In my article review this week I ended up at a place calling for a blended approach to learning. In my comment celebrating augmented reality I ended up at a place calling for blended learning. Accordingly, I gravitated to the “Blended Compared With Pure Online Learning’ section in:
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: a meta-analysis and review of online learning studies, Washington, D.C., 2010.
Sadly, and I will save you many words: “no significant differences’ were found. That is, the research conducted thus far is inconclusive when comparing blended learning to purely online learning. Therefore, I suggest we trust our guts and go with what we think is sexy and cool in a geeky sort of way.
My two reasons for going to blended presentation for some types of instruction: first, some knowledge, some interactions are best face-to-face, second, as in the EcoMobile videos going to the pond, as a group is incredibly important and not possible in an exclusively online format. But wait these are claims not reasons and so I need to make arguments and provide evidence.
Returning to the Passing On video I shared in my second article review: one of our narrators describes appropriate ways to approach elders seeking instruction either for her students or for herself. Alas, I cannot interrogate her. The video is a gem but it is one-way transmission. If she were online, I could interrogate her, certainly, but in text I cannot capture inflection of tone, timing, and so on, nor can I capture facial expression. Likewise, in text I cannot capture the spiral logic implicit in instruction given by elders. Certainly, FaceTime gets us closer and closer, but it struggles with buffering and is limited to the quality of camera attached to the device. This harkens back to my friend John Schumacher’s criticism of e-mail and phone calls as representations of altogether different events — face-to-face co-making of inquiry. If we were 40,000 years old in online technology, I would have to consider that our physical evolution might have adapted to information/communication technology. Nevertheless, most of these changes have happened in the past 20 years, we are for the most part the same human beings who hunted mastodons with stone tipped lances. Those human beings learned from each other face-to-face. So, let us imagine that exclusive online learning is a human-made environment rather like the inside of the Apollo space capsules, sufficient but barely. Certainly amazing and cool but when we look back on our LMS systems in 20 years they will seem as harsh and spare as the interiors of the space ships we flew to the moon. Moreover as persons facilitating learning, we have additional obligations not just content. We have obligations to civil society, to appropriate public discourse, to fostering leaders. While some of this work can be done online not all of it can be. I think this is so because these are not just about the content knowledge but about making eye contact, about nodding, or gesturing, they are about situating the knowledge in a cultural moment — why it is that TedTalks are taped in front of an audience perhaps. I have already touched on some reasons for my second claim implicitly — learning is not just about making individuals it is about making cultures, creating psycho-social facilities and ensuring survival of the individual and the group — easy to forget in post-industrial society.
Therefore, I will hazard a claim that classes that toggle between content and meta-cognition would be better in a blended environment. I suggest leadership as one example, perhaps cycles of seasonal subsistence might be another topic that would be better served in a blended class. Second, I theorize that classes aimed at younger learners K-12, perhaps even 13, are better blended. I suggest blended in part because of the force multiplier, that various online tools offer, EcoMobile/EcoMuve as an example, flipped instruction as another. The next question is how do we formulate the research question to show results more conclusive then we see in the required reading. I am a philosopher not a social scientist so forgive me the speculation: I suspect one would have to create three courses in three formats with comparable outcomes and teach them adjacently for an extended time. Probably possible at a larger University that offers classroom, purely online, and blended presentation. However, while waiting on those results what kind of decision model can we create for the rest of us in the mean time? I suspect that like cell phones, laptops, Google documents, Twitter, we have to remember classroom, online, and blended are tools in our toolkit and in our professional roles part of our excellence is our facility and artistry in using the right tools at the right time — there is an element of trusting our guts.