Blended Learning: The MOOC

Blended Learning Infographic

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

It’s a good season to learn about the use of technology in the classroom. Canvas, a learning management system-cum-MOOC platform, is running a MOOC on “digital tools for the K-12 classroom.” Simultaneously, Coursera is offering a MOOC for educators  at all levels on blended learning starting this week. The course leaders are Michael Horn, education policy maven at the Christensen Institute; Brian Greenberg of the Silicon Schools Fund, a “venture philanthropy” outfit that gives seed money to start innovative new schools, and Rob Schwartz of the New Teacher Center , a nonprofit focused on “induction” and professional development for, yes, new teachers.

The blended learning course is more interesting to me because it focuses on the practice, not the tools. Participants are located all over the world:

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And appear quite enthusiastic in the discussion forums, leaving hundreds of posts.

Like any good students, these participants are critically considering the source of the information.

“I’m skeptical,” writes one participant, Amanda Seal McAndrew, in a public post. “Why are you offering this MOOC? What’s in it for the sponsoring groups? So many of the people associated with your groups have business backgrounds. I’ve found a few that have education backgrounds, but it doesn’t look like they are in education anymore. Why not? I’m also curious why you don’t have a traditional educational institution as a partner. ”

“Skepticism is welcomed.  If it helps, the three primary instructors in the course have over thirty years of classroom and school level experience between us,” responded one of the instructors, Brian Greenberg.

Horn, Greenberg and Schwartz clearly intend this course as a stake in the ground. They’re not simply out to explain what blended learning is from any neutral historical or sociological or otherwise academic perspective, but to argue for a particular definition, staking a rhetorical claim in a crowded, contested category. They are promoting something called “High-Quality Blended Learning” that includes, but goes beyond, the use of technology.

High-quality blended learning, they say in their first video chunks, takes place at least partly in and partly out of the classroom. It leverages technology for greater personalization and mastery-based or competency-based education.

Personalization means providing each students with the resources he or she needs, whether it’s solo practice time, group work, one on one tutoring, or multimedia presentation of information. Personalization resembles the pedagogical concept of differentiated instruction, but has a special connotation of the use of technology, rather than individual human attention, to customize an individual’s experience. From the Wikipedia entry for personalization:

Personalization involves using technology to accommodate the differences between individuals. ..Social Network websites use personal data to provide relevant advertisements for their users. Websites like Google and Facebook are using account information to give better services. Personalization technology enables the dynamic insertion, customization or suggestion of content in any format that is relevant to the individual user, based on the user’s implicit behaviour and preferences, and explicitly given details.” 

The scenario implied by the phrase “blended learning” is not that personalized learning is better than differentiated instruction by a skilled practitioner, but that personalized learning can aid and abet differentiated instruction, resulting in something more than the sum of its parts. Evidence for this view is still scant, though subjective; something I’ve dealt with in previous posts.

What of mastery-based or competency-based education? These are two more little phrases hiding a whole slew of arguments upending standard classroom practice.

Mastery-based education puts the focus on individual students mastering specific material. In a traditional class, the syllabus is tied to time. The entire class moves more or less at the same pace, completing assignments on specific due dates and sitting for exams at particular times. If you learn quickly and are bored, too bad. If you fall behind, too bad.

In the mastery-based model, students have more flexibility to stay with material until they fully demonstrate understanding. Again, this is enabled by personalization technology, but it also subtly shifts the focus from the teacher’s or class’s agenda to the individual student’s interest.

This very MOOC, like others, abides by these synchronous conventions–weekly syllabus, deadlines–for the purpose of promoting discussions among people studying the same material. Clearly there’s a tension between personalization and the productive aspects of learning in a group.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this first week’s session, with dozens of participants chiming in to give their own definitions of high-quality blended learning. I’ll be checking in with the MOOC as it goes on to see what else they come up with.

POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON October 17, 2013

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