By Jim Shimabukuro
Phil McRae is among the very few in education who see a problem in hyping blended learning, “where students’ face-to-face education is blended with Internet resources or online courses,” as innovative. He says, “As this broad definition illustrates, it would be difficult to find any use of technology in education that does not easily fit into this boundary.”1 This is not to say that all uses of technology in schools aren’t innovative. Some are. But simply adding web content or activities to classes that are primarily F2F isn’t necessarily new or effective.
Still, the biggest problem with blended approaches, innovative or not, isn’t so much its effectiveness but its impact on completely online courses. For many educators, blended is synonymous with online when it reaches a tipping point, measured in a ratio between F2F and online requirements. When a certain percentage — roughly 80% — of the course work is online, then the class is placed in the same category as fully online courses.
This seemingly innocuous perception is arguably the greatest impediment to the development of completely online courses and programs. The F2F imperative, whether 20 percent or 1 percent, instantly eliminates the possibility of disruption that defines online learning. In other words, the door for nontraditional students who cannot, for whatever reason, attend classes on campus remains closed.
The promise of online learning is in disruption, in either accommodating nontraditional students or creating the new traditional student (newt) who is equally at home in blended and completely online courses.
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Here’s a glimpse at a future of education that shortens the distance between learner and knowledge. Ankur Nagpal, founder of Fedora, says, “We are moving from a credential-based economy to a skills-based economy. It doesn’t matter if you are certified. What matters is that you can do the job…. Who is to say someone with a Ph.D. is better at teaching you how to code? We are trying to democratize teaching.”2
This is a presage of changes to come in the realm of teaching and teachers. Ultimately, the vast majority of today’s teachers are general practitioners, intermediary guides and facilitators to the world of information and knowledge. However, as students gradually transform into independent learners, they will increasingly bypass teachers to explore and learn directly from experts and sources. This is as it ought to be — education as empowerment rather than lifelong dependency.
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The power of mobile communication devices to encourage and expand independent and informal learning among K-12 students is gaining traction at the national level. U.S. Senators Angus King and Shelley Moore Capito “have introduced the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015” which “aims to … extend access to digital learning opportunities when [students] leave the classroom.” This bill “was influenced by a portable Wi-Fi initiative at the Cherryfield Public Library in Cherryfield, Maine. Through the library’s ‘Check-out the Internet’ initiative, students can check-out a mobile Wi-Fi device to provide them with Internet access outside of school. The initiative is a public-private partnership with the New York Public Library, Maine State Library, U.S. Cellular and Axiom Technologies.”3 Once again, we’re reminded that libraries are on the leading edge in exploring and discovering ways to use technology as a resource for learning.
1 “Myth: Blended Learning Is the Next Ed-Tech Revolution” (ATA, 1 June 2015), in Valerie Strauss’s “Blended Learning: The Great New Thing or the Great New Hype?” (Washington Post, 21 June 2015).
2 In Bob Sullivan’s “Boot Camp Classes May Offer a Peek at the Future of Higher Ed” (CNBC, 22 June 2015).
3 Sean Buckley, “Senators Look to Close Broadband Gap for Schools with Digital Learning Equity Act” (FierceTelecom, 22 June 2015).