Five reasons why blended learning is a good thing

Twice this week I’ve taken the train to Manchester. On both occasions it was to present at two very different conferences, one on closing the attainment gap using digital technology and the other on delivering an innovative and creative curriculum. The former was opened by John Dunford in his role as DfE Pupil Premium Champion and he spoke passionately about the importance of ‘looking out and not looking up’ when seeking innovative solutions. Then there was the Primary Curriculum Review conference in which delegates were urged to take risks when designing a fit-for-purpose curriculum. But one theme for me that ran deep throughout both events was the important role digital technology will play in driving up standards. Enter Blended Learning.

Blended learning is nothing new.  Most schools do it all the time without even knowing it. At its simplest, blended learning is the combined use of online learning and offline learning. In other words, activities that take place in the virtual and real world. The virtual world requires the use of a digital device, whereas in the real world it’s to do with ‘bricks-and-mortar’ – traditional tasks that take place in and around the classroom. The trick for the teacher is to get the blend just right.

Here are 5 reasons why I believe children’s learning should be blended:

One | It fits the learning needs of all pupils. Every lesson should contain a blend of some sort. At the most basic level it involves the interactive whiteboard and exercise books.  The best lessons though always involve groups of pupils immersed either in a netbook or tablet device or both. As an inspector, I rarely see blended learning, with most ICT lessons taking place in a computer suite once or twice a week. When technology is readily available in class, teachers tend to plan for only one group to use a device during a lesson, perhaps with a TA supporting them whilst the rest of the class are on ‘bricks-and-mortar’. At some point, the group learning on devices will then blend with the real world and move onto pen and paper or discussion. The ‘Station Rotation’ method however ensures that all pupils are involved. Here, the teacher plans for groups to rotate through a variety of learning stations ranging from group discussion (in our case perhaps using a CoRT1 thinking tool or TASC wheel) to individual online or digital learning (such as Espresso, Mathletics, Blaze, RM Books or OneNote). By blending in this way, it allows all pupils to adopt different learning styles when learning online or off and to learn the pros and cons of both. This approach tends to be most commonly used during the afternoon sessions when pupils are working in their thematic books. As teachers, we need to try to ensure that every child in our school, especially those that have one-to-one devices, has the opportunity to blend their learning frequently throughout the day both at home and in class.

Two | It allows the classroom to be flipped. Now that every pupil in Years 4, 5 and 6 has their own tablet device, flipped learning is achievable. Teachers should plan to flip the classroom at every opportunity when sending the devices home. Flipping the classroom involves pupils learning new content at home by completing specific tasks on their devices. They are structured in such a way that the pupil needs to explore and question their own understanding, perhaps through a video clip, pre-recorded task, Photosynth clip etc. It may also involve the simple researching of facts and information as a pre-requisite to starting a new topic, perhaps using RM Books following a non-fiction virtual loan. One obvious use is Photosynth prior to going on a school trip, getting the pupils to interrogate, perhaps, a picture of a Castle. In the past we’ve adopted a similar approach when requiring pupils to complete a wiki on ‘everything you know about (new topic)’ prior to the new term, often during the school holiday. Having completed the flipped task, pupils then have the opportunity of practising and refining their skills in class where the teacher is able to coach and facilitate as well as correcting misconceptions. As the children’s skills improve, face-to-face feedback at this stage is crucial, something that would not be possible when practising at home. In essence, it ensures that low level Bloom thinking is done at home so that the higher order skills can be used where they matter most.

Three | It ensures pupils are lead learners. When using the Station Rotation model, the teacher will invariably decide when the groups rotate (a bit like the old integrated day model). However, it is far more effective to allow the child to make the choice as to when to blend by choosing either bricks-and-mortar or a digital device. This teaches learners to ‘digiflex’ and understand that some tasks are better suited to a laptop or tablet and some aren’t. Pupils need to learn the limitations of technology in the same way we teach them that there is more than one way to calculate a sum. Having a device with a pre-recorded activity on it (video clip or audio) allows groups to go straight on task at the start of the lesson with the teacher moving away from ‘Sage on the Stage’ to ‘Guide by the Side’. (It’s also a lot quicker than preparing and photocopying worksheets.) The children soon learn that they have to take the lead, knowing that if stuck, a quick search of the virtual world is likely to find a solution. The same applies to when learning at home. When learning outside the classroom, perhaps on a trip, their device opens up doors that would not otherwise be possible. For example, by allowing learners to record video clips and dump them into OneNote immediately gives the child a sense of ownership and lead.

Four | It ensures learning is imaginative. We know from the visit to our school by Professor Egan that ‘the more we know about something, the more imaginative we can be about it.’ This is why we are introducing Learning in Depth across the school. At our training day at the start of term we all acknowledged the key role online research can play in ensuring our pupils master their learning. However, a significant proportion of the pupils’ research and quest for knowledge will involve using more traditional methods. It’s crucial that we get the blend correct and that pupils have opportunities not only to research using a blended approach but to also capture and record their learning on both real and digital platforms. More importantly, the one-to-one devices allow for the classroom to be flipped so that the pupils can do all the research and fact-finding at home and then receive face-to-face support in class in regard to organising, refining and presenting their ideas. I’m sure also that our parents will appreciate it as well, as (like me) it’s unlikely they will have many books at home on the subject of Dust. Once again, RM books plays a key role here.

Five | It’s the future. Online learning is here to stay. All our pupils will be engaging in online courses by time they leave high school. It’s likely that for our youngest pupils, almost all of their learning will take place in a virtual world. So whether we like it or not, we have a duty to prepare our learners for the future. You only have to look at the emergence of the knowledge economy as the fastest growing world market. MOOC pioneers (Massive Open Online Courses) are popping up everywhere, with India being one of the fastest growing markets, second only to the US. The recently launched FutureLearn Mooc sees the UK enter the market with 21 universities (Birmingham included) offering free public online courses on a number of devices, mobile phones included. Moocs by themselves of course are not blended in that they rely exclusively on the virtual world. Thankfully the University of Oxford has already acknowledged that a Mooc needs to be blended with more time in the classroom if deep learning is to take place.

So if we want to close the attainment gap, make good use of Pupil Premium funding and produce a world-class curriculum, blended learning has to feature strongly. Be it online or offline, in the bedroom or classroom, all our pupils need to experience a blended approach to learning if they are to stand out in the knowledge economy and keep ahead of the race.

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