Nothing New or Innovative Here. 

You know, it really is very tempting to think of notions of blended learning as cobblers. Or at least as old non-cobblers rehashed as cobblers. Because if you take a careful look at it, blended learning, hardly a “new” concept at 15+ years old, is either simple old fashioned correspondence courses, or it’s even simpler, more old fashioned homework.
Let me explain. I’ve been looking into what blended learning is and what it has meant and the general consensual definition is that it’s a combination of some online learning and some face to face learning. Sometimes the online element is considered discrete from the face to face element – essentially a correspondence course by computer alongside a face to face course; or the online elements and the face to face elements are linked, perhaps after the manner of the absence of innovation that is flipped learning, in which case the online element is basically homework. 

However, distance learning by correspondence and homework are, in themselves, not necessarily bad things. Lots of people have successfully learned by distance learning, and a lot of people have gained a lot from homework. All blended learning does is take these perfectly serviceable ideas and chuck them on a web server. What you end up with is the usual “it’s innovative” cry that gets attached to doing stuff on a computer. Paper based multiple choice gap fill? Boring. Multiple choice drop down box on a website? Innovative. Give instructions verbally? Sooooo 20th century. Send them by text? Wow! 

It takes me onto thoughts of SAMR. Essentially this is the idea that technology use in education goes through distinct stages:

  • Substitution, where technology merely does the same as a non-tech method, but brings nothing to it. 
  • Augmentation, where the technology does the same as non-tech but also adds something to the process. 
  • Modification, where using the technology changes the activity. 
  • Redefinition, where the technology creates a whole new type of activity which would have been unimaginable without it. 

There’s a neat definition on this site, with some neat videos: http://www.educatorstechnology.com/2013/06/samr-model-explained-for-teachers.html although the Google Drive example is probably not the best example, although it is easiest to explain. 

So far so clever. It seems to suggest a link with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and you can tell that whoever thought of it clearly had the ideas first and the name second, because it hardly trips off the tongue. It’s a nice idea too, and one which should encourage us to experiment with technology more, and think about the effect it has.
However, I have to be honest and say at my initial reaction was annoyance. A little bit, I have to be honest, was a knee jerk reaction to educational initialisms and acronyms. But there was more to it than that. Like Bloom’s taxonomy as it was originally stated, SAMR seems to suggest a hierarchy of changes, where the SA stuff is somehow perceived as less valuable than the MR sections, much like the idea when discussing Bloom that somehow knowledge is less valuable than being able to synthesise and evaluate. Bloom, happily, is being presented more frequently as a wheel rather than a pyramid, although the divisive hierarchical notions of “higher order” and “lower order” thinking persist. 

However, it occurred to me that I was reading SAMR wrong. It’s not meant as a goad or an encouragement, and Modification and Redefinition are not intended to be taken as better than Substitution or Augmentation, or even of not using the technology at all. No, these are descriptive terms only, and can be used just as easily to justify a technology not being used. Is there a cognitive or learning benefit to the application of technology? That’s the real question. 

And thus we come back to blended learning. How does it fare under SAMR? Let’s think about the two models of blended learning. 

Is there a benefit to the technologicalisation of the distance learning model? I think there is: having the learning materials quite literally to hand at all times through your mobile devices could be a benefit to some learners. Technology lends itself to easily available multimedia: rather than films on TV restricted to weird times of the day, you can have films on demand. You can have instant feedback on certain types of task, collaboration with people all over the world and so on. Indeed, the breadth of reach and relative cheapness of digital technology means that some elements might run which might otherwise not happen. Whether students engage with this sort of thing is a whole other question: even with monitored assessment in the form of quizzes and so on, the temptation, unless it’s absolutely fascinating, and the student 100% motivated, is to try to work out how to game the system. I know that’s what I have done for every bit of mandatory online training ever. I usually start with the final assessment task, then look up (or simply Google) the bits I can’t work out, rather than actually engage with every single piece of said online training. I suspect that this doesn’t lead to brilliant learning, but I do think that a clever online learning designer would take this tendency/temptation into account. Sadly, they don’t seem to have done this yet. 

And the closely linked homework model? Crikey yes. A web link to an interactive task which can be done on the bus or during a break, quick written feedback on digitally submitted writing (even by email!), flexibility of being able to do homework without needing a piece of paper, the (for some) added motivation of a bit of whizzy graphics, quick right/wrong feedback on a quiz meaning that students can think about where and why they made mistakes before coming into class to discuss just those questions. 

The other question to ask, however, is whether either of these models is actually better than a 100% face to face learning. My gut feeling, and my belief, is that they aren’t. For me, face to face learning trumps any kind of online learning simply because of the speed, ease and naturalness of the classroom interactions, although homework can be used to augment that process. Any idea that blended learning is better is often based around assumptions that classrooms are places where teachers stand and talk at or demonstrate to students and students absorb, perhaps with a bit of questioning. My own classroom practices as an ESOL teacher aren’t based on this: rather they are based on notions of enabling and promoting spoken interaction, of discussion and questioning, and for me, the technology simply cannot replace that. Not yet, and maybe not ever. 

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3 comments

  1. Hi Sam,

    I very much agree with your last paragraph – that’s pretty much my own style of teaching, too.

    But I’ve been doing “blended learning” long before the expression existed. Ever since the invention of writing the teacher has had sources of information outside the classroom to direct students to. Even before that, students learnt from interaction with the real world, with or without teacher direction.

    Judiciously selected tasks outside the classroom can free up time for the essential “discussion and questioning” to take place in the classroom.

    Cheers,
    Glenys

  2. Hi Sam,

    I’m interested in whether you’ve come across ELT companies moving towards a blended model when they used to be pure online? Having found that (as per your last paragraph) there’s no replacement for face to face learning?

    Thanks,
    Rebecca

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