This month, eSchool News will come out with its annual Technology Counts report, and this year, one of the topics discussed will be blended learning. While the discussion continues as to how blended learning will affect education policy and vice versa, it is important that we all have a clear understanding of the concept so we might develop our own opinions and contribute effectively to the conversation.
According to the iNACOL National Primer on K-12 Online Learning by Matthew Wicks, blended learning is defined as “any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, path, and/or pace.”[i]
While we all understand the benefits of traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms, the benefits of the online learning piece tend to be more debatable. Given its organic development over time, myths abound about what it is and how it works. Just a few cited in the paper above are that online learning is “teacher-less,” that courses are easy, that students spend all their time in front of computers, and that they work in isolation and thus don’t get the benefits of collaboration and socialization. In reality, quality online learning programs as well as blended programs are able address these issues, and Matthew Wicks does an excellent job of clearing the air.
Online and blended learning offers flexibility, opportunity and convenience, and because of these positives, as well as the simple fact that the public is demanding it, use is on the rise. While the Sloan Consortium estimated that in 2007-8 there were just over 1 million students in the US enrolled in online or blended programs, up 47% from 2005-6. Based on this growth, estimates are that over 1.5 million students were learning through such programs in 2009-10.[ii]
Clearly, the benefits are affordability, accessibility and convenience for students and educators alike. Not only do online and blended learning models allow learning to take place outside of classroom walls and schedules, they make the opportunity of school a more realistic endeavor for those students whose family lifestyles and needs tend to impede the ability to adhere to a more rigid school day.
What are the costs to students as well as to the educational system? Financially speaking, the costs of operating online programs vs. brick-and-mortar programs are, interestingly, about the same. Efficiencies and online strategy gains by not having classrooms and learning facilities are balanced out by the cost of the technology required to run the programs.[iii]
Most importantly, we must take the responsibility to educate ourselves and develop as comprehensive a picture of online learning as possible if we are to contribute effectively to the conversation and ensure that we are advocating (whether for or against) and implementing these strategies as effectively as possible. Nothing less than our students’ futures are at stake.
[i] Wicks, Matthew. (2010). A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning, International Association for K-12 Online Learning.http://www.inacol.org/research/docs/iNCL_NationalPrimerv22010-web.pdf.
[ii] Ibid, p. 14.
[iii] Anderson, A., Augenblick, J., DeCesare, D., & Conrad, J. (2006). Costs and Funding of Virtual Schools, Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates. http://www.inacol.org/research/docs/Costs&Funding.pdf.
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