Blended learning: Anything new or innovative here?

At ELTjam, we’re always interested in hearing from teachers working with technology at the coal face.  In this post, UK-based teacher and CELTA trainer, Sam Shepherd, reflects on the case for and against blended learning.

You know, it really is very tempting to think of notions of blended learning as cobblers. Or at least, as old non-cobblers rehashed as cobblers. Because if you take a careful look at it, blended learning, hardly a ‘new’ concept at 15+ years old, is either simple old fashioned correspondence courses, or even simpler, more old fashioned homework.

Let me explain.

I’ve been looking into what blended learning is and what it has meant and the general consensual definition is that it’s a combination of some online learning and some face to face learning. Sometimes the online element is considered discrete from the face to face element – essentially a correspondence course by computer alongside a face to face course. Or the online elements and the face to face elements are linked, perhaps after the manner of the absence of innovation that is flipped learning, in which case the online element is basically homework.

However, distance learning by correspondence and homework are, in themselves, not necessarily bad things. Lots of people have successfully learned by distance learning, and a lot of people have benefitted from homework. All blended learning does is take these perfectly serviceable ideas and chuck them on a web server. What you end up with is the usual ‘it’s innovative’ cry that gets attached to doing stuff on a computer.

Paper based multiple choice gap fill?


Multiple choice drop down box on a website?


Give instructions verbally?

Sooooo 20th century.

Send them by text?


It takes me onto thoughts of SAMR. Essentially, this is the idea that technology use in education goes through distinct stages:

Image the creation of Dr. Ruben Puentedura, Ph.D.
  • Substitution, where technology merely does the same as a non-tech method, but brings nothing to it.
  • Augmentation, where the technology does the same as non-tech but also adds something to the process.
  • Modification, where using the technology changes the activity.
  • Redefinition, where the technology creates a whole new type of activity which would have been unimaginable without it.

There’s a neat definition on this site, with some neat videos. Although the Google Drive example is probably not the best example, it is the easiest to explain.

So far so clever.

It seems to suggest a link with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and you can tell that whoever thought of it clearly had the ideas first and the name second, because it hardly trips off the tongue. It’s a nice idea too, and one which should encourage us to experiment with technology more, and think about the effect it has.

However, I have to be honest and say that my initial reaction was annoyance. This might have partly been a knee jerk reaction to educational initialisms and acronyms. But there was more to it than that. Like Bloom’s taxonomy as it was originally stated, SAMR seems to suggest a hierarchy of changes, where the SA stuff is somehow perceived as less valuable than the MR sections, much like the idea when discussing Bloom that somehow having knowledge is less valuable than being able to synthesise and evaluate. Bloom, happily, is being presented more frequently as a wheel rather than a pyramid, although the divisive hierarchical notions of ‘higher order’ and ‘lower order’ thinking persist.

However, it occurred to me that I was reading SAMR wrong. It’s not meant as a goad or an encouragement. Modification and Redefinition are not intended to be taken as better than Substitution or Augmentation, indeed the whole concept doesn’t necessarily suggest that using the technology is better than not using it

Is there a cognitive or learning benefit to the application of technology? That’s the real question.

And thus we come back to blended learning. How does it fare under SAMR? Let’s think about the two models of blended learning: distance and homework.

Is there a benefit to the technologicalisation of the distance learning model?

I think there is. Having the learning materials quite literally to hand at all times through your mobile devices could be a benefit to some learners. Technology lends itself to easily available multimedia. Rather than films on TV restricted to weird times of the day, you can have films on demand. You can have instant feedback on certain types of task, collaboration with people all over the world and so on. Indeed, the breadth of reach and relative cheapness of digital technology means that some elements might run which might otherwise not.

