Sunday, December 10, 2017

Blended Instruction vs Blended Learning

Schools continue to make investments in technology to engage students better, improve outcomes, and prepare all learners for the new world of work.  We are beginning to see more and more innovative uses of technology not just to personalize, but also to make the learning process more personal.  When a solid pedagogical foundation is in place, the stage is set to challenge students to demonstrate thinking and learning in ways that we could never have imagined a few short years ago. This, combined with relevance grounded in authentic contexts and applications, empowers students to own their learning. 

As I continue to think through the use of technology in schools I am always drawn back to this guiding question – How can students use technology in ways that they couldn’t without it?  To improve the learning experience for kids, we must continue to develop ways where technology becomes a ubiquitous component of our work, but also leads to a demonstrated improvement in practice.  Here is where the tool supports or enhances the pedagogical technique to aid in conceptual mastery, construct new knowledge, or demonstrate learning through the creation of a learning artifact. One such method that is rapidly gaining traction is blended learning. 

Blended learning is one of many strategies that can add a level of personalization while also making the experience a bit more personal with the right conditions.  However, there seems to be a bit of confusion as to what blended learning is or the conditions that have to be established for it to improve feedback, differentiate instruction and empower learners.  Based on what I have seen during my work in schools and through the sharing on social media, the majority of what educators are calling blended learning is blended instruction.  Here is the difference:
Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. 
For me at least, the distinction above brings a great deal of context to the discussion of how technology can improve learning for our students.  Now I am not saying it is bad practice when educators integrate tools such as Kahoot, Plickers, Socrative, Mentimeter, Padlet, and much more into their instruction.  As long as the level of questioning focuses on the higher levels of knowledge, technology and students can show what they understand that’s a good thing. However, this is not blended learning.  To see some of the many-blended learning models available click HERE.  If students genuinely own their learning, then they have to have some level of control over path, place, and pace while receiving more personalized feedback regarding standard and concept attainment. 

The image below outlines some critical considerations when incorporating blended learning in the classroom or school.

I have been very impressed by how Kirk Elementary and Wells Elementary in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD) have been implementing blended learning on their campuses. In each case, the station rotation model has been the preferred strategy. I have observed students rotating through various stations that include teacher-directed, independent reading or practice using technology, formative assessment, flipped activity, and collaborative problem-solving.  In some cases, students have individual learning playlists to work through. Students rotate through the various stations, and this is typically triggered by music.  The use of mobile technology and flexible seating provides students choices as to where they will learn. In the example above technology is blended into their learning experience so that students have some control over path, pace, and place.

All in all, the significant shift that we should focus on is what the student is purposefully doing with the technology. Student agency is at the heart of effective blended learning. It is also important that it supports high-level learning, provides better means of assessment, and improves feedback. Blended instruction is a start, but blended learning is where our practice should move.


  1. While I generally agree with what you are trying to express, blended learning is something that naturally grows out of teaching that uses technology in meaningful ways. As you say, simply using a tool doesn't create a transformative learning experience; it is only when the tool affords an experience that cannot be had without it (rephrasing your question, "How can students use technology in ways that they couldn’t without it?" which is not quite fully articulated.) that it is transformative. Otherwise, it is just replacement or augmentation (see the RAT model). To provide these opportunities, though, teachers need not necessarily use the blended teaching/learning models that you point to; they need only integrate the technology in such a way that allows students to make the most of them.

    1. You bring up a great point and one that I am in agreement with from the context of how the learner should use technology. Teachers should integrate technology so that students can own their learning through greater agency. I think we differ in terms of how we define blended learning. Is integration that same as blended? Blended, in my view, builds upon what you describe as the learner has more control over path, place, and pace. In the end though the overall outcome is the same - improved learning experience.

  2. Learning requirements and preferences of each learner tend to be different. Organizations must use a blend of learning approaches in their strategies to get the right content in the right format to the right people at the right time. Blended learning combines multiple delivery media that are designed to complement each other and promote learning and application-learned behavior.

    Gretta Hewson
    Who is Jesus?

  3. I think I've always considered what you call "blended instruction" as technology-rich instruction. That is perhaps, in part, because I have relied upon the Christensen Institute's definition of blended learning (

    * at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;
    * at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;
    * the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

    As that definition is very student-focused, is there an aspect of that definition with which you don't completely agree?

    I also think that when the teacher experiences a true blended learning environment as a learner, it helps clarify the difference. Perhaps part of the confusion exists because our PD initiatives or programs aren't doing a good job modeling that type of instruction for adults.