A Tweet-fest on blended learning

I joined the Twittersphere yesterday for a forum on blended learning moderated by Matt Miller, superintendent of Mentor School District in Northeast Ohio. (Find the tweets at #ohblendchat.) The conversation engaged, by my estimation, fifty or so educators who in 140 characters or less discussed what “blended learning” is, how they’re implementing it, what benefits they’re seeing, and what some of the barriers and misconceptions are.

The forum was a great opportunity to learn how blended learning is playing out in the field. From the chat, I came away with three takeaways:

1.)    There is increasing definition around what blended learning is and is not. First, what it is not: putting students in front of a computer and expecting them to learn. Nor does blended learning slavishly conform to a single method of instruction (e.g., lecture, online, project-based). What is blended learning, then? A few of the key phrases used to define blended learning included personalized learning, a combination of instructional deliveries, collaborative learning, and even controlled chaos.

2.)    Teachers say their feedback on students’ work is swifter and their engagement with all students increases in a blended-learning environment compared to conventional ones. Several educators tweeted about how they have a greater feel for the educational needs of their students. Others described how blended learning allows for more one-on-one instruction and student-teacher conferences. Meanwhile, a few other educators tweeted how blended learning enables them to reach all of their students (i.e., both struggling and advanced learners)—not just “teaching to middle” of their classroom.

3.)    A degree of tension exists between risk-taking innovations and high-stakes accountability. Some of the educators questioned whether accountability systems—anything from the state’s new teacher-evaluation system down to students’ take-home report cards—can appropriately depict, validate, and assess the work of teachers and their students in a blended environment. In addition, how do evaluation systems deal with failure? As one teacher rightly tweeted, “Learning doesn’t happen without failure.”

Interesting thoughts from eduactors on this point, and I mixed it up questioning the premise of jettisoning traditional grading or accountability in light of innovation. In my view, it’s even more essential to hold schools and educators accountable for results when implementing new practices—educators, parents, public taxpayers must know whether changes are working or not. If innovations are indeed failing, they should be promptly corrected or abandoned. If they’re working well, they ought to be scaled and replicated. (It’s not just conventional accountability that could be leveraged; for example, see Tom Kane’s excellent article on the need for “short-cycle” clinical research.) But the fact remains that encouraging risk-taking in light of accountability is a knotty question.

New technologies and new ways of doing things transform education, as they've done for centuries. (Think anything from the printing press to chalkboards to Wikipedia.) They will continue to do so in the years to come. The question for educators, therefore, is not whether technology and innovative practices will change schooling, but how to harness them to benefit learners. And for policymakers, they’ll have to navigate this brave new world of technology disrupting status-quo rules and regulations.

Indeed, the learning environment in Ohio schools has already changed tremendously. Schools are transitioning to digital assessments both for the state’s new standardized tests and for “formative” exams like NWEA. Massive Open Online Courses, a.k.a. MOOCs, are proliferating (though, they still appear mostly geared toward higher and adult education), and students everywhere are accessing online-learning resources like the Khan Academy.

Thanks to folks like Matt, the educators who participated in this Twitter-fest, and those involved in the emerging Ohio Blended Learning Network, blended learning is being diffused throughout the Buckeye State. Even through non-traditional mediums, such as Twitter, they are helping educators, parents, and policymakers better understand blended learning as a promising strategy to organize classroom learning. Let’s keep pushing the envelope!

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.