Special Report

The Rise of Blended Learning

How a new trend in education rethinks the role of computers in the classroom and lets each student learn at a different pace

(© Diez, Cherie / ZUMA Press/Corbis)

For months, Stanton Elementary School teachers and administrators searched books, webinars, conferences, news articles and anything else they could get find for ideas about how to get students more engaged in the classroom.

They kept running across the same mysterious two words: blended learning.

“We didn’t really know what it was,” says Principal Caroline John, “besides computers.”

Fast forward a year, and the same 400-student public school here in Southeast Washington, D.C., with its green-tiled halls and pastel stucco classrooms, is defining the phrase on its own terms. And at least in this case, it's not that complicated.

At Stanton, students in grades 3-5 spend 45 minutes a day on an iPad or a Dell laptop working on ST Math, an online math program that challenges each student based on his or her skill level. For example, one student could tackle multiplication tables, while someone in the next row completes double-digit addition problems. Some do all their work by typing and touch-screening their way through problems and solutions, while others swivel between scouring the screen and scribbling on scrap paper. Teachers rotate through the room, helping students when they stumble on a given problem.

Time runs out, the devices are packed and pushed to another classroom, and the rest of the day proceeds with nary a computer in sight. But the straightforward structure of Stanton's blended learning program is just one example of blended learning’s loosely organized front that, despite wide variations in individual practice, appears to be quite powerful.

“Just in the last few years there's been tremendous interest by school district leaders who know they can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” says Susan Patrick, the president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. “We're absolutely seeing a trend toward blended learning.

Because there's no firm dividing line on where exactly blended learning starts and stops, it's hard to identify just how many schools nationwide are practicing it. “Keeping Pace,” an annual report that examines online and blended learning, estimated that two-thirds of the nation’s nearly 14,000 school districts offered some sort of blended learning option in 2012, though it adds there is still plenty of room to grow in terms of how many schools or students utilize those programs.

A big reason for its growing popularity, Patrick says, is that, despite the increasing capabilities of educational technology, most students and teachers still prefer real, live interaction over completely online learning.

Further, to understand blended learning, it's crucial to understand what it's not: doing online worksheets, reading digital prompts or any other technology-related activity aren't examples of blended learning unless they allow a student some control over the pace and content of the instruction.


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