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Blended Learning: It's Not the Tech, It's How the Tech is Used
By Preston Smith
Since the 1970s we've known of Moore's Law, which states the processing power of computers will double every two years. Forty years later, computers are presumably a million times more powerful. The education world is finally beginning to harness this power, taking us far beyond the origins of computer labs where students clicked away at the Oregon Trail and practiced word processing. Finally, we're starting to reach a point where adaptive online programs engage students with rigorous academic content at their exact level while providing teachers with detailed data, allowing us to better group students and meet their unique needs.
With the blast of increasingly affordable educational technology has come the titanic wave often called "blended learning." According to the 2013 Keeping Pace report, more than three-quarters of districts across the country offer some online or blended options. Within the depth of this trendy wave, the nuance is far too often washed away.
The onset of online schools (serving an estimated 315,000 students this year) and one-to-one iPad initiatives in traditional schools suggests computers will cure today's classroom ills.
As a blended learning pioneer and enthusiast, I'm here to tell you technology, on its own, is no cure. More and more, blended learning has become a misused buzzword in education circles. It is not merely adding technology, a device or a tutoring program. It certainly is not replacing teachers with computers.
Blended learning is and will continue to be a critical element of a 21st century education, but only if executed with intentionality and precision. Most importantly, it will only succeed if implemented with the expertise of teachers. So, what does that look like?
Essentially, blended learning is a highly targeted and engaging learning experience. It's a purposeful look at the curricula, the needs of students and teachers, and subsequently, what learning modality or support can best help a student meet unique learning goals. Technology and online learning are not just included; they are purposefully integrated into the act of learning and curricula in a manner that improves the educational experience for all students. The purposeful use of technology, paired with effective teacher-led instruction and student interaction, is what makes learning blended.
For schools that are truly engaging in blended learning, the teacher's experience is of equal importance to that of the student's. Technology must improve and add efficiency to planning and executing differentiated instruction, grading and monitoring every student's growth and needs.
The ultimate intent of blended learning is to create a truly personalized learning experience, which is a goal many of us in the blended community are still striving toward. This means that for almost every moment of every day, a student receives the right content, at the right level, in the right grouping and through the right delivery method (in-person, independently, with a teacher, a tutor, via technology, etc.).
The tough reality is that almost no school system has truly realized a personalized learning approach yet. Despite Moore's Law, the technology is also still not fully there. To be truly blended, we must look at the integration of curricula, instruction, teachers and their talent, and students and their needs with detail and sophistication. This requires advanced tools and a thorough understanding of curriculum and instruction.
Since we first began to apply blended learning tactics into our schools seven years ago, education technology has come a long way, along with its uses in the classroom setting. But until we truly personalize the learning experience for every student -- far beyond worrying solely about devices or a 1:1 ratio -- we must continue to innovate. With intentionality and diligence, the true power of blended learning can be fully realized. Personalized learning can be a reality.