A Guide to Blended Learning: benefits, models and strategies for teachers
The phenomenon of blended learning, the meeting point of traditional and digital learning, is gaining more and more attention and popularity today with the advancement of digital technology, and its increased use in every area of our lives, including education.
The related learning methods have come under the spotlight due to the recent global pandemic.
Furthermore, several generations have grown up in a digital environment and expect to utilise online tools in their studies; and educators are doing their utmost to adapt learning processes to these needs of learners.
This guide discusses the definition of blended learning, outlines its benefits and challenges, and suggests models and strategies for educators to follow.
We will cover:
- What is blended learning?
- Blended learning in numbers
- What is the purpose of blended learning?
- The benefits of blended learning
- The challenges of blended learning
- 9+3 blended learning models
- Blended learning strategies
What is blended learning?
Blended learning is the combination of traditional (face-to-face) and digital learning, e-learning or online learning. Teachers and students meet and work together in a classroom, so a physical presence is required, but it’s all complemented by digital learning elements or in other words, the possibility of “learning anywhere, anytime”.
This is where online tools come into the picture, from simple emailing and video conferencing to handling assignments digitally and using more comprehensive edtech software, where both educators and students can do their share of the work and interact with each other.
A unique feature is that education mostly continues to be teacher-led but it also gives space for bigger autonomy on the students’ side. They can, for instance, supplement their own learning experience by doing extra research on the internet, besides delving into the compulsory elements of the given subject’s curriculum.
This means they have the ability to take charge of the place, time and pace of their own learning process which in turn, can raise their engagement levels.
Blended learning in numbers
- According to a study by the Center for Digital Education, 73% of US educators saw an increase in student engagement when they utilised a blended learning instruction model.
- A survey with nearly 5000 respondents across Europe explored the experiences of teachers and school heads with online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 38% of them were the most and positively surprised about the innovation and freedom to experiment with teaching practices in a digital setting. 33% mentioned flexibility, 31% the wide range of digital tools, 27% the accessibility of platforms, materials and resources, and 23% the increased autonomy and motivation among learners.
- In a UK survey, 96% of teachers said that technology has a positive impact on children’s participation and learning, and 56% reported that students were more engaged when technology was used in class.
- Nearly half of the respondents, 49% of teachers, admitted that tech made them more efficient at planning and giving lessons, and a third said it made these processes easier.
- 54% believe their lesson plans are more varied and exciting when they can use tech in teaching, and 53% added that technology simply makes the classroom “more vibrant and fun”.
- In the same study, 91% of parents also reported that tech made it easier for them to be involved with their children’s education. 78% mentioned the ease of using tech to monitor their grades. 68% also found it easier to help kids with their school work, thanks to technology.
- Currently, 67% of secondary school teachers reported in a YouGov questionnaire that their school offers a blended learning approach. This might increase as 44% of European educators expect that their schools will adopt more online learning methods, and a further 17% said that online teaching will be integral to their practices.
What is the purpose of blended learning in education?
The purpose of blended learning is ultimately to create an integrated learning environment, by combining in-class and out-of-class teaching, that benefits both educators and students. It aims to:
- Maximise educational impact for students
- Allow students to learn anywhere, anytime
- Break the “one-size-fits-all” model and engage all types of learners
- Offer personalised learning experiences
- Provide interactive educational elements to learning
- Improve accessibility and equality in education
The benefits of blended learning
Blended learning offers a plethora of benefits to students, teachers and schools alike, from flexibility, customised learning experiences and improved attitudes, to time and cost efficiency and overall better return on investment in education.
Benefits for students
- The flexibility of learning remotely or learning anywhere, anytime, and at learners’ own pace
- Opportunity to customise their own learning experience by using different platforms and tools that best suits their needs and skills
- Independent learning promotes self-regulation or self-management and responsible decision making, all crucial social-emotional learning skills and competencies important for students to develop
- Access to a wide range of educational resources, beyond the compulsory materials, that also improves their research skills
- Opportunity for a more comprehensive understanding of the subject as topics can be approached in many ways
- A more customised learning experience that leads to improved student attitudes toward education and higher levels of motivation
- More opportunities for students to track their own results and learning progress
- Options to build better peer relationships as digital classroom and chat applications can help build and maintain connections with other students
Benefits for teachers
- Several methods available to customise and improve teaching, thanks to a range of deployable digital tools, whether on an individual or class level
- Increasing student engagement by offering flexibility and a variety of learning methods
- Better and more efficient ways to track students’ progress and engagement with digital tools
- Opportunity to focus more on guiding students’ learning experience by gaining better (digitally) tracked information on their progress and requirements
- More options for interacting with students thanks to the variety of tools available, such as emails, chat, video or digital dashboards, thus adapting to students’ personalities
- Digitally and fully or partly automated processes save time and energy, including following students’ progress, assigning tasks, grading or reporting, and giving feedback
- Opportunity to pay more attention to students who require one-on-one help, or those with special needs, by saving time and energy in other aspects of teaching
- Technology and certain digital tools provide more insight in the form of reports and analytics about students’ work and help in planning improved curriculums and classes
- Detailed learning data can be presented to parents to help them see their children’s academic progress and discuss their future plans
Benefits for schools
- Reducing on-site costs, including utility expenses, buying textbooks or printing learning materials, by investing in digital technology
- Cost savings can lead to better budget allocation to students in need and other areas where the school needs improvement
- Using more digital tools and cutting back on activities such as printing class outlines, promotes environmentally friendly aspirations
- More data and more easily, digitally available, individual, class- or school-level information on students’ progress and other educational processes help prepare school application materials or in Ofsted inspections
- Multiple data points from multiple sources means more efficient ways of calculating return on investment or academic ROI, figuring what drives student and teacher success, while manoeuvring within budgets
The challenges of blended learning
Introducing and maintaining a blended learning system is certainly not easy but with the right support and tools, it can be the most fruitful approach. Here’s a list of challenges that can be tackled with the cooperation and determination of school leaders and subject teachers.
