What is Blended Learning: The Hybrid Learning Consortium Summer Symposium 2014

What IS blended learning?  

I headed to the HLC Summer Symposium in Kansas City, Missouri with a general idea.  However, throughout the two days I repeatedly found that my definition was not aligned with the definitions of others.  In some cases, the definition of blended learning was larger than I had envisioned.  For example, the Blended Teacher Network uses Horn and Staker (2013) definition of blended learning:

… a 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; at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Having learned, however, that Horn and Staker’s definition resulted from extrapolating a definition from the traits that a selected set of Case Studies included made me question the validity of the definition.  But … I do find this definition resonates with me.

Whereas in other cases I found people describing an entirely on-line entity as “blended”.  I challenged this classification but despite my questions never felt satisfied with their use of the term.  Ultimately, it became clear that the concept of blended or hybrid learning is not defined, described, or used in a consistent manner.  Jeniene located a set of definitions that quantified – and I like that! – the differences between on-line, blended, hybrid, and, wait for it … hyflex learning.  Ultimately, it became quite clear that the research and formal education on this topic is new and that we, particularly as a high school, are getting into this realm early in the process.  I see this, therefore, as an opportunity to help define and shape blended learning.  How awesome!

Why Blended?

I was initially intrigued by blended learning because of its potential to more effectively utilize out of class time.  My courses tend to be student-centered and hands-on.  However, I consistently feel the tension of how to provide solid content resources when necessary without interrupting the flow of the class or “wasting” class time to provide standard information.  However, many of the participants at the Symposium focused on how this shift enables them to open up their class time because they have been utilizing a more traditional approach.  Regardless of the direction from which you enter blended learning I believe that the thoughtful, effective use of this structure can enable us to make learning more efficient and assessment more directed.  A number of the speakers at the Symposium were definitely making an argument for the shift towards blended/online learning.  Repeatedly the presenters made two points: (1) simply posting material on to an LMS (Learning Management System) does not make it “online learning”, and (2) hybrid/online learning takes a lot of work.  Unfortunately, for Jeniene and I, multiple presenters spent a lot of time trying to convince us that blended/online learning was something to consider through general reviews of learning theory research.  Jeniene and Ii had just traveled 1400 miles during our first week of summer vacation – we were not there to be convinced… we were there ready to jump into the deep end (or maybe 5 ft area) of the pool and get busy.  So thankfully, @KatieGimbar was there.

Rethinking the Flipped Classroom

Great teachers grab your attention (or at least mine) immediately.  And Katie Gimbar had my attention the moment I walked into her session (or class).  A teacher from the public schools of North Carolina, Katie has been (appropriately so) pulled from the classroom to help increase the use of her innovative strategies for the flipped classroom.  Having worked in rural NC as a Teach For America corps member in the mid 90s, I immediately recognized that Katie’s energy, enthusiasm, and strategies would be so effective for her students.  That said, good teaching strategies can be adapted to any setting to meet the particular needs and challenges of your students.  Two of the catalysts for Katie’s rethinking of the flipped classroom were classroom management and access.  At St. Mark’s these two factors are minimal, if even present.  However, the strategies she employs have incredible potential in our classrooms.

Duplicating Yourself

Katie uses her efficient, one-take, whiteboard video “lectures” to essentially duplicate herself.  She presents these videos in the classroom and watches them with her students.  Why?  Most importantly, and this relates especially to us at SM, is that the taping allows her to produce efficient lectures of content.  A topic that might take 20-30 minutes to present in class can be taped in 6-8 minutes in the absence of questions, confusion, side-conversations, etc.  While the video is playing Katie can roam the room, keep students on task, answer brief side questions, recognize more effectively when a pause is needed, and so forth.  In terms of SM, I don’t think that I would review my video in class given that I am confident our students have access and that my students will watch the video if I structure the course in such a way that this information is important to them.  However,  these videos provide an archive of the explanation of a topic.  An archive that can be saved for her students to reference later in brief form.  Imagine that AP (Advanced) teachers … all of the “precious content” saved for students to reference.  For me this is an amazing idea.  A negative feedback loop is discussed and I have a link to both a video of me explaining the idea and other resources (such as my new e-book)!  And my kids can access my “duplicated self” whenever they need me … not just in class, not just when I say they need to pay attention – but when they want the information.

