Is Blended Learning Outdated?

Last weekend, I came across a tweet from Marco Kalz. It criticises blended learning as a framework.
I found it interesting that he coined blended learning as an outdated framework. Later into the conversation, Marco hinted his preference towards "ecology of resources". I am unsure, whether this does a better job than blended learning, but it shares elements that Marion and I have discussed recently in the context of "mobile blended learning".
This post includes a few thoughts on the different interpretations of blended learning, that Marion and I initially included in a chapter on Mobile Blended Learning to an upcoming book by Claudia de Witt and Christina Gloerfeld. Our work yielded many interesting thoughts and conceptualisations on operationalising blended learning for learning designs that did not make it into the final manuscript.

Four Interpretations of Blended Learning

The first interpretation distincts between the opposing extremes of face-to-face and online learning. I call this the versus-interpretation. This type associates face-to-face with little distance from the lecturer, high interactivity, co-location, as well as no or little technological support. On the other hand, online learning is associated with lack of human interaction, spacial distribution, social disconnections, and temporal flexibility. From this viewpoint, blended learning alternates between the different degrees of face-to-face and online learning activities. It is best described by the commonly used german translation "Integriertes Lernen" (integrated learning).
What we found interesting that this perspective appears to be widely accepted and being promoted in teacher education in lecture notes, while not officially published. Many German-speaking colleagues also relate "authentic" and "personal" to face-to-face experiences. This is contrasted by attributing "disconnectedness" and "isolation" to mediated and online experiences. This underlines the opposition of the concepts in the versus interpretation.

Providing Easy Answers is not the Same as Easy Application

The face-to-face vs. online interpretation of blended learning is also attractive to practicing teachers, trainers, and instructors because they offer easy answers. However, we also found that these "frameworks" place technologies in the area of tension between face-to-face and completely online learning that simply doesn't make sense. The best example are concepts such as mobile learning, augmented reality, and collaborative learning. Such Frameworks allow locating these technologies, easily (e.g., Moser, 2005). However, if this contradicts with our experience of applying these technologies. We find that the practical application of these technologies covers the entire spectrum between face-to-face and online learning. Another issue we found with these frameworks is that they hardly operationalise from the anecdotes and special cases they present. This makes is extremely hard to apply or to verify them in other settings.

Blended Learning for Compensating Missing Features

The second interpretation on blended learning uses the integration of conventional analog teaching practice with technology enhanced learning as a way to overcome potential technological shortcomings. This interpretation is particularly present in the older literature. The baseline of this interpretation is that technology is faulty and lacks the essential features for learning. By linking analog practices with new technologies, teachers can compensate the technological deficits. The overall objective behind this interpretation are fully technological supported learning experiences.
Today, we hear a similar line of arguments from practitioners a lot. In most cases this reasoning is not grounded on functions that are missing from a tool or platform rather than a poor understanding of how today's technology integrates into contemporary teaching practices. Moreover, many educational institutions do not aim for fully technologically supported learning experiences, anyways. Therefore, we cannot consider only the compensation for technological shortcomings as the foundation for blended learning.

Digital Transformation through Blended Learning

The third interpretation focuses on the use of blended learning as an approach for organisational change of "brick-and-mortar" institutions. The blending of this perspective happens by linking old and new practices and allowing the actors in an organisation to make the gradual shift. This idea becomes increasingly relevant for educational institutions as the digital transformation of the educational sector progresses.
Garrison and Vaughan provide a valuable guide for using blended learning as a tool for organisational change and modernisation. The authors argue that blended learning is at the core of an organizational inquiry process of adopting and getting used to teaching with digital technologies. They offer quick start concepts that allow individual adoptions of digital technologies for the educational practice in order to kickstart organizational learning processes.

Blended Learning Supports Learning in Different Contexts

The fourth interpretation of blended learning refers to a class of educational designs that use and combine learning resources and tools for supporting learning in and across several contexts. Blended learning concepts share the use of special resources and technologies for supporting learning in different modes and settings. You certainly recognise Mike Sharple and colleagues's mobile learning definition, which we use on purpose here. However, there are two main differences between blended and mobile learning. Firstly, blended learning does not anticipate learner mobility and secondly, blended learning seems to be resource and tool centric, whereas mobile learning is in my understanding more activity centric.
An important element of this interpretation is the notion of the learning environment, in which learning activities take place. Many modern instructional design theories consider the learning environment as a passive frame, in which resources and tools are provided so learning activities can be performed. Different to resource-centric instructional design or context-agnostic activity-centric approaches, blended learning considers the arrangements of learning activities in different settings and learning environments.

