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It’s okay to blend in online learning

6 min read


Join us this month for blog posts about blended and online learning.
 In this blog post, education leader Fred Ende explores why blended learning — instead of a 100% online option — may be the best fit for some learners.

I make it my mission to learn at least one new thing every day. Usually, the difficultly isn’t experiencing new ideas, but parsing them out so that I can truly say that I’ve learned something. Today, as I began to consider this blog post, I came to an important realization (though not necessarily an entirely novel one). I learned that I don’t do well in purely online-learning environments; I need the face-to-face contact that a blended format provides in order for me to truly learn at my best.

This realization stems from my second foray into the world of MOOCs. A few years ago I joined one centered on the Next Generation Science Standards. This time, I’m in one that focuses on coaching digital learning. Both seemed like fabulous opportunities, both were facilitated by leaders and learners who I was interested in learning from, and both incorporated a variety of learning modalities — modalities that seemed to mesh with the way I think, process and reflect.

And yet, in both cases, I was less than the stellar student, ending my time in both after the first week. In both cases, I started strong, completing initial assignments, and truly meaning to continue, and then, well, I didn’t. For what it is worth, I believe I made it to the third week in the initial MOOC.

So, I’m opening up to you all now. I feel like a failure in the negative sense, not the “fail forward” type of experience we all hope for, but the one where I’ll likely simply brush it under the rug and try to forget about it until I write another blog post tied to the realm of blended and online learning.

And that’s a shame. Not because I’ve necessarily been a less-than-stellar student, but rather because I thought that given the topic, design and facilitators, that it would make the difference. Apparently though, for me, when it comes to online learning, it doesn’t.

There is a silver lining here, though. And that is that this recent “totally online” self-debacle brings to the forefront a few reasons why a more blended approach seems to work best for me. Here are the three big ideas I’ve taken from my reflection on why I’m not yet ready to turn my back on face-to-face.

  • Can you (insert your favorite sense here) me now? Those who know a bit about me certainly wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I love to talk. True, I need to continue to learn to better monitor my airtime, and yes, I might speak and laugh a little too loud sometimes, but there is something incredibly powerful about hearing others speak. And, to be honest, I don’t think it is necessarily about the vocal nature of our voice. I imagine those who use solely visual language to communicate would agree that the factor of “presence” makes a tremendous difference. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but our sense of place, of being in the same location as another person we are communicating with, does tremendous things for me, particularly in regard to my accountability. If you want me to accomplish a task, one of the best things that can happen is we can sit down together and talk about it. The worst thing? Text me or tweet me about it.
  • Grow my network, but go easy on the growth serum, okay? The amazing part about virtual connectivity is the reach that can be accomplished through it. The scary part? Sometimes our network grows too fast, and we’re left not knowing who we actually know, or in the worst case, if we even remember who we are. I love the fact that I can learn from those who I would never have the opportunity to grow alongside, but I refuse to let my network grow so large that it becomes the sole determinant that causes me to question who I am and what I stand for. The beauty of the blended approach to learning is that I can use face-to-face meetings as a way to keep me focused on what I truly need, and who I can accomplish it with.
  • Technology is not the end all, but it is a means to an end. What is so amazing about online learning is it forces educational technology to play a role in the conversation. The key for us all to remember is that technology is not the destination (rarely, anyway). Instead, it is a vehicle, a means, a method, to reaching a goal or benchmark. For me, this distinction is incredibly important. I always have to remind myself that for all its shiny LEDs and diodes, technology won’t amount to much without strong facilitation and learner outcomes. Blended learning, as a design format, keeps this distinction at the forefront of my mind. By encouraging the wide net that an online learning environment casts, and then tightening that net through in-person experiences, a blended approach allows me to be able to focus on what technology can do, and also, what it can’t.

So, where does that leave me in the whole online-learning scheme? I’m a happily tethered learner, who loves to explore the vastness of the learning universe, while at the same time welcoming the gravity of staying planet-side. And regarding this most recent MOOC, the format of which continues to frustrate my learning? I can happily say that even if I never log in again, I have learned something today from that online course, and that has been why for me, blended is the way to go.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred blogs at, Edutopia and at ASCD EDge.

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