What is Blended Learning?

by Liz Hurley

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There’s no universal agreement about what blended learning is. But after the struggle to deliver education in the face of a global pandemic, there is universal agreement that some combination of online and face to face education is here to stay.

The pace of change in education has been accelerated in response to Covid-19 and the pandemic has led to widespread acceptance that learning is no longer restricted by geography.

A recent UNESCO survey revealed that 90% of the 200 participating countries made use of blended learning as schools and colleges began to reopen. Partly to build in resilience to future shocks, but more importantly because of the potential benefits.

So what is blended learning? What are its benefits? And are there any drawbacks? How can we capitalize on the lessons learned from this crisis? 

These are just some of the topics we cover in this article, along with:

  • Blended learning in a nutshell
  • What is the value of blended learning?
  • Different definitions of blended learning
  • How is blended learning used?
  • Benefits and disadvantages of blended learning
  • How to deliver blended learning
  • E-learning and Hybrid Learning vs blended learning
  • What will blended learning look like in the future?
  • FAQs

What is Blended Learning in a nutshell?

Blended Learning, put simply, usually refers to a combination of in-person and digitally based learning.

But as educational institutions were propelled into adopting blended learning as a result of Covid, it’s increasingly come to be discussed in terms of outcomes, impacts and effectiveness. 

In other words, definitions began to include a reference to the Learning part of the phrase, and not just the method of delivery (the blend).

What is the value of Blended Learning?

The value of Blended Learning is that it has the potential to combine everything that’s good about in-person learning, with everything that’s good about remote e-learning. Without the disadvantages.

Done well, it can motivate learners and give them control over aspects of their learning, and empower teachers by cutting planning hours and allowing them to focus on creating innovative activities to reinforce learning.

Given its potential, and recent events, it’s not surprising that both private industry and governments all over the world are scrambling to plug technological gaps and provide the necessary training and platforms to ensure its success.

Success, though, depends on reaching agreement about exactly what’s meant by Blended Learning. Without that agreement we lack a shared framework to discuss its opportunities and challenges, and even describe what we’re trying to achieve.

Definitions of Blended Learning

Let’s take a look at some of the many academic definitions of blended learning.

One of the most widely used definitions is that of Graham (2006) who describes it as learning systems that combine face to face instruction with computer mediated instruction.

Many later definitions are a variation on this theme. Nakayama, Mutsuura & Yamamoto (2017) define it as a combination of face to face sessions and learning materials that are supported by information communication technologies; and Banditvilai (2016) as a model that includes instructor delivered content alongside, e-learning, webinars, conference calls, Skype, etc.

Whilst Banditvilai expands the definition with methods of delivery, the focus is still on the Blend, and not the Learning

Turning to internet resources, Blendedlearning.com defines blended learning as a formal education program in which a student learns:

  • Part online – with the student having control over some element over time, place, path or pace of their learning
  • Part in a brick and mortar location away from home
  • Along a learning path in which provides an integrated learning experience

The authors here argue that blended learning should be understood as far more than just a blend of methods of delivery. It should instead be seen as a planned, unified learning model that provides the student with some autonomy over their learning.

The Christensen Institute expands on this by providing a handbook to help teachers overcome fears that students will make poor choices when given this autonomy. 

Some of these strategies include Encouraging students to work in self-directed teams by promoting peer-to-peer learning and dynamic, team-based collaboration and helping students hold themselves accountable by giving them tools to set goals, track their progress, and follow through.

So, answering the question of what is the definition of blended learning is not straightforward. But with it becoming commonplace, it’s clear that more emphasis must be placed on the learning part of the equation if the practice of blended learning is to be moved forward.

Uses of Blended Learning

A History of Blended Learning

First, let’s take a look at a few key dates and steps in the development of blended learning:

  • 1960s Computer based learning – During the 1960s it became possible to provide workers with training on terminals connected to a mainframe instead (or as well as) through manuals or face to face instruction.
  • 1970s Video based technology – Companies and higher education institutions began to make use of video technology for training and instruction.
  • 1980s Learning Management Systems – Higher education led the way in developing online platforms that provided educational support, assessment and tracking opportunities
  • 1999 the term Blended Learning first used – it appeared in a 1999 press release from EPIC (an Atlanta based software training company) to describe their methodology of offering different combinations of online delivery. 
  • 2000s Web based instruction – As computer technology became widely available and portable, and as connection speeds increased, learning could be accessed by anyone anywhere at the click of a mouse.

