Blended Learning in K-12/General Comparisons in Blended Learning

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Offline and Online Learning One of the most distinguishable characteristics of blending learning is its ability to combine two different forms/setting of learning and instruction. (Singh, 2001) In blended learning, instruction takes place in an offline and online setting. In the offline setting, the instruction takes place in a traditional, face-to-face classroom. The online setting usually takes place using the Internet. Although there are distance courses solely designed to have all of its instruction take place online through the use of the Web, blended learning utilizes the atmosphere of both offline and online settings.

The dual settings of online and offline learning are optimally combined to administer the responsibilities of sharing content, establishing and continuing communication, and stimulating interaction. Ideally, the online and offline components of a blended learning class are more or less symbiotic, where the interactions and successes of each setting feed off each other.

In blended learning the web enhancements of the online portion also contribute to not only aiding in the pragmatic goals of the classroom, but to augmenting the pedagogical goals as well. (Wingard, 2004) The percentage of time and activity spent by students either on the online or offline classroom is usually dependent on the nature of the course and the preference of the instructor.

Early results of studies show an increase in student-instructor interaction and student preparation in use of course material. (Wingard, 2005)

Structured and Unstructured Learning Structured or formal learning occurs when content is organized like chapters in a text book. Unstructured learning takes place informally online through synchronous and asynchronous discussions as well as e-mail correspondence. In a blended learning environment instructors can develop a program that incorporates both types of learning together. (Singh, 2001) Although traditionally used in higher education, blended learning is making its way into elementary, middle, junior high, and high schools around the country.

A structured learning program must encourage students to be actively engaged. More importantly, it must allow the instructor to track student use of the program, manage access to the next stage on the basis of completion or assessment, and follow up with another form of communication to students who are not completing work. (Hoyle, 2003) Finally, it should have specific learning objectives and expected outcomes. A blended learning environment with a structured program can benefit those students who learn better on their own rather than in the traditional classroom setting. (Zenger and Uehlein, 2001) This can be especially helpful in the k-12 classroom as individual student needs must be met. One common pitfall of structured online learning is merely the repackaging of current class curriculum and placing it in an online environment. (Hoyle, 2003)

In an unstructured online environment, students actually have some control of their learning experiences. Some students prefer the discovery method of learning while others prefer more straightforward content. (Zenger and Uehlein, 2001) The freedom to interact and collaborate with peers without the teacher looming overhead can be highly motivating for some students. This would be beneficial for younger students with learning disabilities in that they may recognize their individual strengths in this new environment. In an unstructured learning environment, assessment is especially important to ensure objectives have been met. (Hoyle, 2003)

Best practices in blended learning contain structured and unstructured components.

  • Create a structured core curriculum of learning activities that are taught using a variety of instructional methods.
  • Support an environment in which students can learn smaller parts and work their way up to more complex ideas.
  • Create a classroom in which students can learn informally.
  • Provide technological support and for students.
  • Provide an easy to use environment. (Oakes and Casewit, 2003)

Personal Experiences – Lisa Abate (2004) developed an unstructured asynchronous component to her classroom while on maternity leave. An online classroom was created using a common educational website where Lisa communicated with her students. She integrated the concepts her substitute teacher discussed in the classroom and included online extensions for her students. Not only did these teachers “team teach”, but they did it from different places within the blended learning environment.

Off-the-Shelf Content vs. Custom Content One of the greatest advantages of Blended learning is that it gives students and instructors the opportunity to utilize a wide range of resource materials. Although there does not seem to be much research about the types of materials used, students and instructors are not limited to those resources which can be exploited in a traditional face-to-face setting. Rather, the instructor can combine all of the traditional resources, which include lectures and assigned readings, with interactive, self-paced materials.

Traditional textbooks increasingly offer multi-media components as part of their ancillary materials. These might include opportunities for extra skill practice, online assessments, and links to resources that would not realistically fit into a traditional bound book. The instructor may include these extra resources as part of the learning modules in a blended course. Theoretically, the instructor could create a blended course entirely from these ancillary materials for a completely off-the-shelf learning experience.

