What blended learning is – and isn’t

March 4, 2016 | by Clifford Maxwell

Last summer, I attended a panel at an education conference where the moderator asked a group of panelists, “How do you define blended learning?” The moderator’s question came from a realistic vantage point: with a wide range of educational terms, including project-based learning, blended learning, personalized learning, and online learning, it can be difficult to differentiate what blended learning is and isn’t. Nevertheless, I felt frustrated by her question because it assumed that each panelist would have different insights to offer on what blended learning means. Without a universal definition of blended learning there is no shared language by which the education field can describe the phenomena or address its opportunities and challenges.

The phenomenon of blended learning has its roots in online learning and represents a fundamental shift in instruction that has the potential to optimize for the individual student in ways that traditional instruction never could. Although schools have been using computers and technology  for some time, until recently they haven’t generally used technology to provide students with a true “blend” of instruction that gives them some element of control over their learning. The definition of blended learning has three parts, described below: 

BLENDED (2) (1)1. In part through online learning
First, blended learning is any formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.

Critical to the definition is “online learning, with some element of student control.” In all blended-learning programs, students do some of their learning via the internet. This does not mean using any digital tool, such as an online graphing calculator or Google Docs. Online learning means a bigger instructional shift from a face-to-face teacher to web-based content and instruction.

Some element of student control is critical; otherwise, blended learning is no different from a teacher beaming online curriculum to a classroom of students through an electronic whiteboard. The technology used for the online learning must shift content and instruction to the control of the student in at least some way for it to qualify as blended learning from the student’s perspective, rather than just the use of digital tools from the classroom teacher’s perspective. It may be merely control of pace—the ability for students to pause, go back, or skip forward through online content as free agents. But often, online learning extends other types of control—in some cases students can choose the time at which they do their online learning, the path they want to take to learn a concept, or even the location from which they want to complete the online work—whether in a brick-and-mortar classroom or anywhere else.

2. In part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location
The second part of the definition is that the student learns at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home. In other words, the student attends a physical school with teachers or guides. Often it’s the neighborhood school, but in other cases it’s a learning center that could even be housed in a shopping mall space that has been converted into a drop-in computer lab. Blended learning means that students have at least some on-campus, away-from-home component built into their schedule.

3. An integrated learning experience
The third part of the definition is that the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience. This means that if students are learning U.S. history in a blended way, the online and face-to-face components work together to deliver an integrated course. The opposite of this would be that the students learn some topics online and then return to their traditional classroom to repeat them in a face-to-face lecture. To prevent such lack of coordination, most blended-learning programs use a computer-based data system to track each student’s progress and try to match the modality—whether it is online, one-on-one, or small group—to the appropriate level and topic. The key idea is that blended learning involves an actual “blend” of whatever formats are within the course of study.

Want to see blended learning in action? Check out the schools and classrooms featured in the BLU directory.

Applying the definition

Let’s also use this definition in a hypothetical situation to see whether it is an example of blended learning.

Tracy is a language arts teacher who has posted all of her lesson plans, assignments, and quizzes online so that students can access them at home, as well as at school. Tracy’s school recently implemented a one-to-one program in which each student has access to a personal computing device. To leverage the technology, Tracy has all of her students follow along on their devices during a guided reading exercise, during which the teacher and students examine a piece of text together. After a class discussion on the text, Tracy has the students switch over to Google Docs where they each write their own agreement or disagreement with the central argument of the text. During this time, Tracy roams the classroom making sure students are on task and answering any questions that arise.

Is Tracy using blended learning in her classroom? No. Let’s understand why:

  • By posting all class material online, Tracy is using the Internet to merely host information, not to manage the delivery of content or instruction.
  • The fact that Tracy’s school is a one-to-one program is irrelevant to whether blended learning is taking place. One-to-one is not synonymous with blended learning, as it doesn’t imply a shift in instructional delivery or an element of student control. Although equipping all students with devices can be a crucial component of creating a blended-learning program, if not implemented correctly, the devices themselves can easily be used to support traditional instruction (as in Tracy’s case).
  • Tracy’s students are all using the personal computing devices to read and write, but they are moving through the content as a single batch doing the same thing at the same time with no element of control over the time, place, path, or pace of learning.
  • Tracy’s use of Google Docs for the student writing exercise is no different than if her students were writing with pencil and paper.

Tracy is participating in a “technology-rich” classroom, not a blended one. Technology-rich instruction shares the features of traditional teacher-led instruction with technological enhancements. This includes electronic whiteboards, digital textbooks, online lesson plans, Google Docs, virtual reality, and so forth. These tools may enhance learning experiences, but do not fundamentally shift instruction in a way that gives students some element of control.

By understanding blended learning as an instructional delivery model that gives students some element of control over their learning and by leveraging the opportunity of personalization that blended learning can provide at scale, educators can start to address challenges and opportunities in their schools that will enable them to move the practice of blended learning forward.

For more, see our overview of blended learning models.

More resources:

  • The BLU blog for blended-learning advice, data, stories, and more
  • Ask questions and get expert answers on the Q&A Forum

2 Responses to “What blended learning is – and isn’t”


April 18, 2016 at 9:34 pm, debbie said:

Blended Learning is interesting and exciting but also scary. The possibility of needing less staff with the move toward on line coursework will occur. Schools will look very different and blended learning will allow for students to work at home or other locations and not even have report to school to get work done.


April 25, 2016 at 4:31 pm, Clifford Maxwell said:

Blended learning is not at all about replacing teachers. It can fundamentally alter space/time in the classroom to allow teachers to do things they currently can’t do (like individual and small group instruction), and gives students an unprecedented opportunity to receive instruction that is tailored to their individual needs. You’re right that online instruction in some circumstances allows students to learn from home or outside of school, but in most cases parents and students both prefer the school for several reasons, not the least of which is “I work full time and need to send my kid somewhere during the day”. In fact, several purely online schools are integrating more and more face-to-face components so as to meet this need. We see classrooms transforming with blended learning, not the dissolution of schools or teachers. For more, check out my colleague’s post “Will computers replace teachers?” here: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/will-computers-replace-teachers/

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