Keep it Brief

Every presenter, Katie included, reinforced that these videos NEED to be brief.  8-12 minutes seems to be the maximum length recommended … with some 15 minutes videos once in a while.  And for those of us who think we teach the best and brightest and want to be the most rigorous of teachers… if you exceed this length you are probably exceeding cognitive load and therefore your students are not going to be moving as much information into LTM (long term memory) as you may think.  An assignment could included more than one video, but then the videos need to be interrupted by the application of the content from the previous video in an effort to help construct an understanding of the concepts and begin the process of developing LTM.

You still get to be You!

Katie really supported the idea of producing your own videos – putting your own voice and face into the picture for YOUR own students.  She stressed the idea of demonstrating your competence in teaching the subject matter (not using someone else) and the connection that you have developed with your students.  Other viewpoints were expressed at the symposium … there are a lot of people who say “don’t reinvent the wheel” if someone else has already produced a video on the topic.  I find myself agreeing with Katie in that I know I explain ideas in a way that I think are useful to my specific group of students and when we hear other explanations I often find myself adding in ideas.  But this seems like an individual choice to me.

It doesn’t have to be showy

Katie’s videos were one-take (usually) videos of her explaining ideas on small sheets of whiteboard.  Nothing fancy, no gimmicks, no editing, etc.  [Note:  We did watch a couple of sessions by Bill Blass on Camtasia and other TechSmith products and I am planning on using this level of technology for some of my videos this year.  I think that I will use the more professional videos for particular purposes but since I am not there yet … I am not going to blog about it now.]  You can learn more about 1-take videos at this great resource by fizzedu.  There are even options for taking an online course.

Reflective Teaching (and Learning)

Katie also uses her video to refine her teaching practices.  She is constantly evaluating her videos and changing them from time to time as she realizes that she can do better.  She also often keeps a camera in the back of her classroom so that she can review and reflect upon her teaching sessions ALL OF THE TIME.  She openly talks about being a reflective teacher.  For those of you knowledgeable about “deliberate practice” you all should recognize that this is one aspect of becoming an expert in your field.  But Katie also uses has her student make these 1-take videos which provides the opportunity for her students to be reflective learners.  I will talk more about this below.

A Great Selection of Strategies 

1-Take Videos

You can have your students make 1-Take Videos in class (or for hw … but might not be 1-take).  Why?  …

    1. Opportunity for your students to “publish” their scholarship.  And this increases ownership of their learning.
    2. (Our) students have access to the technology on their phones and therefore we can have everyone do this at the same time.  I have been struggling with how do I get every group to present their research or experimental design (or other) verbally with the time allotted.  Now I can claim the last 5 minutes of class (I don’t need 25 minutes) for all groups to record and then they can submit these recordings to me.  Everyone gets to practice the skills (and presentation skills are a huge part of our academic goals) and I can give feedback to everyone and save time for more learning.
    3. Great opportunity for formative assessment.  As I mentioned above, leveraging the technology our students have can allow me to provide fairly immediate feedback to my students (overnight) and allows me to get a better sense of where my collaborative teams are before they return to class.  I can also envision using this for individuals – video selfies if you imagine.  Why not just write?  Because when students explain their ideas verbally I often find some misconceptions lurking.  I also can help my students develop their ability to explain ideas verbally through this deliberate practice.  This doesn’t mean I won’t have my students write – because we do a lot of that – but this will provide a different medium that might be really attractive and engaging for some of my students who find writing more challenging or cumbersome and might challenge some of my students who can write well but have a difficult time expressing their ideas verbally.  Scared to be seen on video?  See the Paper Slide strategy below.
    4. Opportunity to gather formative assessment on your students at the same moment … when I have to move around to groups towards the end of class they are at different points by the time I reach them.  Using this strategy will allow me to see where everyone is at the same moment.
    5. Developing discipline-specific terminology.  Katie has found that as her students make more of these 1-take videos (and review them) that they become more aware of their use of terminology.  The reflective nature of this process propels them (with guidance) to better utilize appropriate terminology.  This applies to all of our disciplines.

