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Up until a year ago, blended learning was just one of many different approaches to classroom teaching.
However, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become the de facto means by which many schools have been able to continue teaching their students - both those learning at home, and the children of vulnerable and key worker parents still attending school sites.
Many readers will therefore have experience of what blended learning involves in a practical sense, but perhaps be less familiar with the thinking that underpins it.
Moreover, the blended learning approach implemented at your school may still feel somewhat novel and unfamiliar. Any good teacher will always want to improve and hone their existing practice, so that’s what we’re going to explore here - what blended learning is, how you can become better at implementing it, and most importantly, how it can be used to improve student outcomes.
The key thing to bear in mind about blended learning is that it combines both online learning (or ‘elearning’ as some like to call it) with conventional in-person classroom teaching carried out in a physical location (typically a classroom within a school).
Blended learning is distinct from what’s commonly referred to as ‘digital learning’ or ‘distance learning’, both of which typically refer to scenarios where all the material making up a particular programme or course is delivered to students studying at home. Distance learning is certainly an important part of blended learning – but they aren’t one and the same thing.
A blended learning model is therefore well-suited for the situation schools currently find themselves in – teaching lessons to year groups and classes in which some students will be attending in person, while a substantial proportion connect to live and pre-recorded lessons via online-enabled devices at home.
That’s the definition of blended learning we’ll be using for the rest of this piece - though before we continue, it’s worth noting that ‘blended learning’ can be implemented by schools in a number of different ways (not all of which will be practical while observing health protocols during a global pandemic).
The terminology used to refer to these different blended learning models can vary, but the most common ones include the following:
Often deployed in subjects with a practical learning component, such as science or media studies, this model sees students move through different learning environments over the course of their studies according to a fixed calendar. For instance, they may initially attend a series of classroom lessons, before potentially completing other parts of their course as part of a group in a lab environment, within one-to-one teaching sessions or via online instruction.
Students alternate between attending traditional classroom lessons and computer-assisted studying in a specific location – usually a dedicated learning lab situated elsewhere on the school site.
This takes the aforementioned ‘station rotation’ model and makes it more personalised. Students will again study in different environments, but instead of working to a schedule, each student will be assigned to certain environments at certain times based on their progress and learning needs, as ascertained by their teacher.
Students again engage in various forms of in-person, practical and online or computer-assisted instruction depending on what’s most appropriate for where they are on their learning journey – except this time they’re given a degree of independent decision-making as to what types of learning they get to to engage with and when.
This describes a process whereby the types of learning one normally associates with classroom environments – direct instruction, lectures etc. – take place in students’ homes via online means. In theory, this then allows students’ time in the classroom to be utilised in more creative and imaginative ways, with a greater emphasis on activities such as classroom discussions or practical assignments.
You can find more detailed discussions of these and other types of blended learning at Blended Learning Universe and Education Technology.
At the time of writing, arguably the main benefit of blended learning is that it allows schools to continue functioning at a time of unprecedented disruption and upheaval.
From the vantage point of early 2021, we don’t yet know when the threat of COVID-19 will have receded to the point that schools can permanently reopen their classrooms to all students and get back to the way things were (if, indeed, that’s even possible).
In the here and now, virtually every school in the country is providing some form of blended learning provision, pretty much out of necessity. In many cases, this provision will have been largely put together reactively almost from scratch, once the magnitude of the pandemic became clear.
Conversely, there will also have been many schools offering some form of blended learning already, making their COVID-19 response one of scaling up their existing provision to make it more robust, perhaps reworking elements of it to better suit the needs of teachers and students.
Immediate practical considerations aside, however, blended learning is also able to improve student outcomes in ways that educators may be just in the process of discovering. Perhaps you or your colleagues might recognise some of the following benefits?
Whichever specific blended learning model a school decides to go with, it will inevitably involve digital delivery of lesson content at some stage – which will in turn enable said content to be tailored to learners’ different ability levels and rates of progress.
This can extend beyond the setting of personalised assignments and activities, to encompass how students think about learning itself. According to Chris McShane, CEO at the education consultancy Learning 3D, blended learning can have a part to play in reducing the stress that comes from students comparing their results with those of their peers, and the fear of falling behind the learning pace set by the rest of the class.
“Because of self-pacing, you don’t have the same levels of anxiety in the process,” he says. “The students are looking at what they themselves are doing, rather than worrying about getting left behind.”
