The Mixed Bag of Blended Learning

Math has taken to the computer. What now?

Math has taken to the computer. What now?

Thursday I read this from Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer): An Aggravating and Energizing Hypothetical. And I commented on it.

Today I read this from Adam Percival (@ampercival): Blending Learning will bring big changes. And I commented on it.

I’ve been pretty forthcoming about my thoughts about the needed shake-up in the traditional look of math classes for a while now. This blended learning phenomenon is really getting the discussion going. That can be healthy. Just so we are on the same page, I’m going to steal from Mr. Percival, that blended learning is “classes taught partially online, partially in-person.”

And in the mathematics field, the discussion is never… uh… healthier(?) than when we all get to talking about Khan Academy (@KhanAcademy): The one-stop, YouTube-based, fix-it-all for struggling learners everywhere.

Now, to put it mildly, the jury is still out on whether or not Khan Academy helpful or desirable. Robert Talbert’s Report “Does Khan Academy help learners?” casts a bit of doubt, but leaves it open. Also, for a good time, check out blog posts about Khan Academy and read the comments (this post, for example).

So, what about blended learning? Well, my teaching experiences, conversations I’ve had, reading I’ve done and talks I’ve heard have utterly convinced me of one incredibly important point.

When it comes to Algebra, students struggle because they are disengaged. DIS… EN… GAGED… period. They aren’t learning because we aren’t teaching them in a way that draws them in. There it is.

If blended learning is prepared to deal with that problem, then I think we may be onto something. My contention with Khan Academy (and similar services) is that they are assuming the wrong thing. They are assuming that students are inherently self-motivated (certainly true in some cases, certainly not true in other cases) and that we are trying to teach material too fast. (The YouTube lecture lobby gets a ton of mileage out of the ability to pause a presentation and rewatch.)

As I see it, those are not the problems. The problem is with engagement. From my location in the cheap seats, the biggest bang for the professional development buck comes from developing the means to engage students into algebra learning. Draw them in. Sell it. Make it interesting. The question of Khan Academy (and similar services) isn’t whether or not its cost-effectiveness is going to muscle out traditional classrooms.

Whether or not Khan Academy (and similar services) becomes the tool that finally breaks through the wall of disengagement that the 21st century teenager has built remains to be seen. I am not convinced Khan Academy (and similar services) can do that to the typical unmotivated student, but I’ve been wrong before.

In the end, it all comes down to this: If there is to be a magic bullet that solves the problem of the struggling American algebra student, then it will be the system/program/model/philosophy that solves the problem of the disengagement of the American algebra student.

3 thoughts on “The Mixed Bag of Blended Learning

  1. I agree- generally speaking, engagement is a major reason why students struggle with subjects like Algebra. And my feeling is that blended learning (at least in most of its current forms, such as in schools that use Kahn Academy) tends to favor students who are already engaged, so that format alone won’t solve the engagement issue.

  2. A building block of engagement is motivation. When students are motivated by the end result, there is a better chance they will be engaged in the activities needed to achieve that result. Motivation helps provide reasons, and sets the stage, for student engagement, even when they perceive the content/curriculum to be less than interesting (as many math students do). Why do high school athletes go through repetitive, boring drills? Because they are motivated by the end result – in this case, winning. So they are more readily engaged in what they need to do to reach that goal. Blended learning does assume existing motivation; it provides another (and in many cases better) way for the already motivated to engage with the content.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this since you posted it. Here are things I think I know after almost 27 weeks of “blended learning” (if you want to call it that).
    1. Kids respond better when it is their teacher on the videos compared to Khan or other “canned” videos. We have at least 3 math teachers flipping and they are making their own videos, with their own sense of humor, style, etc and the kids are responding.
    2.The videos are not the biggest change of the flipped class/blended learning. Those are still traditional lecturing. The change happens in the classroom. If you have kids watch videos, but then just worksheet them to death in the classroom, then nothing has changed. If you have them watch videos of the basics at home and then engage them in projects/longer story problems/have them create their own videos, they are more likely to come to class.
    3. I think the biggest thing that blended learning can do for kids (esp in math) is differentiate. If they come in w/o watching the video or not understanding the video, you can have a different assignment for them during the class period than someone who comes in with a full understanding of the concept (mastery-based flip)

    *There’s my two cents. Take this all with a grain of salt seeing as how I am flipping with my AP Gov’t kids this year (hardly similar to algebra 1 kiddos). I am helping a colleague flip his algebra 1 class though and I will let you know any “ah-ha” moments that I have. The response from my AP’ers has been largely successful. They like the discussion/debate/etc in class and the ability to ask me individual questions (I talk to each kid each day)

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