Whether students engage with this sort of thing is a whole other question. Even with monitored assessment in the form of quizzes and so on, the temptation, unless it’s absolutely fascinating, and the student 100% motivated, is to try to work out how to game the system. I know that’s what I have done for every bit of mandatory online training ever. I usually start with the final assessment task, then look up (or simply Google) the bits I can’t work out, rather than actually engage with every single piece of  online training. I suspect that this doesn’t lead to brilliant learning, but I do think that a clever online learning designer would take this tendency/temptation into account. Sadly, they don’t seem to have done this yet.

And the closely linked homework model? 

A web link to an interactive task which can be done on the bus or during a break, quick written feedback on digitally submitted writing (even by email!), the flexibility of being able to do homework without needing a piece of paper, the (for some) added motivation of a bit of whizzy graphics, quick right/wrong feedback on a quiz so that students can think about where and why they made mistakes before coming into class. Crikey yes.

The other question to ask, however, is:

Are either of these models actually better than a 100% face to face learning?

My gut feeling, and my belief, is that they aren’t.

For me, face to face learning trumps any kind of online learning simply because of the speed, ease and naturalness of the classroom interactions, although homework can be used to augment that process. Any idea that blended learning is better is often based around assumptions that classrooms are places where teachers stand and talk at, or demonstrate to, students and students absorb, perhaps with a bit of questioning. My own classroom practices as an ESOL teacher aren’t based on this. Rather, they are based on notions of enabling and promoting spoken interaction, of discussion and questioning. For me, the technology simply cannot replace that. Not yet, and maybe not ever.

This post originally appeared on Sam’s blog here.

Sam Shepherd is a teacher and CELTA trainer working in the UK. He is particularly interested in teaching migrants, teacher development, technology and would happily write for hours on pretty much any aspect of ELT. He can usually be found doing this on his blog.

Featured image credit: Libelul via Compfight cc Text added by ELTjam.

9 thoughts on “Blended learning: Anything new or innovative here?”

  1. The basic misconception about blended learning is that some people seem to think it is some sort of pedagogical approach. It’s not. It simply way of describing a means of delivering learning. Whether it’s innovative or not depends on the nature of the learning you deliver. And of course innovation doesn’t necessarily connote with effective learning.



  2. Excellent piece. On the subject of which model of learning trumps the other, I often pose this question: Will recorded music ever replace live music? Clearly, both are popular and will continue to exist in tandem. One thing not mentioned in this article (nor in most articles on this topic) is the issue of access to quality face to face learning. Not everyone can afford to go the opera. ;D

    • Nice analogy and absolutely agree – it’s what we have been doing in education for years anyway. You know, it’s funny you should mention quality – I did a short piece of research on this and this bears out what you said – there was lots of discussion of cost effectiveness and so on, but only a little of quality. Absolutely quality is the key – it’s what I was driving at when I mentioned “clever online learning designer” – any kind of learning delivered in any way needs to be good, but I do wonder if there is a consensus on what would make for good online learning. I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that one of the markers of quality needs to be some means of exploiting a desire to cheat the system, or game it, as I said above. If we are talking ELT, then I’d suggest that also the materials need to be on an interesting subject – applying much the same set of principles as face to face learning. What these are, I wouldn’t like to say at this point: I’m sure older & wiser people in ELT can be badgered on this!

  3. Sam, I quote:

    “face to face learning trumps any kind of online learning simply because of the speed, ease and naturalness of the classroom interactions, although homework can be used to augment that process”
    My background is TEFL in state schools. Homework is an immensely important aspect of learning. If you look at how much time is required to learn a language (for the average student), then 100 % face to face teaching becomes a very unrealistic proposition. Blended learning offers significant advantages when modern technology is employed. Think of correction and the amount of time teachers save by only having to check the results rather than marking homework. Think of the vocab training that is adaptive and self testing.
    My second point is, that in my opinion 100% face to face is far from desirable. Based on my own experience of learning foreign languages and those of my students, I am of the opinion that a mix of quiet personal study combined with active class sessions is the most successful way to learn. Most people need time to absorb information and blended learning provides the ideal way for students to do this in their own time.
    I will freely admit that our company produces materials for blended learning, but I started doing this from my experiences as a teacher – I wanted to create materials and a system that I could use for my students.

