Blended learning — the hybrid of classroom instruction and online learning — is gaining traction because it has the potential to engage students and improve outcomes and because of a growing awareness that the traditional lecture model has largely been proven to be a less effective. But faculty used to the traditional lecture model may find themselves asking “what is blended learning.”
Educators looking for answers about blended learning — also called hybrid learning and the flipped classroom, among other terms — will encounter a lot of definitions to choose from. On its face, this is a simple concept: classroom instruction paired with technology. But the definition gets less consistent in the details.
For example, exactly how much online learning and face-time are involved in blended learning? How should class instruction integrate with online instruction?
Blended learning isn’t a new term
The term ‘blended learning’ has been around for almost 20 years. According to an essay by Elliot Masie, founder of the Masie Center think tank focused on workforce development, and author of The Handbook of Blended Learning: Global Perspectives, blended learning was first used in 1998 by the training sector. The term then was referring to the sort of learning it most commonly describes today: a blend of online learning and classroom time.
However, at its most basic, instead of describing a blend of locations, the concept has often been defined as a blend of teaching methods. This is an idea to which Masie subscribes in his book:
“All learning is blended learning! That is a bold statement and reflects our view of the definition of blended learning: the use of two or more styles of content or context delivery or discovery.”
To Masie, blended learning is a mix of any two modalities: lectures and classroom discussion, for example. He is not alone in this definition; various groups and thought leaders have argued that blended learning is (or should be) a broad blend of teaching methods — although these definitions seem more a philosophical exercise than a practical definition of teaching practice.
What is blended learning in higher education?
In higher education, blended learning is most commonly described as a teaching method that combines time in a classroom with online instruction. According to Educause’s online library, blended learning, also referred to as “hybrid learning,” combines traditional face-to-face classroom instruction with online learning.
Versions of this definition are used by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as many of their grantees. Here’s an example of one such definition, offered in a white paper by research analyst D. Derek Wu for Ithaka S+R, Online Learning in Postsecondary Education,:
“‘Hybrid’ courses refer to those that contain both an online and a face-to-face component, although there exists substantial variation in how these courses are specifically structured. They can also be referred to interchangeably as ‘blended’ courses.”
Many thought leaders use this simple definition. But for those who study online learning,it may be too broad; the definition covers a variety of digital learning models, all of which use some form of technology as a part of an in-person class.
For example, Blending In: The Extent and Promise of Blended Education in the United States, a 2007 study written by I. Elaine Allen, Jeff Seaman, and Richard Garrett for Babson Survey Research Group, the Sloan Consortium, and Eduventures, attempts to differentiate blended learning from its cousins: web-facilitated learning and online learning.
In this study, Allen, Seaman, and Garrett try to identify in their definition exactly how much online instruction is included in a blended course or program.
“… blended courses and programs are defined as having between 30% and 79% of the course content delivered online. ‘Face-to-face’ instruction includes those courses in which zero to 29% of the content is delivered online; this category includes both traditional and Web facilitated courses. The remaining alternative, online courses, are defined as having at least 80% of the course content delivered online.”
Allen and her colleagues are not the only ones who have defined blended learning by how much time is spent in the classroom and how much is spent online — the University of Washington Bothell defines hybrid courses as those in which 25% to 50% of the traditional face-to-face class time is replaced by online or out-of-class work.
Many definitions of blended learning, however, are less concerned with measuring the quantity of instruction delivered by machines and more concerned with how that online instruction integrates with what is being taught in the classroom. In other words, these definitions are concerned with the actual blending of instruction. Take the definition put forth by The Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank that explores innovation in both higher education and K-12:
“The definition of blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns:
- at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;
- at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;
- and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.”
Geraldine Torrisi-Steele, of Griffith University in Australia, offers an augmented definition of blended learning in her 2011 paper, This Thing Called Blended Learning. While Torrisi-Steele agrees that the actual integration of online and in-person learning is important, she believes the definition of blended learning should focus on student needs. Her argument, that blended learning was developed in part to meet the needs of learners, is reflected in her own definition:
“Blended learning refers to enriched, student-centered learning experiences made possible by the harmonious integration of various strategies, achieved by combining f2f (face to face) interaction with ICT (information and communications technology).”
The definition of blended learning is evolving
In 2015, the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) published a paper to further refine its existing definitions of blended learning. Authors Frank Mayadas, Gary Miller, and John Sener broke blended learning into two course-level definitions: blended classroom courses and blended online courses.
A blended classroom coursemixes online instructions with classroom meetings, “replacing a significant percentage, but not all required face-to-face instructional activities,” while its opposite number, blended online courses, are mostly offered online, with required face-to-face activities. According to the authors:
“Both Blended Classroom Courses and Blended Online Courses are particularly relevant in programs that serve students within commuting distance of campus. They increase flexibility but do not totally eliminate the need for students to have physical access to a campus facility. Blended courses will be attractive to many traditional full-time students, in addition to non-traditional learners, typically working adults who are within commuting distance and who wish to earn a degree.”
As online learning continues to evolve, thought leaders in education will continue to grind away at the definitions of blended learning, attempting to come up with a standard that will make sense to all who combine teaching and technology.
The authors of the OLC’s list of definitions emphasize that their attempt to define blended learning is a work in progress.
“We do not present these as the ultimate definitions,” they write, “but as a step toward more commonly held standards as our field continues to evolve.”
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A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.