Where digitization and blended learning meet: What can we learn from China’s journey into blended learning?

October 10, 2018 | by Lucy Chen

Research over the last decade has shown how blended learning has gained a strong foothold in U.S. schools, but is a similar trend happening in schools abroad? How might uncovering international trends inform our efforts here in the states?

In my studies on innovation in education, I have been particularly curious to learn whether or not some innovative practices, like blended and personalized learning, are taking hold in China. In recent years, China has discussed the potential of innovative pedagogies; yet, blended learning has not been discussed in detail as one of these pedagogies, especially among educators. To gain a stronger understanding of the blended-learning landscape in China, I recently sat down with Zhang Liang, currently founder and CEO of Akademi, and a former journalist who has devoted his career to improving education.

Zhang has traveled all over China to observe schools that implement diverse educational practices and has written hundreds of case studies of middle schools and high schools. As a teacher, he was an early practitioner of learner-centered teaching. Zhang experimented with the Flipped Classroom model of blended learning with students in Liang Shuijin High School as part of an effort to break away from textbook-based curricula through interdisciplinary projects. Taking what he learned from his practice, Zhang helped design two schools based on Project-Based Learning (PBL). In 2015, he started akadm, a cloud-based teaching assistant system to facilitate in-class, student-centered learning. In our interview, Zhang shared his observations and opinions on blended learning in China.*

Lucy: Have you heard of blended learning? What does it mean to you?

Zhang:  Blended learning is an active component in the digitization of learning trend.

Many educators in China think of blended learning as the use of technology. There’s an overemphasis on the online piece. The Chinese government has invested quite a lot in improving the hardware in the classrooms. In 2012, the goal was to connect every school. And in 2015, it was to connect every classroom. By 2022, the goal is to connect every student. And I’d say we don’t need to wait until 2022.

Lucy: Is the understanding that blended learning is the use of technology shared by education practitioners and innovators in China?

Zhang: It is so different in theory than in practice. The conversation first started in academia. Some professors from South China Normal University and Shanghai Normal University are the pioneers in researching learning tools in both the online and offline environment for years. However, this knowledge is simplified when practiced in the field. Sometimes, students use a few digital tools for their homework, but it is rare to see digital learning act as an essential part of learning in K12. [Note: The BLU differentiates technology-rich models from blended-learning models. Read more about how simply using digital tools for learning is not considered a blended experience.]

Lucy: Would you share some examples where you have seen blended learning practiced in the classroom?

Zhang: On the one hand, individual teachers may use apps to assist in teaching. For instance, some teachers use apps along with the science curriculum for gamified tasks. Students learn about the content on the apps before class, come to the class for discussion, and use the apps for additional information. On the other hand, blended learning helps tackle education inequality. A “double-teacher” model has been adopted more widely in China. Experienced teachers give a class via video chat and a local teacher helps to ask questions and lead small-group exercises on-site. For instance, the Hu+ project provides elective courses, like arts, online for 3000+ schools in 30+ provinces.

Lucy: Given your diverse experiences with the Chinese education system, from leading PBL schools in rural China to developing tech products for teachers all over the countryincluding big cities like Guangzhou, what do you see as the challenges for schools to go blended?

Zhang: There are many challenges. I will share two. First, teachers and students do not have time.It is the norm that students have a very tight schedule every day. Teachers are trying to squeeze in learning materials every minute they can. It is a luxurious thing to think about exploration as the primary way of learning. Second, the evaluation system for teachers has cultivated most teachers to be risk-averse and to stick with the test-score-driven objectives. Their performance is highly connected to students’ performances. It is extremely hard for the teachers to let go control of what and how students learn.

Lucy: Looking into the future, what changes need to happen for more schools in China to go blended?

Zhang: System changes are hard to discuss here. The rigid test-driven system in China is suffocating. However, I am very hopeful because a lot of changes are happening. On the one hand, we need better, learner-centered tools. It is crucial to move away from the old thinking that technology equals a piece of hardware that stores learning materials. Adopting a learning-centered view, teachers and technologists can reimagine tablets as personal learning portals for each learner. The learning environment becomes blended because it continues from classroom to afterschool, from online to offline and vice versa. On the other hand, most schools and teachers have some push-back for adopting technology for its raw efficiency and negligence of humanness. Thus, the challenge lies in scaffolding teachers to use tools to empower themselves.

*The original interview was conducted in Chinese.

Lucy Chen is a founding class student at Minerva Schools at KGI who studies psychology and philosophy. She is passionate about designing effective and fulfilling learning experiences.

On the BLU, we are always aiming to learn from educators in the U.S. and around the globe who are practicing blended learning at all stages. We invite you to share your experiences from your classroom, school, or district in the BLU directory.  

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