    • I agree with what you say about homework and I don’t think I made that point clearly enough – homework does have a crucial role, and needs to be done well. I think a commenter below makes a point there about quality and I will go down and add a comment there too! Perhaps I set my own trap and missed my own point – that what we could loosely call a traditional model of face to face learning augmented with homework and personal self study is a valuable combination, but that what many people are proposing as an innovative blended learning model is really no different to this except with a computer attached. And to be fair, I’ve been setting computer based homework for some time, and don’t think of it as in some way special. To paraphrase: What’s in a name? That which we call homework by any other name would be just as valuable.

      My inner jury is out on the ease/convenience issue – yes, it is way easier to get the marking done if you can set an online test and get the results through, but for a more complex task,or indeed even for a simple vocab task, verbal feedback and discussion can throw up some interesting and useful emergent elements which much unmoderated online learning doesn’t seem to have the capability to deal with yet.

      I do envy you the opportunity to design something yourself – my own experiences are through Moodle in a further education college in the UK, and as such it’s lots of bare bones onto which we stitch freely available online resources, or devise some of our own (avoiding the laborious Moodle quizzes!). I don’t know how it is for you, but the other challenge for these courses is that they are very learner responsive – content for group A may not be necessarily relevant to Group B, even if they are the same nominal level (in the UK public sector these are tied to national literacy standards, not language learning models like CEFR, which creates only a very vague sense of what a given level is). The upshot is that it makes it hard to do fixed course planning – as I approach the summer my colleagues in non-ESOL departments in college are planning their courses and devising the online learning to match.

  4. Sam, let’s just assume that as a teacher you are in the top 5%. While I can’t be sure of this I do know that differences exist between teachers and that differences between teachers can explain the difference in educational outcomes (John Hattie).

    Let’s also state that as a top 5% teacher when you create blended learning activities these activities are NEVER better than what you can do as a live teacher.

    In this scenario…your conclusion….that a face to face class by you is better than what you can produce for a blended class would be correct and moreover, you as the person that knows the quality of your own teaching, can and should be accepted as an authority.

    But what happens when you as a teacher create blended learning exercises which, while inferior to what you can accomplish as a live teacher, is still arguably better than the bottom 75% of all teachers.

    For arguments sake, I have assumed that the top 25% of all teachers, teaching in a face-to-face mode, are still better as a group than what you could produce for a blended class.

    And there you have it…your blended course, while not as good as what you can do face-to-face, and arguably inferior to the top 25% of teachers still is “better” than what 75% of all teachers teaching face to face could produce.

    The argument for blended learning created by top teachers is not that technology itself is better but that it is better than what lesser teachers on their own can produce. Unfortunately we rarely acknowledge (to ourselves) that the chief reason to use technology is to spread the skill of the top 5% of all teachers.

  5. This depends on the context and the motivation for delivering blended learning. My suspicion is that blended learning is generally driven by financial considerations rather than utopian ideals of sharing. I’m a little cynical not just about Big Business ELT, but also in a public sector context where business models of cost effectiveness is the norm and short term, quick hit financial returns on public spending is expected. My own motivations for going online with the digitised homework model is that it can and might help some people to learn better.

    Does it share “goodness”? sometimes, perhaps, but I think there are issues here of consistency of quality and the challenges of there not being a clear definition of “good practice” in online learning – and perhaps online learning is soemthing which still lacks cohesive definitions before we can go any further with it. As a wild and crazy suggestion, might I suggest that it is all in fact just learning and that we need to move on from concepts such as online and offline, and simply talk about learning.

    I wouldn’t like to say if I was one of the fabled top 5% and I find the concept a little worrying, but I need to dust off my Hattie (ho ho) before I go any further with that one.


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