By the early 2000s, blended learning came to be understood as a combination of instruction delivered in a brick and mortar location and instruction delivered online and was most widely developed in higher education.  

What is Blended Learning used for in Higher Education?

Colleges and universities have long embraced the idea of digital learning technologies. In particular, Stanford in the US, and the Open University in the UK were in the forefront of developing blends of distance and classroom based learning.

And in the European Union’s framework for Education the incorporation of digital technology into education was seen as crucial to making it open and flexible so that “40% of those aged 30-34 should have a higher education or equivalent qualification by 2020”.

Course delivery has not always been ‘blended’ however, with some courses being entirely online. 

However, Covid-19 led to a much broader uptake of the blended model. When universities reopened in September 2020 almost 90% of US higher education institutions introduced blended learning models. This was to protect students, provide flexibility, and accessibility, respond to future shocks and to enhance learning and engagement with course content.

Done well, blended learning in higher education is used to:

  • Enhance and improve in person teaching – not replace it
  • Maximize the benefits of contact hours by, for example, introducing concepts and materials online to allow deeper inquiry during in person sessions
  • Help students drive their own learning experience in terms of place, pace and time
  • Prepare students for an increasingly digital world

According to an Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum, 72% of the 27.5k adults from 29 countries that were asked, felt that Blended Learning in higher education is now here to stay.

What is Blended Learning used for in Business?

Businesses, organisations and private training institutions also make use of the blended learning approach to support continued professional development. Usually this involves completing online modules:

  • Prior to face-to-face training so questions can be developed and explored more productively. This is often referred to as flipped learning – whereby participants are introduced to topics before in person training to make better use of that in person time
  • Between in person sessions to keep new ideas at the forefront 
  • And when a training programme is finished to embed learning, extend thinking or assess understanding

This form of learning is particularly useful (and cost/time effective) for 

  • Reinforcing soft skills – though these are better taught in person, online learning modules can provide opportunities to practice without the judgement of others.
  • Enthusing a wider range of employees – since it combines different forms of learning and gives learners some control over pace and timing

And, of course, being able to navigate between digital platforms and in person collaboration develops a skill that is increasingly required in the workplace. 

What is Blended Learning used for in Schools?

As with higher education, schools have long embraced digital technology to support learning. But until recently most haven’t routinely provided students with a blend of online and in person instruction.

It is now a common feature of the K-12 environment and a number of different blended learning strategies are in use in schools.

These include the use of:

  • ‘Flipped activities’. These are activities which students can complete before face to face sessions – allowing time in class to focus on extending and deepening knowledge.
  • Rotational models which include online instruction as well as small tutor groups, pair or group work, one to one tuition, etc. The teacher timetables the modules and students rotate through them. These are usually designed for a single class and often used in elementary education where students spend long periods of time with the same teacher.
  • Flex models which involve an on-site teacher instructing students at a distance over the internet. Students can get individual assistance either online or by attending school and working with the teacher. This model can be used to bridge gaps caused by staff or student absence due to Covid restrictions.

What are the benefits of Blended Learning?

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits for both learners and the organizations that utilize blended learning:

Benefits for learners

  • Learners have some control over timing, pace and place of learning providing convenience and flexibility
  • Every group of learners contains people of differing abilities and experience levels. Blended learning supports differentiation and personalization because online components are always available so students don’t have to keep up with their peers and can retrace their steps. 
  • Learning Is Equitable because shy students or students with special needs have time to shape their responses and are able to contribute on an equal footing with more extroverted students who can dominate in traditional classrooms.
  • Just-In-Time Support is provided because learners can control when they access education or training and so can act when questions and needs arise instead of having to wait for a scheduled session
  • Supporting online modules lead to improved retention and make in-person training more targeted and relevant.
  • In person components allow students to interact with their teachers and peers more meaningfully as all have had a chance to engage with content prior to meeting and the social aspect of learning is retained

Benefits for institutions

  • Blended learning supports a more resilient education system in the event of future shocks
  • The ability to work collaboratively on a digital platform develops a skill that learners need in the world of work
  • Businesses can reduce training costs and because Blended Learning is more efficient they can see a quicker return on investment
  • It’s also easier to track exactly who has, or hasn’t, completed training
  • Recorded sessions can be reviewed by creators and used as a basis for reflective practice and continuous improvement

Disadvantages of Blended Learning

  • Attempts to provide continuous education during the pandemic exposed the digital divide between those with access to devices and connectivity, and those without. Even in wealthier countries connectivity can be an issue
  • Staff may lack the necessary training to convert and deliver existing courses
  • Institutions may not be able to afford the relevant tools and platforms

How to deliver Blended Learning

Blended learning has enormous potential – if it is implemented carefully and in a fully integrated way.

