Phil McRae is a Canadian educator and scholar who is currently the Executive Staff Director of the Alberta Teachers Federation. He writes here about the research about blended learning. “Blended learning” is one of those words that is bandied about with great frequency, often claimed by its promoters as the wave of the future. McRae critically examines those claims.
Students blending the use of technology with face-to-face instruction as a means of collaborating and extending their learning experiences is not unusual, revolutionary or foreign to the average Canadian classroom. As a concept, blended learning is now almost two decades old, having been imported into K–12 education in the late 1990s from corporate education, business training firms and the post-secondary education sector. Although the precise origin is unclear, it has been suggested that an Atlanta-based computer training business coined the term in 1999 (Friesen 2012), as it announced the release of a new generation of online courses for adults that were to be blended with live instruction.
Many blended learning practices already fit well with a vast array of hybrid face-to-face and digital experiences that students encounter in K–12 schools, including distributed learning, distance learning, or e-learning. Dr. Norm Friesen, a key academic in this area, suggests that blended learning “designates the range of possibilities presented by combining Internet and digital media with established classroom forms that require the physical co-presence of teacher and students” (Friesen 2012). As this broad definition illustrates, it would be difficult to find any use of technology in education that does not easily fit into this boundary….
The current hype around blended learning models, especially in the United States, is that they bring to life personalized learning for each and every child. Personalized learning, as promoted under a new canopy of blended learning, is neither a pedagogic theory nor a coherent set of learning approaches, regardless of the proposed models. In fact, personalized learning is an idea struggling for an identity (McRae 2014, 2010). A description of personalization that’s tightly linked to technology-mediated individualization “anywhere, anytime” is premised on archaic ideas of teaching machines imagined early in the 20th century (McRae 2013).
Some blended learning rhetoric suggests that personalization is to be achieved through individualized self-paced computer programs (known as adaptive learning systems), combined with small-group instruction for students who have the most pressing academic needs. For those looking to specifically advance blended learning in times of severe economic constraints, a certificated teacher is optional.
Software companies selling their adaptive learning products boldly state that the “best personalized learning programs will give students millions of potential pathways to follow through curricula and end up with the desired result — true comprehension” (Green 2013). This is part of the myth of blended learning and is marketed using superficial math and reading software programs (adaptive learning systems) that make dubious claims of driving up scores on high-stakes tests. Corporate attempts to “standardize personalization” in this way are both ironic and absurd….
In the mythical space of blended learning, class sizes apparently no longer matter and new staffing patterns begin to emerge. The amount of time students spend in schools becomes irrelevant as brick-and-mortar structures fade away. However, this myth disregards the overwhelming parental desire and societal expectation that children and youth will gather together to learn in highly relational settings with knowledgeable and mindful professionals (teachers) who understand both the art and science of learning. As John F. Kennedy (1962) so eloquently stated: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”
The U.S. Department of Education (2013) has clearly articulated a commitment to making blended learning come to life through nebulous ideas of competency-based systems and personalized learning.
These adaptive learning systems (the new teaching machines) do not build more resilient, creative, entrepreneurial or empathetic citizens through their individualized, standardized, linear and mechanical software algorithms. On the contrary, they diminish the many opportunities for human relationships to flourish, which is a hallmark of high-quality learning environments….
As school jurisdictions across the U.S. turn to online learning and blended models as a way to reallocate resources, the private providers are also advocating for “eradicating rules that restrict class size and student-teacher ratios” (Horn and Staker 2011, 13). To achieve this means lifting the rules around teacher certification so that schools can replace teachers at will with para-professionals or noncertificated individual learning specialists. As Christensen and Horn (2008) suggest, “Computer-based learning on a large scale is also less expensive than the current labor intensive system and could solve the financial dilemmas facing public schools” (13). ….
Technologies should be employed to help students become empowered citizens rather than passive consumers. Innovations are needed in education that will help to create a society where people can flourish within culturally rich, informed, democratic, digitally connected and diverse communities. We should not descend into a culture of individualism through technology where our students are fragmented by continuous partial attention.
For the vast majority of students within Alberta’s K–12 public education system, we must achieve a more nuanced balance that combines both digital technologies and the physical presence of a caring, knowledgeable and pedagogically thoughtful teacher. This is not an optional “nice to have,” but a “must have” if children and youth are to build resilience for the future. Blended learning may be (re)shaped by privatization myths, with adaptive learning systems as their voice, but in Alberta, our teachers still remain the quintessence of the human enterprise of paying it forward for our next generation. It is time for Alberta teachers to claim the space of blended learning and push back at the myths and questionable rhetoric.