Finding the balance between traditional and digital learning
Creating that blend between the traditional teaching methods of a physical classroom and digital learning can be demanding.
If a teacher simply assigns a task to students that they have to complete at home on a digital platform but without prior guidance, success rates won’t be overwhelming. If a teacher doesn’t get the support from school management to provide a well-working system (from budget to tools and training), no matter how they try to keep it up, their efforts may go to waste.
In a worst-case scenario, replacing the teacher (because of human resource shortage, for instance) with technology, and calling it a blended learning program is equally disastrous.
Teachers, their presence and guidance are necessary for students — introducing technology in the classroom should and will not substitute for educators in any properly functioning learning system.
Finding the appropriate ratio of face-to-face and digital teaching for everyone included is key. With the support of school management, teachers have to have the opportunity to test different blended learning methods to adapt them in a way that helps students’ progress the most.
Testing and updating digital tools
The dependence on digital resources is apparent in blended learning. The software has to be continuously updated and most importantly, properly vetted before implementation to make sure that the right online tools are used in the blending learning environment.
IT and computer literacy as a barrier
Learning to use online tools in education can be time intensive in the beginning while everyone gets accustomed to a new system. A structured approach and patience can really help.
Overall IT and computer literacy are also crucial for everyone involved in the teaching and learning process. This includes a basic understanding of using any related software but also of troubleshooting any, or at least smaller, technical issues (a frozen computer or a forgotten password, for example) in the absence of designated personnel. Knowing how to solve a simpler problem presented by an application can keep the flow of online classes and help avoid wasting human resources.
Fighting the distance
Besides providing flexibility for students, teachers need to implement methods to check on them personally and assess the progress they make, whether face-to-face or digitally. This will help avoid any learners falling behind or getting lost in the system.
It’s important to point out that such an approach is necessary for any learning environment but the mixed nature of blended learning may call for extra vigilance on the part of teachers to make sure that students can adapt to the complexity and unique operations of the technology-infused setup.
Keeping an eye on students’ accessibility
Blended learning is great for promoting accessibility to education but we shouldn’t forget that internet access or hardware ability from home can be a problem for some students.
In a European survey, teachers and school heads reported that the biggest challenge of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic was, in fact, students’ access to technology (49%) and the same was mentioned for teachers (34%).
It’s also crucial to think about students with special needs, such as the visually impaired who will need further assistance when learning remotely from home. This can influence your choice of the appropriate software to implement in the classroom, as it is important to cover every students’ needs and abilities equally.
Schools need to account for all these matters in time to avoid any issues for the learner personally and the overall success of the blended learning system.
9+3 blended learning models
Blended learning models usually vary depending on the ratio of online and traditional classroom teaching and learning throughout the process, along with how much flexibility students get and how much control teachers have in their roles.
1. The rotation model
In this model, students rotate among learning methods, such as online learning, group discussions and individual assignments, but one of the pillars is always online learning. There is a fixed learning calendar students can follow, prepared by the teacher, which rotates them between the different environments.
There are three common varieties of this model, station, lab and individual rotation:
- Station rotation is where the rotation happens in the classroom or a set of classrooms.
- Lab rotation is essentially the same with the addition of using a computer lab as one of the locations.
- Individual rotation is characterised by the student creating their own schedules for rotation, instead of the teacher. This model is more personalised at an individual level. It’s worth noting that some terminologies say that individual rotation should be categorised under the flex model (more on that below), based on the flexibility aspect.
2. The flipped classroom
In the flipped classroom, classroom work and homework activities are simply flipped. Students get homework assignments first and then discuss the related subject in class. This gives an opportunity for them to discover and research a topic and solve the task in question individually, then get additional context and information to put everything together with the help of their teacher afterwards. In the classroom round, students usually work in small groups which also provides a more hands-on learning experience for them.
