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Friday, May 2, 2014

Is Blended Learning the Magic Bullet for Struggling Students? 05-03

Is Blended Learning the Magic Bullet for Struggling Students?

The title is facetious, but I'm afraid the sentiment can be found throughout the US now. Blended learning refers to using a mix of face-to-face instructional methods with computer-mediated learning, such as a mix of teacher instruction and computer learning programs, or the "flipped" classroom. The primacy of technology in our everyday lives, combined with the rise of charter schools that use "individual learning modules" (i.e. children sitting at computers working on reading or math skills at different rates) has created a sentiment in some circles that if we just had KhanAcademy/Gigi math/RAZ-Kids etc in our classrooms (programs that target reading or math instruction to a student's particular area of need and let him or her practice independently) we would see a meteoric rise in skills.
The problem is that this sentiment just isn't true. The New York Times published a review of a NAEP study that shows that not only is the case for blended learning questionable, but we see the same gap in instructional methods for low-income students vs. other students that we do in other areas of schooling. Low-income students were more likely to use computers for basic drill activities, vs. more cognitively rich activities that other students engaged in. Is blended learning just a new way to reinforce an old status quo?
Don't get me wrong--I love computers, I love technology, and I love using both in the classroom. In my school we use animoto to create slideshows, ALEKS to help remediate/reinforce/extend math skills for students at my school, and tried out Tynker to help students learn basic coding skills, and Google Docs to collaborate around writing and data collection.
My beef with blended learning is the idea that it's an easy, people-proof (teacher-proof really) way to improve student learning. I don't know who actually works with students who thinks we can plunk them in front of computers and have them magically overcome all obstacles. We still need collaboration and instruction, especially to help students with something they are struggling with. And we need to rethink how technology can help engage and illuminate, as opposed to just provide practice. 
Dan Meyer, a doctoral student at Stanford University, shares his frustration with the low-level tasks often presented on computer learning programs inWhat Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Math Education Again and Again. Contrast that with the way technology can engage and provide deeper levels of thinking, such these 3-act problems (also by Meyers).
I hope we use technology more and more in the future. Education could be enhanced by a real change-up in the way we deliver instruction and experience learning, and technology can be part of that. But I'm skeptical that individualized cubicles with students clicking answers to questions on their own is really the way we're going to revolutionize the learning process. Those programs have their part to play (practice is important!) but they're far from the whole story.

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