Blended Learning Is the Future of K-12 Educational Technology

Blended Learning Is the Future of K-12 Educational Technology

by Cathie Norris, Elliot Soloway

In our blog post of Oct. 6, 2014 we panned blended learning, and now, in what follows, we are about to say blended learning is the greatest thing since sliced bread. If we were politicians we would be labeled as flip-floppers, a derogatory term in the political argot. But, thank goodness we are not politicians, but an educator (C) and a technologist (E) coming to a new understanding of what the future holds, amongst higher-minded colleagues who eschew fallacious ad hominem arguments.

Here’s the reasoning behind the evolution of our thinking: 

·  We had identified personalized learning – what we are calling personalized learning 1.0 – as the same thing as blended learning.

·  And the canonical example of personal learning 1.0, from our perspective, is the Carpe Diem schools, where children sit in cubicles half to three-quarters of the school day, being drilled by some company’s "adaptive learning" system.

·  Since we do not feel that the Carpe Diem school model is an appropriate education model, we pooh-poohed blended learning.

Simply put: we painted blended learning with the same brush as personalized learning 1.0. Our bad! But now ... we have seen the light!

In an excellent 2011 article by Heather Staker of the "Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation" (formerly the Innosight Institute), she defined blended learning as follows:

"Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace."

We can easily live with the above definition of blended learning because of the phrase "at least in part through online delivery." Personalized learning 1.0, e.g. the pedagogy used in Carpe Diem schools, takes online delivery to the extreme, it seems to us. But, as we argue below, what we see coming to K-12 classrooms is absolutely consistent with the definition of blended learning. Please read on!

Here’s the deal: 1-to-1 is the new normal: Between BYOD (bring your own device) and school-provided devices, it is clear that over the next two to three years every student in every classroom in every school in the United States will be using a computing device for learning. Many, many schools in the United States are already at 1-to-1. But the two-to-three-year time period is there to acknowledge the sad and disturbing fact that the digital divide still exists, though it’s not talked about very much anymore. 

(See a new report by Commonsense Media that documents quite vividly the reality of the digital divide. And ES is experiencing the digital divide first hand in the Detroit Public Schools; 1-to-1 access to a computing device, at least in the elementary schools ES is working in, is still, most disturbingly, a dream.

In classrooms, then, where there is 1-to-1 access, of course students will spend time, "in part", during the school day using the computing device to access open-education resources (e.g. informational Web sites, simulations, video) available on the Internet to run apps to support artifact development (create a text-based report augmented with graphical media, develop a concept map, construct a drawing or animation, etc.) and, yes, maybe even to be drilled by some adaptive learning app. Those classroom uses of computing devices are perfectly consistent with the definition of blended learning given above.

For example, Figure 1 (below) depicts a blended learning lesson used in a Michigan sixth-grade science classroom recently. The app mediating the lesson is called "LessonLauncher"; LessonLauncher is written in HTML5 and thus it is device-agnostic – LessonLauncher runs in virtually all browsers (Edge, IE, Safari, Chrome, Firefox, etc.), and LessonLauncher is free. (Interested in using LessonLauncher? Please send ES an e-mail:

In LessonLauncher, a teacher provides students with a roadmap for a Blended Lesson - a playlist in the millennials argot. For example, in Figure 1, clicking (or tapping if LessonLauncher is running on an iOS/Android/Windows tablet) the "Start Here Activity 1 WeRead" node brings up an article about Bromine and condensation. Clicking (or tapping) on "Initial Bromine Condensation Model WeSketch" brings up the WeSketch app where students can construct a drawing that represents their understanding, their model, of how bromine condensation happens. WeSketch is "collabrified" so two or more students work in WeSketch co-creating that model, in real-time. In total, the computer-mediated lesson depicted in Figure 1 contains eight computer-based learning activities, e.g., reading material on external Web sites, answering questions, drawing a model, etc.

(Figure 1)

The lesson depicted in Figure 1 is absolutely consistent with the definition of blended learning given by Staker. No, the students enacting the lesson in Figure 1 are not being drilled by an online, adaptive learning program, but the students are going online for some portion of the lesson. (Technically, the students are also online when they are working collaboratively, answering questions, making drawings, since the Internet is being used to keep the collaborators’ artifacts in sync. But the online aspect of those collabrified apps is really a second- order issue.)

Here are three prediction you can take this one to the bank – they're that solid:

Prediction 1: Over the next two to three years, there will be a dramatic increase in the number of lessons – blended learning lessons – that are computer-mediated and comprise a roadmap, along with the computer-based learning activities, just like the lesson depicted in Figure 1.

Who will produce those computer-mediated lessons?  All y’all, as they say in Texas! You, the teachers who are on the cutting edge of technology and education, along with your colleagues who are more curricularly-focused – you all will produce such lessons, post them to a marketplace, e.g., teachers-pay-teachers, Curriki – or maybe a new website devoted to the "blended learning, computer-mediated lesson economy". And, it will become a standard-operating procedure for teachers to come to that site/those sites to find lessons they can easily tweak for their students.

Ready for two more predictions:

Prediction 2: Over the next two to three years a new generation of curriculum-building/distributing/managing tools will come available to enable curriculum-creating teachers and small curriculum-creating companies who are producing this new generation of blended learning, computer-mediated lessons.

Prediction 3: These new tools will foster the explosive growth of a marketplace for computer-mediated lessons – a marketplace that is virtually non-existent today.  

Who will produce those tools? Not the mega-textbook companies; they are going the way of the music CD producers. When Prediction 2 happens – and it will – those tools will enable the disrupters to swoop in and take the curriculum business away from the mega-textbook publishers; those tools will enable those disrupters to create – and market – a new generation of computer-mediated lessons!

Blended learning is indeed the future of computer use in the K-12 classroom.  The formulation of blended learning described in this blog post may diverge from the blended learning orthodoxy; no biggy. The fact is, the term "blended learning" does very accurately describe what is happening in a classroom where learners are using their 1-to-1 computing devices to engage in their computer-based, computer-mediated lessons. Yup, blended learning is the future!