At the end of my last column, I suggested that blended learning had potential that extended well beyond simply using some interesting tools and websites in class. Indeed, I would argue that technology may (and should) revolutionize education to a degree not seen since the invention of the printing press, ever. The printing press arguably contributed to the Reformation and the scientific revolution, two events that permanently transformed Western Civilization and ultimately affected the rest of the world as well. The Reformation spurred a major expansion in the number of people educated, and beginning with the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, the range of subjects taught has also expanded. The actual delivery of education, however, has changed hardly at all.
Socrates taught a group of students sitting in a room. He asked them questions and they responded. Is that much different from today? No. In fact, institutions as august as Harvard Law School pride themselves on employing the Socratic Method. Today, students much of the time still sit in a classroom with a teacher at the head of the class. They read books, listen to lectures, answer questions in class, take tests and exams, and write papers, as they have done for centuries.
The agricultural revolution, the Reformation, the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment failed to change the delivery of education—why should the information revolution do so? And if it does, how will it? The possibility certainly exists that it won’t. Academia is remarkably conservative—it is, after all, the process of transferring the wisdom and knowledge of the past from one generation to another. However, the forces for change are gathering daily and the potential for a transformation that will benefit students and thus society is at hand.
First, the answer to why change might actually happen. The explanation comes from a work referred to in my last column, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson. They argue that technology is proving to be a “disruptive innovation” in education. Disruptive innovation occurs when an innovation emerges that completely transforms an industry. Examples of disruptive innovations include: the Kodak camera (and then the digital camera), the Bell telephone, the Sony transistor radio, the Ford Model T, the Xerox copier, and the microcomputer.[i] A disruptive innovation starts out as something inferior to whatever already exists. “But by making the product affordable and simple to use, the disruptive innovation benefits people who had been unable to consume the back-plane product.”[ii] Those people start to buy the new product, it gradually improves, and over time transforms the market. Take the microcomputer for example. When it first came out, only big, powerful mainframe computers existed. No one could really imagine why anyone would want a device that couldn’t really do much. But microprocessors grew more powerful; software became simpler, and over time more and more people began using microcomputers. Eventually, microcomputers came to dominate the computer market, in the process, completely altering the way we do business, communicate, manage our personal affairs and even entertain ourselves.
According Christensen’s research, the growth of online education—from 45,000 to 1 million participants in eight years[iii]—is following the pattern of a disruptive innovation. People are turning to technology to provide various services that their schools do not. For example, students in schools with limited programs take AP courses online; or students who have credits to make up, take classes online, as do home-schooled students. In addition, as programs develop that allow students to learn at their own pace in ways that fit with their learning styles, technology will either replace tutors or make that kind of individualized instruction available to students who previously couldn’t afford it. Remarkably, many of Christensen, Horn and Johnson’s predictions published in 2008 have already come to pass.
Where will this disruption take us? To “student-centric instruction,” say Christensen, Horn and Johnson. In this process, the role of the teacher is going to change. In some ways, the teacher will need to be more skillful, know her students even better, and understand and be able to teach to different learning styles more effectively. In an environment where students can access virtually all knowledge with the click of a mouse, the teacher becomes the facilitator rather than the purveyor of knowledge. This will certainly take some adjustment, but ultimately the reward will be greater student engagement and learning.
Blended learning accomplishes the shift to more student-centric teaching and learning in several ways. The most significant way comes through an approach called “reverse learning” where, the teacher records lesson that students watch for homework (often along with other assignments such as problems, reading or writing), freeing up class time for hands-on activities or individualized instruction. With recorded lessons, students can go back and repeat parts they didn’t understand—as many times as they want. They can refer to the lesson while they are applying the lesson—for example, while they are doing a math problem that demonstrates the concept being taught. Because the lesson was taught online the night before, the teacher will have more time to spend with individual students in class to ensure mastery. Or they might have more time for labs in science. Or they might have more time for student-led discussions, role plays or debates.
A teacher at Hockaday, a girls school in Dallas, is using reverse learning in his AP biology class. He has created 10-minute lectures to present content previously taught in class. The students watch the lectures for homework, leaving more time for labs and class discussion. He reports having completed more labs by midyear than he had done all year last year. His students love being able to watch his lectures on their own time, as well as review them as often as they want.
On the opposite end of the spectrum grade wise, our own Linda Caleb and Kathy Chaney dramatically changed the way they teach fifth grade Design Tech. The students now do most of their content learning online. The class only meets every few weeks, but does so for larger blocks—even a full day (in essence, collecting and merging all the short blocks they didn’t use on a regular basis). During that time they tackle big projects, like building small solar cars, where they apply what they learned independently. This approach has proved enormously successful. The girls have responded extremely well to the online learning environment, eagerly doing their assignments and even expanding beyond the required work when a topic peaks their interest. Moreover, the hands-on projects are much more effective when they have longer periods of time in which to work.
Discussion boards, wikis, and VoiceThread offer effective opportunities for reflection outside of class. Students can do a reading or watch a video and then respond online. They have time to think before joining an in-class discussion, and perhaps, more importantly, they interact with their peers and their teacher prior to the class discussion making for a richer in class experience. In addition, in a traditional setting, most assignments are handed into the teacher who grades them and returns them to the individual students, interaction occurring only bilaterally between the student and teacher. In these kinds of collaborative, multi-lateral environments, students have more opportunity to learn from each other. Teachers have also found that because everyone must participate in these types of online activities, there is more accountability. Moreover, they have discovered that students who are reluctant to speak up in class, often readily participate online.
Finally, quick online assessments allow teachers to have a more accurate gauge of their students’ understanding. Quiz programs like Quia, used by the Hockaday biology teacher, allow teachers to create quizzes that efficiently measure students’ grasp of material, while providing students with immediate feedback. It also produces reports for the teacher which enables him or her to have a more nuanced picture of students’ understanding. Another online resource, Khan Academy makes students complete 10 problems on a given concept before being allowed to move on. In addition, it can provide teachers with specific information about how long it took a student to do each problem and which problems she answered correctly and incorrectly. As Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy said at the NAIS conference last week, “the expectation should be mastery, not a grade.”
Another benefit of online education is the enhanced opportunities for students to collaborate. For a number of years, we have understood the benefits of collaborative activities. However, there are always logistical challenges related to time and space—it’s not always easy for students with busy schedules who may live miles from each other to get together to work on group projects. However, online space and time are irrelevant. Whether it’s through VoiceThread, discussion boards, wikis, or any number of online collaborative tools, including Google docs and apps, students can work together in all kinds of ways. Moreover, they can work with students from other schools and from other parts of the world. The possibilities are truly endless, allowing for multiple dimensions of learning.
Employing technology in education does not mean substituting a computer for the teacher. Nor, does it mean simply taking what we already do and putting it online. In some ways, the preparation for blended teaching takes longer and is more differentiated, intense and nuanced. As students learn from each other as well as from the teacher and the vast wealth of the web, they assume more ownership of their own learning, while at the same time their teachers have a greater capacity to ensure that each individual achieves mastery. In a blended learning environment, students are more engaged, held more accountable, have more opportunities to express their thoughts, to reflect, to collaborate, and to learn through hands-on, experiential activities. They will learn more, better.
[i] Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, Disrupting Class, 50.
[ii] Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, 47.
[iii] Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, 91-92.
Friday March, 4, 2011 at 02:12PM