Executive Skills & Strategy Opinion

Schools Must Bring Creativity to Blended Learning

By Charles Mojkowski — October 01, 2013 4 min read

It’s nearly impossible nowadays to buy a cup of coffee without having to sort through the several blends your local barista has to offer. What started in the high-end coffee shops to cater to the coffee aficionados among us has driven even the local 7-Elevens to offer a few blends, from bland to robust. The secret is in combining beans of different flavors to create the perfect taste experience or, for a philistine like me, merely the appropriate jolt of caffeine.

Schools are doing their own blending as well, not with coffee beans, but with just the right mix of technology and face-to-face instruction. It’s hard to find a district that is not working on its own version of blended learning. As I review what’s out there, however, I am reminded more of bland instant coffee than a double espresso.

Why am I disappointed? Because educators are failing to exploit the new and emerging technologies in ways that will give student learning opportunities the jolt they need.

It’s hard to fault the technology, with its exponential growth in capabilities. It drives cars, wins game shows, and performs passable legal due diligence. But, as Apple cautioned long ago, the importance of technology is not technology. It is rather in the nature of the partnership that humans form with technology. And, as in any partnership, each partner must bring something of value to the table.

So, what does technology bring to the table? We need only to listen carefully to what technology says it wishes to contribute. It is telling us that it can provide access to a cornucopia of learning resources so that anyone can learn anything at any level in any place from anyone at any time.

That sounds promising, but all of that capability must be matched by a worthy partner. And educators have been far from worthy. To the blend, they add a stale array of timeworn and tepid ingredients:

• A 20th-century school organizational structure;

• A fixation on providing the same learning outcomes for every student;

Educators are failing to exploit the new and emerging technologies in ways that will give student learning opportunities the jolt they need.”

• A focus on external motivational techniques;

• A rigid curricular scope and sequence for all students;

• An asphyxiating and narrow assessment system; and

• A separation of in-school from out-of-school learning.

All of these and many more features and components are in direct contradiction to what the technology is telling us it has to offer. It’s unrealistic to expect that technology can make up for the inadequacies of such a system. No, I fear that it’s as Shakespeare’s Cassius observed: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.”

And we have known of this bitter blend for years. This statement was released by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics nearly 20 years ago:

“While efforts of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics have focused on guiding reform of the teaching and learning of mathematics, we are aware that there are numerous other reform efforts with respect to current schooling practices. Schools, as they exist in most communities today, are no longer viable social agencies. The ways in which schools are organized, staffed, governed, and financed are products of a different social era in history.”

The essence of new and emerging technologies and the directions in which they are taking learning and work are in direct conflict with the fundamental nature and structure of the existing system of schools and schooling.

Perhaps that recognition is what prompted Kenneth Rogoff, an economics professor at Harvard University, to observe in the Financial Times recently: “A visit to a primary school classroom in many U.S. cities is the closest thing one can get to time travel.”

Our applications of even powerful technologies range from magic to trivial, yet for even the blandest of these, the purveyors of technology tools for teaching and learning wax poetic about the power of the technology, often in complete denial of—and sometimes in collusion with—the most superficial modes of “personalized learning” that know much about a student’s skills deficits, but little of her talents and interests. Behind those data dashboards of sophisticated performance information and analytics, what makes a student really tick goes largely unknown, untouched by human hands, hearts, and minds.

It’s like instrument flying without any feel for the plane, like a perfectly sighted person choosing to read with Braille alone. I would be inclined to compare these technology advocates to used-car salesmen, but I would not wish to malign used-car salesmen. We would do well to ask for an environmental-impact study of exactly what they propose to do.

This is not to say that there are not a few educational baristas out there attending more insightfully, but these are scarce, faint signals of what is needed. We continue to repeat our mistakes even as the technology gets more and more sophisticated. As one version of the old ditty goes, “Second verse, same as the first, only louder and a little bit worse.” I fear we are squandering the opportunity to have the technology form a true partnership with a very different kind of school model.

We need to match the potential of new and emerging technology tools with bold new designs for learning and teaching and schools and schooling, designs that “listen” to what the technology is offering and exploit much more fully its existing and potential capabilities. And that would be a robust blend.

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as What’s in Your Blend?


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