Blended learning is a promising education trend

Published: Friday, Dec. 21 2012 6:46 p.m. MST

Carpe Diem Collegiate High School in Yuma, Ariz., looks more like a call center than a traditional school, but its instructional model — combining face-to-face time with teachers with online instruction — is showing promise, according to a story in the Hechinger Report.

Students attend the public charter school for four days of each week, where they work for half of each day at cubicles containing computers that track their progress on a daily basis and offer chances to remedy learning gaps. Other instruction occurs in small groups led by teachers.

"And it seems to be working," wrote Hechinger Report's Nick Pandolofo. "Carpe Diem’s math and reading scores on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards for every level from sixth to 12th grade outpace the average for Arizona schools. And the school is achieving these results with a student population that closely mirrors the demographics of other schools in the state. … Carpe Diem’s success has caught the attention of education reformers across the country, and this fall the first of what could ultimately be six new schools opened in Indianapolis."

"Blended learning" — the buzzword for Carpe Diem's instructional model — is one of a swarm of interrelated education buzzwords gaining currency in this age of digital everything. "Flipped classrooms," "massive open online courses," "e-learning" and "e-textbooks" are some among the list of other terms for learning models incorporating technology.

Innosight Institute, an investment and consulting company that specializes in innovation, defines blended learning 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 by the U.S. Department of Education shows that students in online learning environments perform modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction, and that blending online and face-to-face instruction increases that advantage.

The blended learning model has detractors concerned about students spending many hours of their days in front of computer screens, and other concerns have been raised about Carpe Diem Collegiate High School's implementation of the blended learning model.

Michael Barbour, a professor at Detroit's Wayne State University, said the school's curriculum is designed to get kids to do well on standardized tests, but that it doesn't foster critical thinking skills, said the Hechinger Report. School administrators responded that they are working on creating more projects that promote critical thinking as teachers adjust to their new roles.

Blended learning models allow students to move at their own pace and let teachers track that progress easily, on a daily basis. Developing blended learning schools is complicated, though, and there is little consistency in the way the model is being adapted across the United States, according to a report compiled for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

"The use of computers and online learning in education requires a much larger shift in thinking than simply adding a few computers to classrooms," the report said. "Truly blended learning requires that teachers approach their role differently, as guides and mentors instead of purveyors of information. Classrooms must be redefined as flexible learning environments, in which students learn in a variety of ways, while communicating and collaborating with others who are outside their school — and perhaps outside their country. Learning should go beyond the classroom walls and the confines of the school day. For these changes to be successful they must be supported by professional development for existing teachers, and pre-service education for future teachers."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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