How Potential Distractions Unlock a New and Effective Way to Learn

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Here’s a term most educators, parents, and students have either gotten to know recently or will be getting to know in the coming years: blended learning. It’s a new model based on the idea of students not only learning in the classroom, but also through electronic devices and online.

Whether you love or hate blended, the fact is that it’s here to stay. It’s already being used by about nine million students – or 20 percent of the nation’s K-12 population – and that number will only grow.

One the one hand, it’s inevitable. Millennials and Post-Millennials are considered “digital natives”; they’ve grown up with electronics and connectivity. Internet access is practically a phantom limb to anyone under the age of 30. (If you don’t believe me, try forcing a teenager to unplug for a full weekend.)

There are two methods for implementing blended:

  • 1:1 – Also known as “anywhere, any time,” this program consists of schools providing electronic devices to students. An important advantage of this program is that students have a device dedicated to learning – one of the fundamentals of creating a dedicated productive learning space. Of course, not all school districts have the funding necessary for 1:1 programs.
  • BYOD – Bring your own device depends on students to provide their own electronic platforms for learning in school. Cheaper to implement, it depends on students to use their electronics responsibly while they are in school or studying. There is a basis for this system succeeding however: in higher education, BYOD has been the standard model since laptops became standard.

Naturally, the changing way we live has also changed the way that we learn – hence the rise of blended learning. In my 35 years in the field of education, I can say with confidence that this is one of the most disruptive trends I’ve seen. It has the potential to upend traditional educational models. Whether that change is positive or negative depends on how effectively blended is implemented.

Distraction or the easy way of studying?

As with any other educational method, there are upsides and downsides to blended learning. Let’s start by looking at some common pitfalls, and then move on to areas and applications I believe hold the most potential.

Here are a few of my biggest concerns about blended learning:

  • Connectivity is a double-edged sword. Even despite the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) laws in place – these require that schools have filters on their Wi-Fi networks – many parents question whether students will be more easily distracted and accessing non-educational content online.

What’s more, many grey spaces exist online; there’s plenty of educational content on YouTube, but lots of junk there as well. Social media, common among high school and middle school students, can be a platform for academic collaboration or cyber bullying. These concerns are amplified with BYOD systems, where devices are more difficult to police and monitor.

  • Students don’t associate electronics with studying. One thing that I’ve always emphasized as an educator is the importance of a positive study environment. Beyond a physical location, the idea is to create a “ready to learn” mindset that students can easily get into.

Another potential pitfall of BYOD is that students may associate their personal laptops with leisure time. Surfing the web, watching Netflix, and chatting with friends are all common uses for personal electronic devices. As we move toward blended learning, I worry whether students will be able to get into the mindset they need to study without being distracted by all the entertainment their laptop can offer.

  • Teachers aren’t trained to implement blended. Good news: in a recent survey, 90% of teachers agreed that technology was important for classroom success. But here’s the rub: that same survey found that 60 percent of teachers felt inadequately prepared to use technology in the classroom.

A longstanding issue in the world of education is a lack of oversight checking whether teachers are implementing new methods. Though this may not be a critical failure when it comes to smaller issues like memorization methods or the best way to do long division, it would be when it comes to blended learning. That said, a number of groups, including Jessica Anderson’s BetterLesson, are now available for educators hoping to better understand blended techniques.

Where the most potential exists:

  • A more comprehensive experience. One of the biggest potential benefits of blended learning is that it can free educators to use class time more effectively. Using the “flipped classroom” method, students can gain skills and learn on their own time before attending class. This gives them the opportunity to prepare and brush up on material that will be helpful to have in their tool kits.

On the other side of this equation is class time that can be dedicated toward group projects, collaborative exercises, or lively debates. Eliminating the need to learn basics during valuable time in the classroom frees up space for actually getting to practice some of these concepts.

  • Learning independently at a younger age. Traditionally, students don’t learn independently until their high school years. Concepts are mastered in the classroom, and then homework reinforces the learning that has taken place during the day. This can be problematic – in fact, I believe that this model is partially to blame for students not taking ownership of their education.

One question that I teach my SuperCamp students to ask themselves is “What’s in it for me?” In a traditional system, where lots of learning is rote memorization, it can be hard to come up with a “why” any deeper than something like “So I can pass my vocabulary quiz tomorrow.” Allowing students to control their own education and learn independently can be a reminder that curiosity is good and that there are reasons to learn beyond tomorrow’s test.

  • An option for every learning style means easy ways to study. One important lesson I’ve learned over my decades spent in education is that identifying and accommodating a student’s learning style can be the difference between success and failure. This is where blended learning and another new method called “personalized learning” overlap. Personalized learning is a style that emphasizes learning that meets the needs of each individual student, allowing them to work anytime, anywhere, and at the speed they’re comfortable with. Using an approach that integrates the two, students can choose modalities that educate them most effectively, and they can progress at their own pace.

This means that a visual learner can study graphs and charts for as long as he needs while an auditory learner can play back a lecture as many times as she desires. Making these connections is one more reason blended can be the easy way of studying.

Blended learning is worth a try

Though blended learning is a mixed bag, I am optimistic about the direction that it is moving. The same principles I’ve preached for years – collaborative learning, students taking ownership of their education, and recognizing unique learning styles – are all more compatible with blended than traditional learning. In fact, they’re some of the same things my students have been learning at SuperCamp for many summers.