As new technology speeds into the classroom at an unparalleled pace, teachers are having to adapt their methods and practices to keep up. From the ubiquitous interactive whiteboard at the front of the class and the school's online virtual learning environment, to the smartphones, laptops and tablets used by pupils, technology is driving pedagogical change like never before.
One phrase increasingly used to describe the marriage of traditional teaching practices and the newer online and tech-led methods is "blended learning". It has been hailed by some educationalists as the 21st-century model for pedagogy because it promises to give pupils more time with individual teachers and enable them to personalise their learning inside and outside school.
The idea is already sweeping across US schools. In 2000, some 45,000 K-12 students (kindergarten to grade 12, the whole of primary and secondary education) took an online course. In 2009, that number had risen to more than 3 million students.
Although online learning is less embedded in the UK, every school in England is now meant to have a virtual learning environment with an online repository of curriculum materials.
When the internet was young and its educational potential largely untapped, "blended" or "hybrid" learning was often colloquially known as "brick and click", the combination of classroom and computer. Although this description is too simplistic to do justice to the concept in its current form, even now the definition of what constitutes blended learning varies widely.
Much of the theoretical and practical development of the concept has been carried out in the US. However, a major research paper published by the thinktank Innosight Institute last year acknowledged that, even in the US, significant confusion and multiple definitions still existed.
The paper, The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, suggested a simple umbrella definition: "Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, andor pace."
Within this definition are two clauses essential for distinguishing blended from other learning.
First, the pupil must learn in a "supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home" at least some of the time (eg a school building) and an adult must be physically present to supervise the learning.
Second, the pupil must experience "online delivery with some control over time, place, path, andor pace".
The pupil control element is crucial, because it distinguishes online learning from other forms of tech-rich learning, such as when the teacher uses a laptop and projector to stream online media or textbooks to a classroom of pupils.
However, in May the Innosight Institute published a new paper, Classifying K-12 Blended Learning, refining the definition using feedback from practitioners. It now says: "Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, andor pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and- mortar location away from home."
Not everyone is happy with the new definition. American teacher Catlin Tucker, author of the book Blended Learning in Grades 4-12, fears that although it has the potential to empower teachers and transform the pupil experience, blended learning could be used to marginalise teachers.
"There is an underlying focus on `content' and `instruction' in this definition of blended learning, which disturbs me," she says. "The way it is defined seems to alienate traditional teachers who are looking to make online learning a meaningful part of their curriculum.
"Teachers are educated, trained and spend years perfecting their craft. They bring personality, empathy, experience and variety to curricula that a computer cannot. Well-designed software can be a valuable tool in the education process. However, computer software and online content should not be preferable to an actual teacher in a blended learning model."
Retaining the teacher
Morten Fahlvik, a former teacher, now education researcher with Itslearning, a company that provides virtual learning environments, has the following definition: "Blended learning is performing or conducting your teaching in a combined classroom - the combination of the physical classroom and the virtual classroom. You use the traditional space and then you add something to it.
"Most teachers look at the two elements of blended learning - the physical and virtual classroom - as two separate things. But the value is in the combination."
He says blended learning has many benefits. Not only is it about time management; it's also a tool for getting to know pupils better. It allows teachers to decide when and where to teach the curriculum. In short, blended learning gives teachers options, he says.
"Most teachers combine content and pedagogy but leave out technology. That's part of blended learning. You need to blend these three components in a balanced way," he says. "At the end of the day, it's the teacher who decides whether or not this will be a success."
E-learning expert Donald Clark says that blended learning has taken root in many educational settings, but still has no definite shape, theory, methodology or best practice.
Back in 2006, Mr Clark wrote a blog post dismissing the concept as a "nice way for the old world to cope with the new". "It's a sugar coating on what many see as a bitter pill - the fact that the dominance of the classroom is fading fast," he wrote. "Technology is providing the social spaces, content, tools, access and media types that allow us to learn what we want, where and when we want."
Mr Clark, a board member of the charity Ufi, which aims to improve access to adult learning through technology, still holds those views and says that very little has changed in the past six years.
"The idea of blended learning is great, but the problem is people think they are doing it when what they are really doing is blended teaching," he says.
"It's a good idea not taken seriously enough. It's meant to be a learner- centred approach to the world, but most teachers have adopted it as a way of slicing and dicing up different methods that they have used in the past. They just stuck the two bits (classroom and online learning) together. I call it Velcro learning."
A new approach
Mr Clark feels that a new approach is needed. "We need to see blended learning as being focused on learning, not instructional techniques. With the web, we have the learners themselves create, access, comment and use content. This is matching the learner with their actual needs. It copes with different personality types, preferences and needs in a way that traditional training and education does not."
He thinks that "every teacher should reflect not only on what they teach, but how they teach it".
"Students have taken technology into universities, colleges and schools, and by and large teachers have been hugely resistant to this," he says.
"The classroom is essentially a teaching environment. I think the great mistake is thinking you can introduce all kinds of blended learning technology that doesn't fit. You can't just shoe-horn in iPads and laptops and call it blended learning. We should be thinking outside the box that is the classroom."
One method, Mr Clark suggests, is flipped learning (TESS, 23 March 2012). This takes technology out of the school and puts it in the home, leaving the classroom as a place for learning instead of teaching.
Pupils are given videoed lectures to watch at home, while in class the teacher sets work that would usually be given out as homework. In this way, the classroom is flipped, with the lesson taking place in the teacher's absence and the actual applied learning happening in the classroom. This has the added benefit of the teacher being present to facilitate it.
Mr Clark says flipped learning is the one model of blended learning that can work. "If teachers stick to good teaching in the classroom, the blend can take place in the activities that happen outside the classroom through the use of video or other high-end online tools."
Blended learning involves "some element of student control of time, place, path, andor pace", says campaign group Digital Learning Now! The group also describes each dimension.
Time: learning is no longer restricted to the school dayyear.
Place: learning is no longer restricted to within the walls of the classroom.
Path: learning is no longer restricted to the pedagogy used by the teacher.
Pace: learning is no longer restricted to the tempo of an entire classroom of students.
Source: Road map for Reform. digitallearning now.comroad map-to- reform
A number of innovations can enhance blended learning:
Apps Thousands of educational apps are available for smartphone and tablet devices, such as the iPhone and iPad. American blended learning expert Michael Spencer says: "With apps perfectly suited for bite-sized, handheld learning experiences that connect students to the real world, we'll begin to see what digitised textbooks, and digitised learning, really mean for students."
Edmodo A secure social learning network for pupils, teachers and parents, sometimes described as the "Facebook of education".
Social networking Secondary teachers are already using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to drip-feed revision advice to pupils.
MODELS OF BLENDED LEARNING
Much of the research on blended learning has been carried out in the US. Innosight Institute, an American thinktank, has identified four main blended learning models.
1. Rotation model: within a given course or subject, students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher's discretion between learning modalities, at least one of which is online learning.
2. Flex model: an online platform delivers most of the curriculum content. Face-to-face teaching is still available, but for small groups or individuals when needed.
3. Self-blend model: students choose to take one or more courses entirely online to supplement their traditional courses, either on campus or off- site.
4. Enriched-virtual model: a whole-school experience where within each course students divide their time between attending a campus and learning remotely using online delivery of content and instruction.