Monday, July 6, 2020
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Blended learning can be exposed as hype

President John F Kennedy once said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” That’s how Phil McRae opens his article about blended learning in the summer 2015 edition of the magazine for the Alberta Teachers’ Association, where he serves as an executive staff officer.

If you’ve never heard of blended learning, you haven’t been paying attention to education reform propaganda. Simply put, face-to-face time between teachers and students is combined, or blended, with students’ accessing Internet resources or taking online courses. Strong proponents say it gives students more opportunity to learn at their own pace and helps “personalize” learning in our classrooms.

We haven’t written much about blended learning, because in August 2012 we reached the conclusion that Internet resources were so full of garbage that they couldn’t be trusted, and blended-learning classroom models were encouraging teachers to put what we think is too much stock in those Internet resources.

Mr McRae seems to agree with us that blended learning, as it exists right now, is a fad that has no educational legs to stand on. His extensive review of this subject is entitled “Myth: Blended learning is the next ed-tech revolution” and features an introduction subtitled “From hype to harm to the sabotaging of hope.”

I encourage you to read his entire article, which draws on substantial research in the field of pedagogy. Here’s my favorite part:

For those looking to specifically advance blended learning in times of severe economic constraints, a certificated teacher is optional. … Software companies selling their adaptive learning products boldly state that the best personalized learning programs will give students millions of potential pathways to follow through curricula and end up with the desired result — true comprehension. This is part of the myth of blended learning and is marketed using superficial math and reading software programs (adaptive learning systems) that make dubious claims of driving up scores on high-stakes tests. Corporate attempts to “standardize personalization” in this way are both ironic and absurd.

We’ve said this before (here, here, here): Computerized instruction isn’t personalized learning. It’s got nothing to do with personalized learning, because the programs that are delivering the material were created before any student even used the system. I’m amazed, though maybe I shouldn’t be, that promoters of blended learning can’t even see the oxymoron in their claim: millions of pathways make instruction personalized. Aaahh!

All students are doing is following a flowchart when they access these systems. That’s not personalized instruction, and it has been sold to us as a bill of goods. It keeps computer companies loaded with cash while diminishing the content knowledge of our teachers.

If I want to personalize instruction, I first have to get to know the student as a person. How can instruction be personalized if a student isn’t even known as a person? That’s just ridiculous.

It is further gobbledygook to suggest, as blended learning proponents always do, that these computer algorithms somehow develop our kids’ brains. In fact, they do just the opposite: “They diminish the many opportunities for human relationships to flourish, which is a hallmark of high-quality learning environments,” Mr McRae writes.

Budget cuts in our schools and teacher shortages only fuel the fire of blended learning, since certified teachers aren’t even required, especially if education occurs at a virtual school. Look, I’m not some union puppet talking about increasing the number of teacher jobs; I’m an educator talking about increasing the quality of education our children receive. Blended learning is wrong in many ways. In 2013, we wrote:

“While there is a place for computer-assisted education in the classroom,” the Daily Herald quoted one woman as saying, “… largely online learning eliminates socialization, developing collaboration and teamwork and self-definition.”

Carol Higgins, a special-education teacher at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, said children need contact: “The human element of Naperville schools cannot be replaced with an online program. Every child needs to have someone, in the morning, say, ‘Hey! Good morning. How are you doing?’ You can’t get that in some online program.”

This is the message I have been professing since I started this website. Technology has a great role to play in schools, but it can’t replace a teacher. Teachers should use technology effectively to deliver [their own] lessons [not those of some computer programmer] or to provide assistance for students with special needs. That’s the role of technology.

Once certified teachers become optional, folks, the game is doomed. Computer programmers have no idea what they’re doing in this game. If they did, they wouldn’t be writing algorithms that claim to “personalize” instruction.

“If done right, blended learning can be used to support more equitable access to learning resources and discipline-specific expertise,” Mr McRae concludes. Content is especially important in the upper grades, not so much in elementary school, but finding the right balance is key. Doing it right, though, will require upgrades to computer technology, wider bandwidths, and more Internet access points in our schools. Technology has the potential to ease some inequity, but that technology must be reliable in order to do so.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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