Teachers are continually on the lookout for innovations to improve the effectiveness of their instruction and the educational outcomes of their students. One such innovation is blended learning, an instructional approach that allows students to assume greater control and a more active role in their learning. Sounds great! But where does that leave teachers? What is their role in a blended learning environment?
To get a better idea, it makes sense to contrast the traditional model of instruction with the blended model.
The Traditional Model: Teachers as Providers of Knowledge
Until fairly recently, students received nearly all instruction from one or more teachers, who usually spoke from the front of a classroom while students sat passively in their seats listening and, it was hoped, absorbed the information. All students received this same educational “serving” and had little or no control over their learning experience.
Over time, teachers began using circles and other vehicles to get students more involved in learning. This gave students a somewhat greater level of engagement and personalization in their education, but instruction was still largely delivered by one or more teachers.
As technology became more commonplace, schools began introducing software and other forms of online learning into class plans. Students generally loved being able to use computers at school, but for the most part, teachers determined what students would do on them, and the pace for learning the content was the same for every student, regardless of a given student’s knowledge or capabilities. What’s more, computer work often only tangentially related to the instructional content, which was still delivered by teachers. Even with the added technology, the instructional dynamic was still much the same as it was in the pre-computer days: teacher directed, top-down, one size fits all.
The Blended Model: Students as Active Pursuers of Knowledge
With blended learning, students assume greater control and a more active role in their learning. Some learning involves teacher(s) providing instruction at a brick-and-mortar location, and some involves students learning independently at computers. Depending on the blended model the school or district elects, students can make choices for how to learn content, where to learn it, which path to take to learn it, and how quickly to move through it—even though the content that must be learned is the same for all students.
How does this learning dynamic benefit students? Giving them permission and opportunities to become active learners boosts their motivation and engagement and fosters self-reliance. It helps them recognize that they are autonomous beings responsible for the decisions they make and the successes they achieve. With each new success that students recognize as their own, they become even more motivated and engaged. A productive learning cycle has been established.
As the students’ role changes from passive recipient to active pursuer of knowledge, the role of teachers changes as well, from knowledge provider to coach, mentor, and data master.
A New Role for Teachers: Coach, Mentor, and Data Master
Because students are learning part of the content independently on a computer, teachers are no longer bound to presenting all of the instruction to the whole class, so class time opens up. Teachers can circulate among the students more often and for longer stretches of time, so they are able to observe students more closely, pick up on individual problems they might not have noticed from the front of the class, and provide timely feedback and guidance—much like a personal coach.
The increase in teacher-student interaction can help teachers make sure that students who are struggling get more of the support they need and students who have already mastered a concept are adequately challenged. In this sense, blended learning benefits not only students but also teachers in that it improves the conditions for providing differentiated instruction.
With increased teacher-student interaction, teachers can get to know students as individuals and develop a stronger rapport with them. Teachers are freed up to offer greater personal attention and more regular encouragement to individual students, which helps build students’ trust and self-confidence and change students’ views of teachers from taskmasters to mentors.
Because students learn in part on computers, computers change from being merely a fun piece of technology that students can use to another way for teachers to learn in-depth about every student and his or her skill levels. With the highly detailed data gathered from students’ work on computers, teachers can discover exactly what content a given student is struggling to learn. Data can also help teachers keep track of where the computer-based learning left off and where classroom instruction should resume, preventing poor instructional continuity between modalities or duplication of content already covered. And data can be used to better coordinate instruction between teachers, such as between the main classroom teacher and a pull-out teacher.
If we are all willing to stretch, adapt, and grow in our respective roles, everyone can benefit from a blended learning environment.