Organizations that take on the responsibility of providing instruction to students have an ever-present challenge to contend with in today’s world.
Students bring increasingly diverse backgrounds, learning styles, educational needs, and time constraints to the table. This increases the difficulty of devising educational programs that are sufficiently engaging and effective. Along with that, the technology underpinning contemporary educational and training practices is constantly evolving.
These factors make finding the right solution difficult, even with there being no lack of options. There are a wide range of educational models to offer students, ranging from traditional face-to-face instruction to online classes to full-featured virtual laboratories.
The challenge is in choosing the right methodologies to best serve your students. You need to balance the choices and flexibility they want, with the constraints and requirements of the material you need to teach them.
For many organizations, the model that best addresses these competing concerns is blended learning.
What Is Blended Learning?
Blended learning focuses on combining offline and online teaching methods. Typically, blended learning classes involve both scheduled instructor-led training (ILT) at a brick-and-mortar location and complementary online components that the student can complete on their own time.
Blended learning is an evolving methodology that can be implemented in several ways. It sometimes gets mixed up with “hybrid learning,” which often refers to combined online and offline instruction in a more general sense.
Anyone involved in developing and delivering educational programs to the busy, digitally-literate students of today should be familiar with how blended learning works, why it may be a good choice, and the various forms it can take.
Students Have Changed. Learning Methods Should, Too
Whether they’re your customers, new hires, or just seekers of knowledge, your potential students have grown up surrounded by technology. They’re not just comfortable using it—in many cases, they feel lost without it. The idea of using technological tools to learn challenging material at their own pace isn’t daunting to them, but instead is empowering.
You don’t have to be a Millennial or younger to have “grown up” with technology. For decades now, we all have been watching technology become a more deeply integrated part of life. We’re constantly learning how to use new devices and programs — and soon forget that these were ever “new” at all.
It’s not just younger generations that feel at ease with using technology in a self-directed way to learn new things. There’s no age limit to becoming a digital native.
As technology becomes a more present and comfortable part of our daily lives, it makes little sense for education to keep using practices developed in the 19th century or earlier. For that matter, it doesn’t make much sense to stay stuck in the online learning models of the 1990s either.
One of the best aspects of blended learning is that it’s based on leveraging the advantages of the best educational resources the current state of technology has to offer — without denying students the benefits of older, traditional methods.
The Best of Both Worlds?
If the biggest advantages of blended learning are derived from the integration of technology, is it actually beneficial to include traditional, face-to-face elements? Does this combined approach really work better? When considering blended learning, these are valid questions to ask.
It is true that there are subjects that can be taught effectively through online-only classes. It’s also true that some skills that might best be learned directly from another practitioner. However, we believe that, in the majority of cases organizations deal with, the answers to both questions are “Yes”.
The Value of ILT
Specifically, we believe the expertise, interaction, and irreproducible human “wisdom” that experienced instructors can provide makes blended learning more effective than online-only models. Blended learning reinforces this learning mode by following it up with a very effective way to retain knowledge — hands-on exercises. It’s like being able to attend culinary school, and then having real French chefs available to critique your recipes when you try practicing at home.
The Value of Online Learning
Online learning does not, and cannot replace face-to-face time with an instructor. Direct human interaction can offer observations and insights that are impossible to produce on-demand with technology. Blended learning, however, can offload all the rote, impersonal parts of teaching — lectures, slides, and quizzes — to the self-paced online environment.
This allows instructors to focus on answering questions, leading discussions, demonstrating techniques, and providing all the other educational benefits that technology just can’t reproduce yet.
It also allows for flexibility, making it more attractive and workable for students who have to constantly juggle work, school, and life in general.
Types of Blended Learning
Blended learning is an umbrella term, and not everybody uses it to refer to the same thing. Even when we agree on what we mean by “blended learning,” there are a variety of ways to provide it. Here are a few examples of different ways blended learning can be implemented, and which scenarios they might be used for.
This model has students rotate through stations on a fixed schedule. Students go from stations where face-to-face instruction takes place, to (at least) one station dedicated to online learning. Other stations might include lab groups or other collaborative activities. This method is often used in settings like elementary school classrooms, where rotating students between stations has already been an established practice.
The model works on the same principle as station rotation, but the online learning “station” takes place in a computer lab that the student can access on their own time. Lab rotation allows for greater scheduling flexibility than station rotation. Computer labs can accommodate students from multiple classes at the same time, or use a single lab session to complete work for several classes.
The previous mentioned rotation models rotate blocks of students on a fixed schedule. Individual rotation allows each individual student to set their own rotation schedule, either with the instructor’s help or with times coordinated by a computer program. Under this model, students often have a greater degree of individual choice, and may not necessarily rotate to every station offered.
As the name implies, this model inverts the traditional classroom experience. Students watch lectures and perform self-paced classwork on their own time. Then they meet up at a classroom for scheduled sessions with an instructor, to ask questions or work on supervised projects.
The flipped classroom puts responsibility on the students to absorb the materials on their own that would traditionally be taught during classroom time. It frees up the actual classroom time for more interactive and dynamic engagement with the instructor.
The flex model is student-driven and one of the least-structured models. Most coursework takes place in the online learning environment, with teachers on-hand to offer instruction and support as needed. Students might have various offline resources to avail themselves of, but would not be required to do so. This model offers the greatest degree of flexibility and control to the student.
A La Carte
This model allows students to take online classes alongside their in-person classes. It’s often seen in high schools and other educational settings, where students have a need for elective or advanced classes that the physical location does not have the resources to provide. While this method does not provide additional flexibility within classes, it does give students who have large course loads more control over their time and schedules.
This model is similar to the flipped classroom. The enriched virtual model is weighted heavily toward self-paced instruction via online coursework, but provides opportunities for face-to-face learning in an instructor-led environment. The difference is that the face-to-face sessions might be held much less often and are not as integral to the delivery of the core material being taught as in the flipped classroom model.
When you’re in charge of spearheading a new or revamped educational program, you have more options than ever. There are a wide variety of platforms and methods available to provide students with classes and other educational resources. Sorting out what will work for your students and what will be less effective isn’t easy, no matter what you’re trying to teach.
Even when using a combined approach, you have to make difficult choices. What traditional methods are worth keeping, which new methods will be valuable, and what blend of instructional models and techniques would be optimal for your organization and its students are important questions to answer.
Blended learning may represent an ideal compromise that attempts to utilize the best elements from both online and offline instruction. However, choosing the best implementation still requires understanding both your organization’s goals, and the needs and challenges of the students you’re serving.
What’s becoming increasingly clear is that students today have a high level of comfort and familiarity with technology. They expect the convenience and flexibility of technology to help them navigate their educational and professional duties in an increasingly complex world.
Whatever educational model you’re offering, students will have a better experience and retain more knowledge when their online education is supported by robust, up-to-date educational platforms and virtual lab environments.