Blended learning

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Author: Ryan Imbriale
Date: Feb. 2013
From: Principal Leadership(Vol. 13, Issue 6)
Publisher: National Association of Secondary School Principals
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,550 words
Lexile Measure: 1310L

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I remember my first few years of teaching like it was yesterday. I can still see the view from the classroom windows, I can still smell the musty hallway, and I can still sense the feeling of isolation in that classroom. I had plenty of colleagues to call on in my building to get ideas from, share resources with, and collaborate with, but what I did not have and could never have at the time was the resources to personalize learning for each individual student.

Teachers always have been and always will be the essential element in the classroom. They can create magic inside four walls, but they have never been able to create learning environments outside the classroom like they can today, thanks to blended learning. Blended learning allows students and teachers to break free of the isolation of the classroom.

What Is It?

Blended learning can have different definitions. First and foremost, blended learning is all about personalizing learning for students. It's not necessarily a fundamental redesign of the classroom, but it is a fundamental redesign of the time outside the classroom. The important difference in the following definitions is the element of student control that allows the student to determine where he or she can learn and, equally as important, at the speed that allows content mastery.

The Sloan Consortium defines blended learning as a course where 30%-79% of the instruction is delivered online (Allen, Seaman, & Garrett, 2007)--online instruction is the essential element. Placing a percentage on the amount of instruction that must occur outside the classroom can be a limiting definition, however. A more widely accepted definition in K-12 circles of 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, and/or pace" (Horn & Staker, 2011).

Although Horn and Staker's definition is much closer to the blended learning I see daily as a high school principal, I think that it should be expanded even more. The term online still is most often associated with a physical computer. Replacing online in Horn and Staker's definition with the word digital results in a much broader definition. The discussion about blended learning can then take into account mobile technology, including "bring your own device" and 1:1 initiatives in schools. When students are using their own device or a school-issued device in a 1:1 environment, they are, by default, personalizing their learning.

When students develop their own learning paths on the basis of their individual needs, they will have a much richer and more enhanced classroom experience once they are with the teacher. The primary goal of blended learning is to blend the way that instruction is delivered. This is the major difference between online learning and blended learning. A blended classroom takes full advantage of 21st century instructional practices but face-to-face interaction is essential.

This type of personalized learning is showing up in many different forms these days, such as the flipped classroom model (Bergmann & Sams, 2012). By flipping learning, students can listen to a lecture or review content on their own time, and classroom time can be reserved for asking and answering questions, clarifying information, and participating in collaborative activities.

Numerous vendors in the education marketplace use the term blended learning in descriptions of products that tailor instruction for the individual student. As accountability mandates intensify and schools must account for each student's growth, it is increasingly important to provide data that demonstrates students' personal learning paths. Assessment instruments can often get mixed into the discussion about blended learning, but it's very important to clearly separate it from individualized assessment. Blended learning is about personalizing instruction, not just assessment.

Although the education market is filled with companies who offer blended learning approaches, those same instructional methodologies can be created without the help of a vendor-specific product or platform. There are countless examples of high-quality, teacher-created blended courses, blended lessons, and resources. But there are some things blended learning is not. It's not playing games on the computer or writing a research paper using Microsoft Word. It is a formalized course of instruction that ties content to standards, outcomes, and curricular goals.

Test Run

My school decided to implement a blended learning course after we realized that recent graduates in the district had to take remedial science courses or repeat a science course they had already taken in high school when they entered college. Our science teachers and staff members from the county science office, the local community college, and the county office of library media put together a writing team to develop a blended learning curriculum for a pilot precollege science course.

The course was a blend in two different ways: it blended three sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics), and it blended classroom instruction with personalized learning paths on the basis of the needs of each individual student. The course was designed as a "science through history" course that started with students studying the work of Galileo and took them all the way to learning about DNA technology. To tailor instruction, the teacher used numerous digital resources that were already available to students in the school system and supports from such online resources as the Kahn Academy. For example, students use online gel electrophoresis lab simulation to gain pre-lab understanding, then come to the class the next day ready to perform the actual lab.

Blended learning offers huge advantages in terms of personalization, but not all teachers are comfortable with the perceived loss of control. To help teachers adjust to the change in the pace and path of learning, principals must be willing to allow teachers and students to experiment, and they must be open to failures.

After the first year of the pilot science course, much of it was revised on the basis of feedback from students, teachers, and performance data. It would have been easy to give up, but instead there was a clear sense that the course had tremendous value and a place in the larger systemic science curriculum. In its initial design, students received an e-text that contained an overwhelming amount of resources, creating information overload. In addition, the scope of the course needed to be refocused on essential indicators, instead of the broad approach it originally encompassed. The second year was more successful than the first, and the course went from being a pilot to being fully implemented. Persistence made a difference and a better end product followed.

The principal must also be a model for blended learning to become systemic in a building. The success of the science course sparked interest in other teachers and in other subject offices. If the principal does not fully support anytime, anywhere personalized learning for students, then teachers will see no need to move in that direction. Initiatives do not always have to start as schoolwide projects; instead, they can start small with a handful of eager educators. In every building, there are early adopters who are more than willing to blaze the path.

The principal also needs to ensure that adequate, high-quality, relevant professional learning is offered to teachers. If there was a failure in the pilot science course, it was in the professional learning. Instead of being proactive with training, we were trying to catch up. The teacher had no choice but to learn as he went. We knew better and should have ensured that the proper professional learning opportunities were in place. It's so easy to push professional development to the side, but don't make the same mistake. Investing in high-quality professional development is essential to the success of blended learning courses.


Personalized learning that includes individualized pacing accompanied by excellent classroom teaching is a winning combination. The ability for students to interact with content anytime and anywhere gives teachers an opportunity to tailor instruction while maintaining face-to-face interactions. Blended learning is no magic potion, but it allows students and teachers to benefit from a wealth of digital resources and allows teachers to develop learning paths that are tailored to the needs of each student.


* Allen, E., Seaman, J., & Garrett, R. (2007). Blending in: The extent and promise of blended education in the United States. Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium.

* Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. Washington, DC: International Society for Technology in Education.

* Horn, M., & Staker, H. (2011). The rise of K-12 blended learning. San Mateo, CA: Innosight Institute.

Ryan Imbriale ( is the principal of Patapsco High School S Center for the Arts in Baltimore, MD.

Lessons Learned

* High school students still need guidance from their teachers to focus on essential learning

* Resources must be continually updated and evaluated to provide accurate information

* Teachers need upfront professional development in student-centered learning

* If you are device agnostic, the e-text and resources must work on multiple platforms

Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts


GRADES: 9-12



DEMOGRAPHICS: 74% White, 18% Black, 4% Hispanic/Latino, 1% American Indian/Alaskan Native, 1% Asian, 2% other; 91% free & reduced-price lunch

ADMINISTRATIVE TEAM: 1 principal & 3 assistant principals

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