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The Right Blend

Authored By: 
Kate Bendrick, Math Teacher

Most of us can remember being subjected to word problems, whether it was a happy challenge or a moment contributing to a lifelong math anxiety. A coffee merchant has two types of coffee beans, one selling for $3 per pound and the other for $5 per pound. The beans are to be mixed to provide 100 pounds of a mixture selling for $4.18 per pound. How much of each type of coffee bean should be used to form 100 pounds of the mixture? Why do I need to know this? Who decided what the right blend is anyway?

Blended learning uses both digital and traditional classroom approaches to education. But, just like the coffee, there are endless ways to create a blend. Information in the second decade of the naughts is free, abundant, and overwhelming. Teachers used to be the font of knowledge, an oasis, the landscape around them dry and desolate as far as the eye could see. Now, young people are caught in an information jungle, desperately hacking their way through the poorly-worded, the misrepresented, and the just-plain-false. Clearly bringing an oasis to the jungle just doesn’t address the situation properly anymore.

The quest ahead is to find the right balance between digital and face-to-face approaches so that we are helping young people to learn in the most effective and nurturing way possible. Some say teachers will increasingly move from being "a sage on the stage” to "a guide on the side”. One way of doing that is through the flipped classroom, in which students watch videos outside of class to learn a new topic, and then do homework in class. This prevents the hair-pulling that comes from trying to do a complicated math problem by yourself, but whether it’s content from teacher or from a video, the paradigm is the same: content delivered in bulk, then practiced in equal bulk.

Online systems like ALEKS (short for Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces) create a new paradigm entirely. In ALEKS topics are broken into small pieces, and each explanation requires a minimal time investment (fewer minutes than you can count on one hand). Each new topic is immediately followed by practice (not multiple choice), and feedback on answers is immediate. When I first started to work with this program, my worry was that since students weren’t all working on the same thing at the same time anymore, I would waste time individually answering the same question to multiple students. It has turned out to be an entirely irrelevant concern: every student gets stuck on something different. An even greater fear was that I had inadvertently introduced my own replacement; who needs a person anyway if a robot can do it? Studies show that there is a strong social component to learning though, and the more I work with ALEKS the more I am able to offer in my roles as guide, mentor, and expert. I have more opportunities both for in-depth explanation and extension, as well as for sharing of daily life experiences than would be possible in a traditional classroom, and certainly than in an online one. In that kind of classroom, the digital and the social aren’t divided, they coexist. Rather than leaving students in digital isolation, blended learning should lead to more meaningful social experiences for students. Only when we have achieved that have we found the right blend.