational technologies offer.