First, it is important to start with the Learning and not the Blend. Learning outcomes and objectives need to be stated first. And also, bear in mind that effective blended learning must combine the strengths of both traditional and online learning methods in order to give learners the best of both worlds.

Once required learning outcomes are set, build in the learning components to support them. For each one ask yourself – will it help us achieve the stated outcome? If not, exclude it!

Alongside in person sessions, components might include:

  • Virtual workshops using Zoom, Teams, Cisco etc.
  • Webinars which can be recorded and watched on demand with the option to submit questions
  • Flipped Workshops where learners prepare in advance prior to the session
  • “On the Go” Learning Apps – of which there are many
  • Virtual Expert – timed opportunities to question an internal or guest ‘expert’ speaker
  • eLearning modules – entirely online content that can be consumed by students at their own time and pace to align with and support learning outcomes
  • Coaching – which can be face to face or virtual and also be peer to peer
  • YouTube/Podcasts/Ted Talks – again, carefully selected to support learning outcomes
  • Podcasts
  • Good old fashioned reading

Be clear in your own mind, and to learners, how and why you are using the tools you’ve  selected. Offer a range of support resources that provide step by step guidance for using the tools you've included in your program.

To cultivate a blended learning community you could start an online forum for learners to provide feedback, ask questions and communicate with their peers and instructors.

Lastly, develop effective methods of assessment to both gauge learning outcomes and the impact of the blended learning program you devise.

Take the time to curate your program and always remember; the learning objective and outcome is key. What matters is not the content or tools used, but what learners do with it, why and how, and who they do it with.

Blended Learning vs E-learning & hybrid learning

As with Blended Learning, there are many definitions of E-learning but the simplest way to define it is as learning that is enabled electronically. This can be learning that takes place remotely online or through the use of electronic devices within a classroom or workplace.

This is different from blended learning which is a blend of traditional face-to-face teaching and online learning. This is important because a key drawback of purely online learning is that users often feel socially isolated. The face to face component of blended learning preserves the social aspect of learning.

Another term that is often used nowadays is hybrid learning. The difference between blended learning and hybrid learning is more subtle, but important.

With blended learning, students are required to be physically present at face to face sessions. The online elements are meant to complement the in-person teaching. With hybrid learning, students can choose to experience live teaching sessions either online or in person. The online materials can complement or replace in person sessions, giving a more flexible experience.

What is the future for Blended Learning?

The pandemic accelerated a trend towards the use of digital technology to enhance learning. 

Governments, private industry and educational institutions are working hard to ensure that methods of training, teaching, learning and assessment that were effective during the pandemic (including blended learning) are preserved and improved for the future.

Figures obtained by Citrix suggested that 69% of UK universities are actively planning to implement a blended learning model in the next year. And according to Market Intellix  in the US the K-12 blended E-Learning Market is set to experience a revolutionary growth by 2026

There are many problems to solve – the digital divide being one and the fact that schools are not businesses and operate on tight budgets being another.

But one thing is for certain, the internet and technology will continue to evolve and with the blended learning market poised to grow by $27.89 bn during 2021-2025, major software companies will be competing to provide ever more innovative and advanced blended learning solutions.

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Frequently Asked Questions: 

When was the term Blended Learning first used?

The term was, apparently, first used in 1999 to describe a methodology of delivering different forms of online learning.

What is Blended Learning?

Blended learning is now seen as a formal education program in which a student learns: part online with some control over time, place, path or pace; part in a brick and mortar location away from home; and along a planned learning path in which provides an integrated learning experience

What is the difference between E-Learning and Blended Learning?

E-learning takes place entirely online. Blended learning has a face to face, in person element.

What is the difference between Hybrid Learning and Blended Learning?

Hybrid learning refers to the use of multiple learning types which may all be online, or all be offline. Blended learning always involves a combination of online and in person learning.

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