That said, the prospect of students falling behind in their studies is a very real one that schools have been grappling with for almost a year.
Even before the pandemic, schools would often utilise various differentiation strategies and catch-up strategies for those students needing extra support and assistance. Post-2020, effective catch-up strategies have now assumed huge importance – and having the right blended learning approach in place can be a big help when it comes to delivering them.
Take, for example, the path charted by Samworth Church Academy – a 1,170-pupil secondary school located in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Having seen EEF research highlighting the effectiveness of one-to-one and small group teaching in delivering catch-up support, the school used its catch-up premium funding to assemble a team of dedicated part-time teachers, and experimented with using online delivery methods during weekday evenings and Saturday mornings, at times more mutually convenient for both staff and students.
A common observation among teaching staff is that remote learning is ultimately no substitute for learning experienced in the classroom. That’s true - if you’re insisting on direct comparisons, it isn’t.
However, by embracing the ‘best of both worlds’ ethos contained within blended learning, and deploying it intelligently, it can be used to deliver unique and powerful experiences for students that sit apart from what they might otherwise experience in the classroom.
In the view of Tara Stirland, one of the catch-up teachers based at Samworth Church Academy, “We had real success with the online learning approach during lockdown. I found that we could actually engage more with the children, [and] there were fewer distractions, such as room changes. It allowed the students to be much more focused.”
As well as physical convenience, online learning can also facilitate some forms of interaction that would be difficult to reproduce in real life. “I’ve seen what some of my students have got from [remote online learning],” Tara continues. “I can see what they’re doing on the screen, and I love the fact that they can listen again to sessions via recordings, and also search for particular topics. Some students really prosper with this type of learning.”
Using the online component of blended learning effectively therefore involves organising classes in a way that plays to its strengths and unique advantages, such as:
Knowing the benefits that blended learning can offer is one thing; realising them successfully is quite another, particularly against a backdrop of an unpredictable and volatile public health emergency.
The obstacles preventing schools from realising the learning gains to be had from blended learning can be tricky, but they needn’t be insurmountable. Here are some common difficulties, and what schools can do to try and tackle them.
Educational technology consultant Nik Peachey believes that staff who see blended learning as a temporary or stop-gap measure until things ‘get back to normal’ shouldn’t be surprised if they’re struggling to find an approach that works.
“The way schools have viewed this period has made a huge difference on whether they’ve succeeded or failed,” he says. “Seeing it as a temporary measure often leads to treading water and the delivery of lacklustre content. For example, uploading teacher-created classroom materials and worksheets for students to download, fill in and upload again when completed isn’t a very good approach.”
Contrasted to this are those schools that adopt a longer-term view, and seek to develop content with online delivery in mind from the start. Nik concedes that pivoting towards such an approach will inevitably require time, training and resources that many schools might not necessarily possess, but maintains that it’s a worthy goal to aim for.
“If you want online learning that really engages students, gets them working together, and isn’t just a repository for worksheets, you need to invest in support for teachers,” he comments. “They need to know how to use the school’s learning management system properly, and how to get the best out of it.
“A lot of schools will have had an LMS of some kind for a long time, but many have been notoriously bad at using them to the full potential they were built for – delivering online courses and creating learning interactions.”
As well as the question of what to teach, another wrinkle that can get in the way of effective blended learning is how to teach. Prior to spring 2020, the majority of teachers in the country would have been trained and professionally prepared for in-person classroom teaching only. Regular online teaching was practised by only a small minority, usually in the context of specific interventions or unusual circumstances necessitating distance learning arrangements with certain students.
Fast forward to now, and teachers have had months of delivering lessons remotely, both live and via pre-recorded videos – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all teachers are comfortable with the change. Time may have passed, and blended learning approaches may seem ‘bedded in’ at your setting on the face of it – but there’s a good chance that there’s still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to teachers’ online delivery.
Here, Nik Peachey offers five pointers for making your virtual classroom a more lively and productive one.
Get a stand-up desk, and start thinking about your body language, preferably with a bluetooth headset.
Make sure you can move around. Think about your presentation, your body language and how you look in front of the camera.
Get in touch with other teachers and share experiences - share successes and failures and how they are coping. And do it online too, not just with colleagues within your school.
Make sure there’s an element of socialisation within your classes. Students don’t just come to school to learn, they come to meet up, make friends and build relationships. So if you can, let your students have some kind of socialisation time, where there isn’t a focus on learning, and they can just have a chat together for five minutes.
