The Benefits and Limitations of Blended Learning

I have a lot of thinking to do. Yesterday, I attended a fascinating presentation on blended learning by a company called Education Elements that was hosted by the Avi Chai Foundation. Education Elements presented three models of blended learning.

  1.  The lab rotation model in which the students split time between direct instruction in the classroom and computer mediated instruction in a computer lab.
  2. The classroom rotation model in which students work entirely in class but rotate between time with the teacher, time working in groups, and time with the computer. 
  3. The flex model in which schools rethink their classrooms and instead design large groups of workstations in learning areas which can be comprised of dozens of computers and teachers rotating to work with students as needed.
The classroom rotation model seemed to be the most interesting to me. It is similar to the centers that are utilized already in early childhood education which allow students to sample different activities and modalities throughout a lesson and then regroup to review and reflect on what was learned. Whether this can work on a high school level, I don't know. That is why I have some thinking to do.

I learned much from this presentation, however, one aspect was worrisome. There was much talk about using blended learning to lower costs. The goal seemed to be to use this model to allow for larger class sizes and then be able to hire fewer teachers. The assertion that technology can be used to reduce costs in education is a dubious one as is pointed out by this excellent review of the literature: There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education and this posting by my friend Aaron Ross: It's Not About the Benjamins. The research by Larry Cuban about the failure of past technology implementations to deliver on their promise of cost savings is especially cogent.

Furthermore, while the research on the academic benefits of blended learning is promising, see a summary of the research here and here, it is still in its nascent stages with very limited implications for K-12 education due to a dearth of studies in this area. On the other hand, the positive relationship between smaller class size and academic achievement is well documented on both the elementary and high school level. See the following research review: Class Size and Student Achievement. Obviously, other academic factors besides class size play an important role in student achievement, most notably teacher quality. However, the goal of these programs is not to make money available to hire, train, and retain better qualified teachers. It is to use blended learning to save money by increasing the class size without negatively affecting student achievement. There is no research to my knowledge to corroborate this.

The question is a simple one. What would you rather have for your children, a larger class with more computers or a smaller class size with less? Technology can make good teachers better and a blended learning environment might be a better mode of education than a more traditional one but the most obvious and important factor in a child's education is the teacher. Technology at the expense of more individualized teacher attention is a tradeoff that I am not willing to make.