K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

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Blended learning is a student-centered approach to creating a learning experience whereby the learner interacts with other students, with the instructor, and with content through thoughtful integration of online and face-to-face environments.1 A well-designed blended learning experience thoughtfully organizes content, support materials, and activities via synchronous and asynchronous learning events, all of which are delivered in a variety of modes ranging from traditional lecture to online tutorials. Communication and collaboration are necessary functions of a blended approach. Because formative assessment is embedded throughout learning events, the learner assumes responsibility for his or her learning.

In contrast to teacher-centered, rote-learning approaches, blended learning environments provide multiple ways to access content and to demonstrate mastery. As a result, they lend themselves more readily to differentiation of content and process. A blended approach also gives the learner the opportunity to be more responsible for his or her learning, which creates a learning situation that may be more meaningful on an individual level. Because the learner comes to construct knowledge through personal effort, she or he is more likely to demonstrate understanding beyond rote memorization, and to transfer what she or he has learned to new settings.2

History of blended learning

The concept of blended learning, in which multiple learning environments and activities are combined, has existed for quite some time. Long before the advent of computers and social networks, teachers created blended learning experiences using simple technologies like paper and pencil. Educators have always crafted learning experiences that incorporate a variety of activities in different environments for the purpose of reinforcing learning material. For example, consider the concept of the apprenticeship. Prior to the hands-on experience, the apprentice studied the work of the master through observation, conversation, and possibly through reading.

Contemporary definitions of blended learning take into account the role that technology can play. Technologies like CD-ROM and later the internet made it possible to create new environments for learning, new opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and new modes of delivery for learning materials, self-directed guides, and tutorials. More recently, blended learning figures prominently in conversations about online learning. In this context, blended learning represents a convergence of online and face-to-face experiences. Interactions across both environments are mitigated by space, time, fidelity, and personal interaction.3 While some research indicates that blended learning solutions have a positive impact on student learning, most research has taken place in higher education and adult learning, so care should be taken when extending this research to the K-12 arena.4

Creating a blended learning experience

In a blended learning approach, attention is given to the overall instructional design of the learning experience. While thoughtful planning is essential, blended learning is a fluid process whereby learning needs, moments of insight, and unique pathways evolve. Ideally, the learner is offered more choice in how the learning experience unfolds. This kind of flexibility makes it easier to differentiate instruction, satisfying the needs of a diverse population of learners. Technology is used as a tool for learning and to promote a discovery-based approach to online learning and is not necessary in all blended learning scenarios. The following questions offer additional insight into the creation of a blended experience.

  • What are the learning outcomes of this experience? I.e., What skills, knowledge, and dispositions should students develop as a result of the experience?
  • What topics and subtopics must be addressed by the entire learning experience in order to achieve the learning outcomes?
  • What are the learning events (activities) chosen to address the learning outcomes?
  • What portion of content is accessed during each learning event?
  • What is the most appropriate mode for delivering that content?
  • In what setting does the learning event occur?
  • What supports and teacher input are needed for that learning event?
  • Where should formative assessment appear relative to each learning event?
  • How does the learning event relate to previous learning events and those that follow?
  • How will learners transfer their change in understanding from one learning event to another?

Additional resources

The following resources provide further information about blended learning.

Sharing time in a blended learning space
This article offers a definition for blended learning and suggests strategies for effectively implementing this instructional approach.
Beyond blended learning: Reaching every student
This archived presentation from the 2010 NCTIES conference explores the theory and application of blended learning and offers ten ways to improve teaching using a blended approach.