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Blend your classroom

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Blended learning approaches revolutionising teaching

A hot topic in education, blended learning is gaining more and more attention from teachers. As schools adopt learning platforms, teachers want to know how to use them efficiently, and are turning to blended learning approaches for the answer. In this article, itslearning researcher Morten Fahlvik explains blended learning, its benefits and applications. In the end, he says, blended learning is a tool for every teacher.

It’s 7 p.m. and eight-year-old Thomas is about to go to school – virtual school.

He presses play and his math teacher starts explaining arithmetic. He takes notes as the video plays. He has entered a blended learning environment. After watching the video, which only lasts a few short minutes, Thomas takes a quick test to gauge how well he understood the maths.

The next day before class, Thomas’ teacher reviews the tests to see if her students understood the concepts in the video. She sees they are struggling with division and makes a few quick adjustments to her lesson plan in order to spend more time on division.

This process, the combination of the physical and virtual classroom, is a classic example of blended learning, says itslearning education researcher and former teacher Morten Fahlvik.

“Blended learning is performing or conducting your teaching in a combined classroom – the combination of the physical classroom and the virtual classroom. You use the traditional space and then you add something to it,” Morten says.

“Most teachers look at the two elements of blended learning – the physical and virtual classroom – as two separate things. But the value is in the combination, the combined classroom.”

Many benefits

For Morten, blended learning is about time management, but it’s also a tool for getting to know your students better. It allows teachers to decide when and where to teach the curriculum. In short, blended learning gives teachers options.

But blended learning actually offers an extra classroom – the virtual one.

Easier than you may think

Though many theoretical models of blended learning exist, at its core blended learning is incorporating the internet in the teaching and learning process. Morten points out that many teachers already use the internet for communication and organisation, but blended learning allows them to exploit its ‘untapped potential’ by using more advanced tools like online discussion boards and multimedia uploading.

How large a role the internet plays is up to the individual teacher. By simply directing students to a newspaper article by putting a link in the virtual classroom, teachers practice blended learning, Morten points out.

More advanced models of blended learning call for students to study theory as homework (in the form of videos posted on a learning platform, for example) and do assignments in class time. This is the so-called flipped classroom model of blended learning.

Two sides of the same coin

There are many other models covering the spectrum of education delivery, from distance learning schools to primary schools where students use laptops in class time. What all models have in common, however, is that they combine elements of the virtual and physical classroom.

“It’s a holistic thing with aspects that should fit together,” Morten says. “In order to work well it needs to be planned to work well. At the end of the day, blended learning is about getting students prepared for class.”

Combining the physical and virtual

Morten stresses that in order for teachers to get the most out of blended learning they have to merge online learning with classroom learning.

To illustrate this idea, Morten uses the example of an assignment where students post book reports in a discussion forum in a learning platform and make them available for comment from fellow students.

It’s a blended learning approach that modernises the traditional book report, where students present their reports in class. Teachers free up class time by moving the presentations online.

In this example of blended learning, students comment on the reports and teachers moderate the responses. Students who are reluctant to participate in class are often more willing to participate in these kinds of online discussions, Morten adds.

In order for this approach to be successful, teachers must bring the online discussion (or any other online learning activity) back into the classroom.

“The exercise evolves in the online space and then teachers have to bring it to the physical classroom. I think a good blended teacher can do both,” he says, adding that students learn responsible online interaction through teacher-guided online discussions.

Morten uses the example of a vocation school to highlight the importance of combining two learning theatres in a balanced way.

In the case of blended learning, the physical and virtual classrooms are combined. But in the case of students studying car mechanics, they spend part of the week in the classroom learning theory, and then the rest of the week in the auto shop applying their knowledge.

The two education venues go hand in hand – and it’s the same with blended learning approaches.

“If these elements are separate, then 1+1+1=3,” Morten explains. “But if you do it well, then its 1+1+1=5. The experience and outcome is bigger.”

Finding the perfect blend

Other models of blended learning include scenarios where students rotate between computer stations at school, take an online course to supplement their schooling and distance students who complete the majority of their studies online.

All of these approaches help teachers allocate their time better. By having the additional virtual classroom, teachers can spread some of their and their students’ workload onto the internet.

“With blended learning there should be some element of choosing the time, location and content. The freedom to choose different elements varies a lot,” Morten says.

Technology, pedagogy and content

He adds that modern teaching combines technology, pedagogy and content.

“Most teachers combine content and pedagogy but leave out technology. That’s part of blended learning. You need to blend these three components in a balanced way,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s the teacher who decides whether or not this will be a success.”