Reconfiguring Learning Activities, Outcomes, Resources, and Environments

Interpreting blended learning as processes that link activities across different settings and activity modes we can start looking at the components of learning activities: The activity or task component, the learning outcomes, the necessary learning resources, and the learning environment or learning mode. Instead of focussing on just one element and ignoring the others, this perspective allows questions on the educational concept of a learning unit, as the different components influence each other. This allows asking questions such as:
  • What is the value of being in a certain setting?
  • How do tasks have to change if the same learning outcome should be reached in a different setting?
  • What resources are needed for performing a task in a given setting?
  • What settings become possible when a resource is used for a task?
  • How do outcomes change when tasks are moved into different settings?
A very good example for the kind of reasoning that is characteristic for this interpretation of blended learning is available for the history of the flipped classroom. This illustrates that blended learning does not provide a set of best practices but guiding lines for the educational design process. Instead, it emphasises on the need for conceptualising learning experiences as a whole. The results of these conceptualisations are specific to the subject as well as to the organisational culture and values, in which a subject is taught. The recent book Best Practices for Flipping the College Classroom provides worked out cases for different subjects. These cases illustrate the differences that result from applying the same concepts to different educational designs and teaching practices.

Considering the Constraints of the Learning Environment

Yet, blended learning is more than the flipped classroom. Stein and Graham highlight in their field guide that blended learning expresses a reflective practice that "situates learning experiences online or onsite based on the relative strengths and weaknesses of each [that is: onsite and online] mode". Different to the deficit interpretation, this practice refers to the organization of learning experiences in relation to the intended outcomes. This practice goes beyond creating the framing for the experiences at the level of learning activities but also considers the constraints of the learning environment for using digital resources and tools. It is also not positioning onsite and online activities as competing extremes but as constraints of and for the learning environment.

Resources & Tools for a Changing Learning Environment

The different interpretations of blended learning point into a common direction: Blended Learning is not a framework for using technology in practice. It is also not a delivery method, because it is unclear what it delivers and how the delivery would work. Instead, all interpretations suggest blended learning being a concept that emphasizes on the traits of resources and tools for learning environments. To Marion and me, the focus on learning resources and tools is one common chracteristics of the different interpretations blended learning. Another common aspect of blended learning are changing the conditions and constraints of the learning environment. Without these changes in the learning environment it would be good old instructional design (as opposed to educational or learning design). The most common type of blended learning considers this by alternating between the presence modes onsite and online, but this may not be the only way of variations of the learning environment. For blended learning these changes are mostly driven by the selection of resources and tools but not the other way around. Maybe this resource-centric element of blended learning makes lecturers feel uncomfortable.

Not Everything Labeled Blended Learning Stands the Test of Time

Coming back to Marco's initial critique: we don't think blended learning is an outdated concept per se. Despite its "age" blended learning can help traditional educational institutions to (re-) position themselves in relation to the challenges of digitalization and the knowledge economy. However, not all contributions with the label as "blended learning" stand the test of time. This is certainly the case for the versus interpretation as well as for the deficit interpretation.
If blended learning is used for organizational change or for educational designs, it is necessary to understand that blended learning is not a framework and does not provide readymade solutions to concrete educational challenges. Even many good "best practices" for blended learning have a tendency to emphasize on the technological aspects of learning resources and tools. This leaves many practitioners with the feeling that it is really about online instruction and not about blending onsite and online experiences.

Ask What-If before Asking How-to

To us, blended learning has a strong focus on learning resources and tools. Its continuing value is the notion that smart technologies shape learning environments and processes in similar ways as the performing actors do. This viewpoint allows focussing on the interplay between learning outcomes, interactions, tasks and the learning environment in complex learning processes. Working with these relations can raise What-If questions about changing the conditions of learning rather than How-To questions about applying tools. The answers can lead to concrete practices and educational strategies, such as the flipped classroom.