A Vision of Blended Learning in 2013

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

In 1988, the Star Schools distant learning program was passed by Congress envisioning satellite delivered lessons to students in remote locations by well trained teachers that were not available locally. One rural superintendent estimated that with the Star Schools program he was able to offer twenty percent more advanced science, mathematics and language programs. More importantly these courses usually had more highly qualified teachers. Often teachers were university personnel. They had guests who were highly placed researchers from industry and research institutions, national figures and astronauts.

The design of these early programs followed the traditional classroom model. However, over time they developed styles of their own and moved from satellite distribution to Internet distribution. Satellite distributions meant that lessons were available at specific times even though they could be recorded and used as needed. Early classes were very much like traditional classes only delivered by the available technology.

The Internet offers a wider range of alternative learning options. Learners can work in either teams or individually in a learner centric blended environment. To understand a true blended learning program, we will follow two students. One is from a small rural school on the Texas-Mexican border, and the other is from an inner city school in Chicago. The small rural school has only eleven students in its senior class. Raymond is very good in STEM subjects and wants to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and study computer science.

Left to the courses offered in his school system, Raymond would never get in MIT. Only two of the other students in his class want to go to college. Raymond takes the traditional courses with his fellow students but has signed up for advanced placement calculus, statistics, physics and Chinese with his distant learning provider. Some of the distant classes carry college as well as high school credits. He also plays the French horn. His small school does not have an orchestra.

Gail is from an inner city Chicago high school. She also dreams of attending MIT. Her school is in a very impoverished part of the city. Most of her fellow students have never heard of MIT or dreamed of going there. In some ways Gail is socially isolated. She is the only child of a single parent mother who has very high expectations for Gail. Her father, a Marine, was killed in Iraq. Both her mother and father had high expectations for young Gail, and she has lived up to their hopes and dreams. She treasures a letter from her father written just before he died and when she started high school. In the letter, he reminds her that she can dream impossible dreams and that she can achieve great things. She is a good student and hard worker. She has been allowed to take the on line physics class, and the school offers some advanced placement classes, which she excels in. Gale is in the drama program and starred in Guys and Dolls this year.

Both Raymond and Gale have experienced a blended learning program with some traditional classes, some Internet distance learning lessons, and some team learning experiences using social media. Raymond’s Chinese class originates in Singapore, and he uses Skype twice a week to have a conversation with a native Chinese speaker. He has a wide range of computer Chinese lessons that he can read, but also immediately transfer into spoken Chinese.

One of the most interesting programs is in the Internet physics class. Both Ray and Gail are on a team with students in Beaumont, Texas, Wheeling, WV, and the District of Columbia. They use iPads to meet a NASA challenge from the New Frontiers Program. This program has a virtual habitat on Mars. The challenge is to build a Mars weather balloon and to make a simulated flight collecting data. One of the tasks is to develop and fly a balloon on Earth. They designed the balloon, and then the member in Wheeling actually constructed and flew it. She videoed the flight and shared it on Facebook with the others.

Ray also used his distance-learning provider for tutoring in playing his French horn. He qualified for the National Distance Learning Orchestra, practiced with the online orchestra and recorded some of their major works for distribution on YouTube. The orchestra made their programs available on line and in DVDs.

At MIT’s freshman orientation class in 2013, Raymond and Gail met in person for the first time. While they had been social media buddies, they had never met in person. Their work on the New FrontieProgram was one factor in their being accepted at MIT.

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