Blended learning is a bit of a strange term. At its broadest, the definition of blended learning is “any educational environment in which face-to-face learning is combined with technology-enabled learning.”
As you might be able to guess, that definition encompasses a wide variety of educational environments. And it’s true, the term blended learning is used to refer to learning environments from flipped classrooms to traditional courses in which the instructor supplements learning with online tools.
Let’s explore some other definitions of blended learning to see if we can come up with something a little more focused. To be useful, we need a definition that really gets into the why of blended learning, rather than just the what.
The Sloan Consortium, which is an organization that promotes online education, defines blended learning (also called hybrid learning) as any course that “integrate[s] online with traditional face-to-face class activities in a planned, pedagogically valuable manner.” However, as TeachThought points out, “educators probably disagree on what qualifies as ‘pedagogically valuable.’” The definition does, however, move past just integrating technology to using technology as a means to improve the learning process.
Wikipedia defines blended learning as “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through delivery of content and instruction via digital and online media with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.” This definition goes a step further, because it introduces the idea that the student has some measure of control over his or her learning. This is important because having control means that the student is an active participant, rather than just a passive recipient, of learning, and active learning is highly linked to learning success.
Finally, the Clayton Christensen Institute, which is a nonprofit think tank that studies various areas of disruptive innovation, writes: “Blended learning is not the same as technology-rich instruction. It goes beyond one-to-one computers and high-tech gadgets. Blended learning involves leveraging the Internet to afford each student a more personalized learning experience, meaning increased student control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of his or her learning.” This definition of blended learning combines the two previous ones, but also brings in the idea of a personalized learning experience.
From these various definitions, we can identify the main elements of blended learning:
- The learning environment must combine both in-person and technology-based learning tools.
- The technology must be used in a way that is meaningful and valuable (i.e., to enhance students’ learning), not just for the sake of using technology.
- The students must be able to exercise some form of control over their own learning (e.g., learn at their own pace, use their own mobile devices).
- The learning environment must be able to adapt to the students’ individual learning needs.
So, let’s try to put this all together in our own definition of blended learning: “Blended learning is an educational environment in which students engage with the course both face-to-face and using technology-enabled learning tools. The technology is used in a way that is valuable and meaningful, and that offers students control over their own learning process, as well as the ability to personalize the learning environment to meet their individual needs and objectives.”
That seems to be a fairly comprehensive definition of blended learning. Notice that while it can still incorporate a variety of learning formats (such as hybrid courses and face-to-face courses that use just a few technologies), this definition gives us a bit more by focusing on the reasons to use the technology, rather than just the technologies themselves. It’s easy to get excited about new technologies, but when it comes to teaching and learning, it’s essential that we maintain our focus on what’s really important: student learning.