We Need to Blend, First, to Transition to Online Learning

By William H. Zaggle

I often wonder if it is possible to transition to online schools without some amount of blending. Certainly there are some wonderful fully online schools that have managed to slip the surly bounds of earth and learn how to dance in the skies. They came from a place where old expectations were not possible and a new understanding was simply required. I think they were just the leading end of the legacy door stop, and easily fit under the door. The remainder however is doing its job well, keeping the door of the past from closing. As expected, their old perspectives have yet to catch up with their current reality.

If a law came down that said all of K-12 school would be taught online starting tomorrow, what would happen? Who would watch the kids while both mom and dad went to work? What would become of school bus companies and bus drivers? Where would we spend the billions that go today to support the brick and mortar, face to face legacy? Beyond the economic turmoil, the instant transition without blending first would cause a strange combination of new technology and old expectations. At least for a while. Gone would be an Icon of our past, nearly as dear as our vinyl records. Gone would be the hallowed school grounds of our alma mater, our nourishing mother. But how would many of the existing school organizations make the instant transition?

Would the new school mascots resemble something closer to Microsoft’s animated Office Assistant “clippy”? Maybe students would be coveting pictures from the online “Prom-inar” on Second Life, or the homecoming “World of Warcraft” game, along with the backup logs of the senior Blog. Cheerleaders might look more like spam artists, and grand science fair Power Point competitions would spark grumbled tweets over who really did the research. All-State GarageBand competitions would be streamed out in online performances, with a special icon presented proudly to winning students for display on their Facebook pages.

Parents and grandparents would be allowed to log in to the closed social networks on parent night and view all the winning science fair PowerPoints while the poor school pranksters would be left only to hack into the school news feed and post pictures of “clippy” morphed into a bikini. And the grand finale would be the annual graduation webinar where diplomas arrived sequentially by PDF as the Pomp and Circumstance music loop was performed online live by the junior GarageBand ensemble. Proud graduating seniors would post congratulatory comments on each other’s mortarboard pages, and this year’s rack space in the cloud yearbook archive would have selected copies of all the favorite chats, blogs, tweets, Myspace, and Facebook posts from the best year ever, carefully assembled and distributed by the elected cloud yearbook committee.

So much of this may sound silly, but old habits just don’t go easily, and we can’t help ourselves when trying to define our future from the vocabulary and perspective of our past. Only by blending it first do new perspectives and new vocabulary emerge that replace our current expectation of normal with a set of new expectations. In effect, the blending is the comparison that allows us to see how silly the past is compared to the future. Often it can even accelerate the pace of the change. You only have to open your own high school yearbook to be reminded.

I admit I still own a landline when neither of my children understands my obsession with phone wire. My landline phone even sits proudly next to my CISCO VOIP phone that connects me to most of the world free. I admit having owned both a DVD player and a VCR at the same time. Then I upgraded to a blended unit that had both in the same box, and it was just as awkward as blended learning. Each had its own play button and video outputs and different button sections (including power buttons) all on the same remote. Much the same way, I think online learning is going to have to share the box with face to face learning until it wins over the whole box, one face to face experience at a time.

7 Responses

  1. William, I enjoyed reading this article. It’s written in a style that’s entertaining and presents a clear perspective on a thorny issue.

    The underlying assumption is that change, from F2F methods to completely online, is a linear process that could be placed on a continuum. In this model, the middle ground is hybrid or blended.

    However, this is only one of many possible views. In the current and most popular, we have two different models: blended and online. Popular wisdom overwhelmingly believes that blended is better.

    Thus, in the blended model, the continuum isn’t from F2F to blended to online. It’s from worst blended to best blended. The goal is not to gradually progress to completely online.

    And that’s fine — for blended advocates.

    The problem is that completely online, as a separate model, is being developed and managed under conditions dictated by advocates for blended.

    Needless to say, outcomes follow expectations, and blended shows up as the clear winner.

    A simple test to determine the bias of those who make decisions re the two models is to ask:

    1. Do you believe that F2F meetings are better than electronic?
    2. Do you believe that synchronous communication is better than asynchronous?
    3. Do you believe that online classes should require a minimum number of F2F meetings?
    4. Do you work, wholly or in part, with F2F or blended classes?
    5. Do you consider your campus office an important medium for instruction and professional activities?

    If s/he answers yes to one or more, then he’s biased to blended. And this bias has an impact on completely online programs.

    -Jim S

  2. Thanks William and Jim,
    Visiting the land of unintended consequences can help us upon our return. I’d suggest that the term “blended” also has baggage (it is used differently in higher ed than it is in the world of PD that I currently inhabit). Perhaps we are better served by considering Learning, as defined by the most effective means currently available, that is most useful to accomplishing the task at hand. Even more important is “rejecting the tyranny of OR for the genius of AND”. I’d reframe Jim’s 5 questions as follows:

    A simple test to determine the bias of those who make decisions re the two models is to ask:

    1. When do you believe that F2F meetings are better than electronic (and vice-versa)?
    2. For what tasks do you believe that synchronous communication is better than asynchronous (and vice-versa)?
    3. For what learning objectives do online classes become more powerful when coupled with F2F interactions?
    4. Are you confident and capable of working, wholly or in part, with F2F or blended classes?
    5. In what situations do consider your campus and virtual offices an important medium for instruction and professional activities?

    If the answers show bias, and the bias is on the basis of not having experienced what is possible, this bias has a limiting impact on deploying effective programs across the board.

  3. Ferdi, thank you for your thoughtful response. I like your quote, “’rejecting the tyranny of OR for the genius of AND.’” -Jim S

    • I will accept the tyranny of “or”, only over the slavery of “just” that mostly exists today.

      • Begging the question: when is “just” unjust? Being on the respirator keeps you “just” alive enough that you might theoretically recover or be revived when advances in medicine can better treat your condition. I agree with you that we need to demand better of our education systems. Along the spectrum of readiness for transformation, different “next steps” are possible and logical…and that conditions what can be considered in the “or” part of the equation, eh?

  4. Ferdi, your point is captured in your quote, “’rejecting the tyranny of OR for the genius of AND.’” My point would be the opposite: rejecting the tyranny of AND for the genius of OR. I believe both are viable positions that serve divergent views on how best to reform education.

    From my perspective: When AND represents compromise, and when that compromise translates to a paralysis that obstructs innovation, then it’s tyrannical.

    History is full of compromises. In the end, when a compromise simply serves as justification for inaction, proponents for change will create a new paradigm that fully incorporates the innovation.

    The old paradigm, in its compromised AND form, fails to fully grasp the reality of anytime-anywhere communication. Theories, practices, and principles in the blended paradigm don’t carry over into the completely online paradigm.

    Thus, in this case, OR is the path of wisdom.

    In closing, though, I have to say that I’m not against AND practices. Hybrid is a legitimate approach for hybrid classes and hybrid teachers. -Jim S

  5. Blending rarely allows for an increased domain, thus it almost always requires compromise, turning Ferdi’s And as a union into Jim’s And as more of a logical intersection of what can still fit into budgets and time. Somehow we must find ways to increase the domain of learning beyond both time and space. the same domain where our digital natives have expanded their existence.

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