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What is Blended Learning?

A woman looking at a group of her students on a laptop screen during the online portion of a blended learning experience.

In today’s educational landscape, instruction has many forms. What’s known as traditional, face-to-face instruction is alive and well. But, like most fields, the field of education continuously evolves as we develop new technologies and new educational theories of practice to embrace the most effective ways to help learners succeed.

There is a long history of correspondence education and independent study through distance learning, before the internet was as commonplace as it is today. As digital technology has become more accessible to purchase and use, there has been more attention on ways that blending traditional and digital learning could benefit learners, and rightly so.

Traditional instruction, online learning, virtual classrooms, and hybrid classes are all methods of sharing information and promoting competence and mastery of a given subject. These terms also represent techniques that have become part of our vocabulary when talking about higher education. There is also another important way to structure learning, known as blended learning.

What is Blended Learning?

Heather Tillberg-Webb and the text Heather Tillberg-Webb.At its simplest, blended learning is “enhancing instruction with digital supplemental material,” said Heather Tillberg-Webb, associate vice president of Academic Resources and Technology at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Blended learning is similar - but distinct from - hybrid learning. It uses a variety of digital resources to extend the traditional classroom.

Where hybrid learning splits learning into two parts, with some instruction in a traditional, face-to-face class setting and some online, blended learning effectively integrates face-to-face and digital modalities to create a cohesive, yet varied, learning experience.

The Two Types of Blended Learning

There are two types of blended learning: synchronous coaching and asynchronous learning. The former happens in real-time, either in person or online. The latter is always online or through distance education, with the instructor and learner active with the course material at different times.

Brian Vas and the text Brian Vas.One of the biggest benefits of synchronous coaching is that “one-on-one or small group interactions with coaches provide learners with an opportunity to build a sense of community and leverage more place-based supports designed to encourage their success,” said Brian Vas, associate vice president of Partnership Solutions LRNG at SNHU.

With asynchronous learning, educational content is delivered without real-time instruction. That allows learners to access the course material anytime, anywhere. Flexibility and student-centered focus are the main draws of this style of learning. Despite the inherent independent nature of asynchronous learning, one-on-one or small group interactions with coaches or instructors are still available to provide learners with an opportunity to build a sense of community.

What is the Purpose of Blended Learning?

The more that educators leverage traditional and online learning as well as support learners in a holistic learning experience, the more learners can benefit from a more approachable, engaging, and ultimately, effective learning experience.

“Blended learning increases access to learning, and maximizes flexibility,” said Vas. “A blended learning model meets students where they are by delivering educational content in a self-directed, online format,” he said.

What are Some Blended Learning Strategies?

There are a number of coaching and advising models available within blended learning. After all, flexibility is key with this style of learning.

One key strategy is known as a flipped classroom. This “is where an instructor has a question that they send out in advance. The responses from learners help capture where the instructor will need to focus their guidance in a discussion,” Tillberg-Webb said. This way, instructors can target instruction in such a way as to be most effective for learners.

For example, an instructor might provide learners with a discussion topic or question prior to class, and ask for their feedback via email or perhaps a shared online document. The instructor reviews the responses before class and uses that information to more intentionally direct the live discussion. This way, student input comes first, with the activity coming second. That's the reverse order from traditional learning, where the instructor will first facilitate discussion and then solicit feedback in response.

Just-in-time learning is another key strategy. This is where instructors use class time for active learning and strip away more passive activities that learners could do on their own, such as reviewing the syllabus.

Just-in-time learning could also involve a package of videos and digital activities targeted for students to then complete at their own pace. “This frees instructors to use classroom time to hone in on areas of confusion or to lead group work or other interactive activities,” Tillberg-Webb said.

Implementing more robust coaching and advising models are also a key strategy for blended learning. Personalized, face-to-face support that meets students where they are “allows instructors to intentionally build rapport with learners,” Vas said. This creates a sense of accountability driven by the personalized nature of the instructor-learner relationship.

How is Blended Learning Different From Hybrid Learning?

In a hybrid learning model, traditional learning and digital learning are divided into separate parts. You may be physically in class for a synchronous, live session one week, and then have assignments to complete online the next week.

Think of hybrid learning as a form of low-residency learning. The curriculum tends to be more project-based than lecture-based, and “has the added benefit of individual, adaptative and responsive student support from a locally-based coach or instructor,” Vas said.

Hybrid learning can serve as a form of blended learning. One of the benefits of hybrid learning is that learners can learn both synchronously and asynchronously. “This puts learning in the hands of the learners in terms of what they want to learn and know,” said Tillberg-Webb.

When considering either blended or hybrid learning, it’s important to remember that neither one is necessarily easier or harder than traditional learning. Any form of learning independently requires a great deal of focus, drive and time management by the learner.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Blended Learning?

A big benefit of blended learning is the ability to control the pace. “This also creates space for reflective thought for learners,” said Tillberg-Webb. Digital resources are generally readily available, unless there are budget issues.

Unfortunately, ready access to high-speed internet isn’t a given for everyone. “Even for families that do have the internet in their home,” said Tillberg-Webb, “parents with a full-time job might need priority for using the bandwidth. Or there may be several siblings in the home who all need to stream video for school assignments at the same time and a mobile hot spot isn’t sufficient.”

One way to combat this is to incorporate blended learning activities that don’t just involve plopping someone in front of a screen, but that encourage experiential learning or offline, more reflective or independent tasks.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, all models of learning are designed so that teachers can focus on the key component of their role: feedback. “That’s what learners need the most,” said Tillberg-Webb. “Providing content is laying the foundation, but working with learners to help them enhance their knowledge with that content is the key.”

Blended learning allows instructors and learners to use all available resources in a variety of ways to enhance learning and ultimately to help learners find the method of learning that benefits them the most.

Marie Morganelli, Ph.D. is a freelance content writer and editor at Precise Words Creative. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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