Alternatively, the instructor could choose to create a course without utilizing a traditional textbook at all. Using the wealth of material that is available online, the instructor can synthesize materials to create a unique learning context, combining recorded lectures, online articles, and material up-loaded by the instructor. While this has always been possible in traditional face-to-face courses, particularly at the post-High-School level, it has not always been feasible for the K-12 instructor.

An additional possibility, which would not be possible in a traditional setting, is the creation of the forum as a learning resource. (NSW, 2005) Although discussion has been a part of face-to-face instruction, the learning forum provides a virtual space in which discussion can occur, as well as a mechanism for recording the discussion that ensues. Students not only construct their own knowledge in this space, but can return to it at a later time for clarification. The instructor can also use this permanent record to assess student participation, and include new viewpoints as resources for subsequent learning modules or courses.

Implications for K-12 Education

Restructuring the Class One of the most difficult challenges of transforming a traditional K-12 class into a blended learning classroom requires a shift in an educator’s teaching paradigm. Instead of preparing the necessary materials for the off-line setting of a traditional classroom, the blended learning K-12 teacher now must also organize and maintain the on-line, virtual classroom. The time, planning, and organization needed to restructure a K-12 blended classroom requires the educator to, in essence, plan and organize a class in two settings, which complement each other in terms of scheduling, content, lesson flow, and organization.

A blended learning classroom requires the K-12 instructor to develop teaching materials prior to the start of class. Other K-12 classroom models have also used other characteristics of blended learning for instructing students through the Web and other electronic tools. Web-enhanced campus courses, Web-centric courses, Web-courses using distance learning and campus settings, and traditional distance courses have implemented web use to certain degrees. Each category of web integration requires a varied percentage of packaged developed material, ranging from fifty to one hundred percent. (Boettcher and Conrad 1999) However, the percentage of prepared material web material in blended K-12 course ultimately depends on teacher preference, student/school technological capabilities, and other lesson dependent factors.

Like the other models of Web integration in the K-12 classroom, blended learning courses need to successfully address and incorporate four of the following components:

  • Administration – organization of the syllabus, increase teacher productivity/efficiency, distributing/collecting material, and scheduling duties
  • Assessment – providing feedback, tracking student progress, and testing opportunities
  • Content Delivery – communicating content through different learning styles, using multimedia, incorporating learning activities, using the Internet for the acquisition of knowledge
  • Community – building the classroom community through synchronous/threaded chats, providing office/help hours to communicate online (Schmidt 2002)

Benefits of Blended Learning One of the more potentially impacting benefits of blended learning is in the area of student accessibility. According to Jeffrey, the ability to use the Web for the classroom has the potential to serve any student, at any time, in any place. (Jeffrey 2003) Likewise, the characteristics of blended learning also allow its K-12 students the same advantages in terms of accessibility. A blended learning’s online course components could possibly minimize the accessibility concerns for the following K-12 students who cannot meet in the traditional classroom:

  • students in rural or small school districts where the proximity of the classroom is the main challenge to content/material accessibility
  • home-schooled students with instruction in subjects their parents feel unable to teach
  • handicapped or hospitalized students who cannot travel to the traditional classroom
  • expelled students who are required not to attend the traditional classroom as a consequence but still can have access to material to prevent falling behind academically (Jeffrey 2003)

In addition to accessibility issues, blended learning also possesses the ability to collect and organize digital content material can also eliminate the use of physical textbooks in the classroom. Electronic content and resources can substitute for the information found in textbooks, or the electronic copies of textbooks can be downloaded onto computers and laptops, thus eliminating the high cost of purchasing textbooks and the physical and problematic concerns some educators have with students carrying heavy textbooks. The delivery of textbook information in an electronic format seems ideal for blended learning classrooms. According to one article, allowing teachers to use digital media instead of prescribed textbooks can open up all kinds of creativity and empowering tools of instruction. (Colin 2005)