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Blended learning: Teachers plus computers equal success

Published: Saturday, Jan. 5 2013 5:08 p.m. MST

Blended learning combines teacher-led instruction and online instruction using computers. Early results suggest the combination of both models gets better results than either element used alone.

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Carpe Diem Collegiate High School in Yuma, Ariz., looks more like a call center than a high school. It features a huge room full of rows and rows of cubicles where students, who attend classes four days a week, work for half a day at computers that track their daily progress. Teachers lead other instruction in small groups, according to a recent story in the Hechinger Report.

Carpe Diem is perhaps one of the best examples in America of a new teaching phenomenon that could change the face of public education, especially at the K-12 level. It's called "blended learning," which combines face-to-face time with teachers with online instruction.

More students are taking blended courses than ever before, but because so many students are in programs that aren't tracked, exact numbers aren't known, according to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning. iNACOL estimates that two-thirds of school districts offer some online or blended programs, and that a large majority of those have relatively few students involved in online or blended learning, and rely on content providers outside their school systems, such as Khan Academy or online courses from colleges or training programs.

Students in online learning environments perform modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction, and blending online and face-to-face instruction increases that advantage, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education's analysis of several studies.

Recent data — with greater detail about learning gains in K-12 settings — isn't available, because there is little standardization in the ways blended learning is popping up at schools across the nation, said Michael Horn, co-founder and education executive director of the Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank. For now, innovative new schools experimenting with blended learning offer the best snapshot of the model's promise, he said. But critics charge that blended learning also has its problems.

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Blended learning is set apart from other styles of computer-aided learning by specific elements, said Horn, whose think tank applies theories of disruptive innovation to solve problems in the social sector.

Horn says blended learning is happening at least partly in brick-and-mortar locations under teacher supervision, but also through online delivery of courses that give the student control of when, where, how, and at what speed learning happens. That means one student might use an iPad to move ahead through several units of a history course during vacation time and another might spend extra time at school to fill in gaps in algebra understanding, allowing her to move ahead faster in the future. Students who surge ahead might choose to take college courses through concurrent enrollment.

Blended learning is centered on the needs of each student, and — when implemented well — can meet those needs in a precise and personal way, said Susan Patrick, president of iNACOL. She counters questions about kids being stuck behind computers all day by saying blended learning models actually increase student involvement with other students, and their teacher. That's because there is no need to spend class time listening passively as teachers lecture, so students spend their off-computer time working in small groups, getting coaching from teachers, hearing from outside experts and doing hands-on activities in groups, Patrick said.

"If we are honest, we have to say there are blended learning implementations that are not that good," he said. "With the good ones, you might spend and hour or two on the computer, but the magic is happening off the computer, through peer tutoring, small-group instruction, projects, tinkering — all those things you would hope students would do. In many ways, the biggest surprise for me as I go into blended schools around the country is how much peer-to-peer interaction there is."

Early results

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