Although blended learning has become one of the most talked-about phrases in education over the past several years, there are still many misconceptions about what it really is and how it can be used effectively. To help us unpack this topic, we are joined by Dr. Catlin Tucker, an international leader and practitioner in blended learning.
Dr. Tucker shares, “I don’t know how you can be in a society like we are, that is so saturated in technology, and not figure out how to weave online learning into the physical classroom to enhance the student experience.” She adds, “I think in 15 years, we won’t be talking about blended learning; it’ll just be learning.”
Our conversation is spread out over a two-part podcast series. In this first episode, Dr. Tucker helps us better understand what blended learning is, as well as why and how we can implement it effectively into our classrooms to better meet the varied needs of all our learners.
The why, or value, behind a shift to blended learning cannot be a reaction to a moment in time or a specific event. That isn’t inspiring and is unlikely to result in long-term transformation. Instead, the why behind this shift in our approach to teaching and learning should be because it is better for teachers and students.
Dr. Catlin Tucker, author of The Complete Guide to Blended Learning
The following resources are available on AVID Open Access to explore related topics in more depth:
- Blended Learning Resources (planning documents and playlist templates)
- Explore Blended Learning Strategies (article collection)
- Engage Students Through Inquiry Learning (article collection)
- Inspire Students With Project-Based Learning (article collection)
- Empower Students by Allowing Them Control of Pace, Place, Path, and Time in Blended Learning (podcast episode)
- Guide, Inspire, and Empower Students Through Blended Learning (podcast episode)
- Blended Learning as a Response to Trauma-Informed Instruction (podcast episode)
The What, Why, and How of Blended Learning
Any instructional practice should be driven by the “why” behind it. Before implementing something new in education, we should ask: Why will this approach be better for students and teachers? The same is true for blended learning. In this episode, Dr. Tucker explains, “When you are still designing a single experience for all learners, that is not equitable. What we need to be thinking about and acknowledging in our design work is different learners just need different inputs to get to a particular output, so we need to design learning experiences that allow for that—that allow us to give learners what they specifically need—and I just think it’s impossible to do in these kind of one-size-fits-all lessons.”
This is where blended learning becomes a powerful option. It is exceptionally flexible and allows us to leverage the benefits of technology while also increasing and maximizing the benefits of the human connection in our classrooms. In fact, it’s this human connection that will improve relationships, allow us to better differentiate and personalize our instruction, and offer a more equitable learning space. Here are a few highlights from this episode:
- More Than a Reaction to the Pandemic: During the pandemic, many teachers felt forced into implementing what they considered to be blended learning. However, Dr. Tucker reminds us, “The why is so much deeper than a reaction to a moment. Blended learning was not born out of the pandemic. It’s been around for a really long time.” And the reason it has been around for a long time is because blended learning can positively transform a classroom into a more flexible, personalized, equitable, and effective learning space.
- Two Constants: Blended learning helps teachers address two conditions that will not change. First, learner variability is the norm, and second, technology is not going anywhere.
- A Definition: Dr. Tucker defines blended learning as “active, engaged learning online combined with active, engaged learning offline—with the goal of giving students more control over their learning experience, specifically control over the four elements of time, place, pace, path.” In that light, she hopes that teachers use technology “to really shift students to the center of the learning experience, really giving them more control over their experience,” as opposed to how she often sees “technology used in the classroom, which is to isolate learners, which is a real missed opportunity.”
- Multiple Models: Many learning models can be found under the larger umbrella of blended learning. The most popular ones include station rotation, whole-group rotation, playlists, and flipped learning. In each of these models, one of the main goals is to give students more control over their learning.
- A Station Rotation Example: To help clarify what blended learning looks like in action, Dr. Tucker gives us an example of the station rotation model. In this model, a teacher might choose to have three stations that students rotate through. At a teacher station, the instructor may facilitate differentiated instruction or a discussion with a small group of students. At an online station, students might do research or participate in an online discussion. A third station could be offline, where students discuss a class topic face-to-face or engage in pair practice for a related concept. There are many options for each station in this model.
- Flexible Models: Blended learning strategies work in nearly any learning environment, online or in person. Dr. Tucker points out, “That’s the flexibility educators need moving forward.”
- A Shift to the Learner: “A one-size-fits-all, teacher-led, teacher-paced model is just not going to be effective to meet that diversity of need,” states Dr. Tucker. We need students to do more of the heavy lifting in our classrooms and own the learning experience.
- It’s in the Design: To make blended learning work, learning experiences need to be shaped with the student at the center of it. Dr. Tucker acknowledges, “The reality is that you have to spend more time in your design work if you’re going to free yourself to be a facilitator.” She adds, “When we don’t put a high level of intentionality and time into designing learning experiences that are truly student-centered, then what ends up happening is we are at the front of the room leading the learning, doing the majority of the work. This is why we’re exhausted. This is why the learning isn’t super effective from the student perspective.”
- Gain Time With Students: One of the greatest benefits of blended learning is that the strategies can free the teacher up to work with individual students and small groups. This is where powerful feedback and differentiation can occur.
- More Work for Students: A blended learning classroom requires more effort and ownership by the students. For this to be successful, we need to help our students learn to be more independent and to own the process of learning. Dr. Tucker says, “Students are far too comfortable in their role as passive consumers in the classroom.” She goes on to say that a blended learning facilitator should be “constantly trying to position the learner, not the teacher, to do the work, do the thinking, reflecting, discussing, making, tinkering. All of those pieces, the student has to do it.”
- Leverage What We Do Best: Technology is very good at transferring information. However, it is not good at organically responding to human needs. Therefore, we need to leverage technology to help facilitate the transfer of knowledge, so we can use our valuable teacher time and expertise to connect personally with our students. Much of the power of blended learning is in increasing this human contact time. Dr. Tucker explains the importance of this: “Humans respond to each other’s needs really organically, so it’s that human side of teaching that I want teachers to have more time for—talking with students, asking what they need, responding to those needs with supports, and scaffolds, and reteaching, and really targeted instruction and examples.”
- A Path Toward Equity: Through more consistent personal connection time, blended learning can help us better understand each of our students. This helps us differentiate and personalize learning in a way that is more equitable for each learner.
If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:
- How do you define blended learning?
- What are the main blended learning models, and what might they look like in action?
- What are the benefits of using a blended learning approach?
- What questions or concerns do you have about implementing blended learning strategies?
- What are the advantages of a student-centered classroom?
- How can blended learning help create a student-centered learning environment?
- What skills will students need to be successful in a student-centered classroom?
- What role does metacognition play in student success?
- How can you best leverage technology in the classroom?
- How can you make the best use of human connections and teacher time in the classroom?
- In what ways can blended learning improve equity in your classroom?