3. The flex model
The flex model gives more emphasis to digital learning than offline student activities, although both are naturally present in the equation. Instructions and learning materials are made available online, lessons are self-guided but the teacher is on-site, if needed, for support. Schedules become more fluid and can be customised by either participant. All in all, the flexibility in this model is tangible in more than one way:
- Students can be more flexible with their schedules, and teachers can allocate more time to discussing learning materials with students individually.
- Students do not ‘rotate’ between learning methods at the same time like in the rotation model (although they are mostly in the same physical location). They can make this decision independently and ask for teachers’ help when needed.
- Teachers can also choose to provide the best online or offline method to complement students’ learning experience, whether that’s a one-time individual discussion, long-term tutoring or group projects.
The flex model is more commonly used for single courses or subjects.
4. Supplemental blended learning
This model is where online learning enriches classroom activities to encourage students’ studies on a broader spectrum. The key here is that the traditional teaching and learning process takes place in the usual manner so no hours have to be deducted from this time. Students will invest in online learning outside the class.
For this reason, students’ workload can understandably increase which must be accounted for by teachers in advance, through proper planning and preparation of materials. This will help students manage their studies better. The supplemental model also naturally improves children’s time management skills as they get familiar with the extra materials of the given subject on their own.
5. Mastery-based blended learning or the face-to-face driver model
The Mastery-based learning model is a broader theory and practice, not exclusively a type of blended learning model but one that fits that concept for many reasons. It focuses on enabling students to achieve a certain learning objective or goal before moving to the next one, instead of working in a set timeframe (as with the rotation models).
They need to ‘master’ a subject before having the opportunity to dive into another one. In this model, learning is mostly delivered by teachers on site which is why it’s also called a face-to-face driver model.
Although teaching and learning predominantly take place in the classroom, digital technology can be leveraged by students who need more support or different types of resources to complement their learning path and achieve mastery goals. This means that the learning process can be greatly personalised, letting them move at their own pace. It also demands more attention from teachers too, to monitor students’ proficiency in the given subject and address those who are falling behind.
This blended learning method is one of the most unconventional. Just imagine: classes are not defined or scheduled by the day of the week but instead by the progression plan of students, so teachers will only move on to the next lesson when the expected level of mastery is achieved.
In many practices, even traditional marks are neglected but learners’ knowledge is measured in some other way set by the teacher. Sometimes it is a matter of earning a credit or a certain skill. This type of flexibility can be challenging for educators.
6. Online lab
In this model, students learn exclusively online, but from the same physical location, ‘the online lab’. Teachers are not present but so-called “paraprofessionals’, who can provide some help to students when needed, but do not fit the classic role of qualified educators.
Once again, students can move with the learning materials according to their own pace that grants flexibility but this teaching method is more often chosen by schools that have budget constraints. It can also be an option for offering a course or subject for which the institution has no trained teacher.
The self-blend model emphasises student’s autonomy in the learning process. They attend school in the traditional way but are offered the opportunity to take further online courses.
This setup works best for highly motivated students who want to invest more in their own learning experience. It’s also a great choice for those who are interested in a topic that is not normally covered in the classroom for some reason.
This model usually works in the case of more mature students, likely starting from secondary school when learners are more independent and driven to invest in their own studies. The ‘self-blend’ is a unique approach since if the students don’t choose to take on extra courses this way, they won’t be participating in and enjoying the benefits of blended learning at all.
8. Online driver
The ‘online driver’ is the most future-facing out of the blended learning models. Here, digital learning takes the centre stage and traditional face-to-face teaching is the one to complement it (if at all).
In this model, students learn remotely, and mostly or exclusively interact with their teachers through online chat and other digital platforms. In today’s practice, they can also meet for a face-to-face discussion or take part in physical classroom education but in a similarly limited way. The point is that these ‘check-ins’ are strictly optional and in the future may disappear altogether, developing this into a fully remote blended learning method.
In most of the current educational systems, this model likely suits age ranges where students are more independent and can practically ‘drive’ their full learning experience on their own. It can also suit those who need more flexibility in their school schedules for some reason such as being young, professional athletes on the side, or those, for instance, who can only participate in education from home due to a chronic illness.
9. Outside-in and inside-out
The outside-in and inside-out blended learning models are opposites of each other and both focus on where the learning process starts and ends.
The outside-in model is where students finish their current studies in the classroom with prior digital learning on a daily basis. This naturally allows them to take their own pace and organise their learning process individually until that point where they can meet their teacher and discuss the subject, along with any questions and outcomes in class. Educators can also use this platform for further collaboration or group work if they see it fit.
The inside-out model is where the learning process ends ‘beyond’ the classroom. Not only online learning is mixed in, but other ‘irregular’ forms of education. As teachers mainly curate the resources and tools, other actors take on the classic role of a teacher at this stage, albeit in their own way.
Families, external organisations, mentors, participants of the business sphere, even further educational institutions can take part in supporting students’ learning — this can all happen online, in a physical setting but usually both. Again, everything happens based on what students need and in what form.
This model certainly broadens our view on education and emphasises the role of communities around students in the learning process.