Start reading and writing about what’s happening. It’s great for teachers to have a blog. Write about your experiences, write about what you’re learning, get some feedback on your blog and read what other teachers are writing on their blogs - many face similar issues and have found great solutions.
When considering some of the difficulties involved in blended learning, it’s important not to get too hung up on technological considerations. Just like any other form of teaching, blended learning involves a complex and often difficult balancing of culture and pedagogy – not least when it comes to getting students to actively engage with the process..
Chris McShane suggests that one way of getting students more engaged is to be more liberal when it comes to the ‘non-negotiables’ of the standard school day - the need for a fixed timetable, say, the length of a standard lesson period, or the pace at which the learning is set.
“Do teachers need to stand for five hours in front of their students every day? If you can say ‘No’, it can liberate your thinking around what school looks like,” he observes. “Forget about trying to run a standard school timetable online – you can’t do it. The starting point should be, ‘How can we teach?”
Another strategy McShane suggests is for teachers to record and distribute instructional videos that encourage students to go offline for a period of time – say, half an hour – and complete a set of tasks, before returning once the work is completed.
“You take your hands off because you’ve done your job,” McShane explains. “It’s all on the video – you can then reopen the discussion using tools such as Google’s Jamboard or Microsoft’s Sway, allowing the kids to come back with their ideas.”
But perhaps the most difficult challenge of all is that which lies furthest outside of schools’ control - the learning environment – or lack thereof – that students have at home. Complications here can range from busy multi-sibling or multi-generational households, to parents needing their own space when working from home themselves and lack of access to internet-enabled devices.
For educational researcher Justin Reich, this can almost amount to a blended learning deal-breaker: “It seems that the students who don’t have self-regulated learning skills, and don’t live in conditions amenable to self-regulated learning – since in schools, peers and teachers will help them with that self-regulation – can get stuck when they hit these road bumps. Things that would take a person a minute or two to debug can become fatal to a learner’s progress.”
Given the large proportion of students at Samworth Church Academy from disadvantaged backgrounds, this is something the school’s strategic director for student experience, Chris Vallance, is acutely aware of:
“At the height of [the 2020] lockdown, we received requests for packs of printed lesson resources from 110 students because they couldn’t get online. And yet, broadband connectivity per se has never been the issue – in disadvantaged households, the real problem is a lack of devices.”
Vallance recalls how the arrival of some government-issued laptops, as well as extra units purchased by the school, eventually helped reduce this figure to 85.
Other initiatives specifically aimed at supporting disadvantaged families and inequality of access have included The National Tutoring Programme and BT’s ‘Lockdown Learning’ support scheme, through which the company is offering free mobile access to the BBC’s Bitesize learning content and the resources provided by Oak National Academy.
Outside of these structural issues, it’s also possible for students to improve their own experience of blended learning themselves by making some simple adjustments.
As Nik Peachey points out, “What’s been missing in many cases isn’t teacher training, it’s learner training. Pupils haven’t always been prepped on adjusting their learning environment to make it suitable. And there are lots of basic things that can really help them get the most out of their surrounding space.”
Some might seem obvious, Nik reasons, but it’s still worth paying attention to “Things like how you set up a computer. How you set up the room you’re working in. Ensuring you have a headset, so that you’re not creating a lot of echo that disturbs other people in the class. How to get the best from your internet connection, such as making sure there aren’t lots of other devices connected to it while you’re having your lesson - and that your proximity to the router is giving you the best connection you can get.
“These are simple things that can make a huge difference.”
A study carried out by the University of Birmingham last year concluded that education delivered via remote and blended learning could be as effective as face-to-face approaches.
According to Dr Thomas Perry, from the university’s School of Education, “The literature we have reviewed suggests that remote and blended teacher education approaches show considerable promise, and may have distinct advantages, as well as disadvantages, relative to solely face-to-face approaches.
“The overall reading of the literature is that there is no reason why remote and online teacher education cannot achieve principles of effective learning design in teacher education such as an orientation to pupil outcomes, differentiation for teacher starting points, support for high quality collaboration and reflective practice.”
The researchers found that using video technology in teacher training could save schools expense and provide greater flexibility around professional commitments and school timetables.
However, they also noted the difficulty of achieving the sense of ‘presence’ needed to avoid high participant attrition or passive engagement. The review obtained and screened some 7,354 research papers spanning dozens of library collections; the full review can be downloaded from here.
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