The Paper Slide

This strategy simply video records a piece of paper while the presenter speaks into the camera.  The result is a video of written work with voice recording but the presenter is off screen.  Sometimes students are shy.  Sometimes you just want an image to be explained.  A quick video of “just” the paper – simple sheets of 8 1/2 X 11 paper with diagrams, words, etc on screen while your students explain.  Students can use multiple pieces of paper each or maybe each student explains their paper in a quick successive movement through each.  Another quick, low-tech approach to gathering explanations and ideas and allowing your students to publish.  You can use your iPhone (again) to video … but you do need a tripod and a phone clamp to connect the phone and iPod.  I am thinking that I will purchase a set of clamps and tripods for my classroom so that I can have my students make these all at the same time.  We did these in our session and they really are quick PROVIDED that you run your class like Katie did – no playing around, no (or very limited retakes), and quick movement connecting your video to the computer.  So there is a learning curve for some of us who may not have used this technology.  But it definitely can be done in class time efficiently and effectively.

One-Word Whiteboard

You can use a whiteboard (small boards for groups) or a paper for this strategy.  Ask students a provocative, open-ended question – but they can only answer in one word.  The example Katie used was with Jamestown.  After a short video on the settling of Jamestown she asked, “Why did the settlers struggle to succeed in Jamestown?”.  This exercise (in groups) provided an opportunity for academic discourse and critical thinking.  Each group has to write their one word and then explain their reasoning for the selection of that word to the class.  Now you can do this on or off camera based upon multiple factors.  Brilliant follow up strategy … ask a second question (after the students are really satisfied with their selection) that flips them around.  For this exercise it was, “So then why was Jamestown so successful?”  Note:  sorry to Katie for misstating her questions… they were much better articulated than I have done… but hopefully everyone gets the gist.

What else did we pick up?  

Jeniene will be blogging as well … and I might have spoken about some of what she intended (sorry Jeniene!).  But there were some other really interesting strategies and technologies that we started to explore and intend to play with this summer (thanks to the Patterson Grant!)

TechSmith Products:  Camtasia, Snag It, Fuse, ScreenCast, Coach’s Eye

These products provide some exciting tools to make more professional videos for online use.  Documents, powerpoints, actual video can all be used – and integrated.  I will spend a bunch of time this summer exploring these products and practicing!


We saw a really great use of a class blog for an Art History class.  I am thinking about how I can use it for Advanced Environmental Science and maybe Advanced Biology as well.  This teacher used it as opportunity for students to (1) explore areas in which they were interested, (2) share their learning with others, (3) “cover” more content than the class would be able to in the traditional setting, and (4) provide living documentation of a student essentially growing up over the course of the year.   I have always wanted to better incorporate the use of the NYTimes Science Section into my classes and this might just be the medium to keep all of my students involved while not limiting time for the other demands of the course.  He used a rotating schedule for “publishing” to the blog.  This medium also helps the students to develop their voice which will be really helpful for my Environmental Science students given that they will be participating in the Dupont Science Essay competition next winter.

What about Assessment?  

One aspect we found to be minimal at the Symposium was the conversation about assessment.  How, when, and for what purpose are students assessed?  I know that the assessment piece will be an integral part to my work on this topic this year.  In fact, I think it is important that we are very reflective of integrating the use of technology and education research in terms of assessment.  I am excited about my week at InstructureCon next week for this purpose.  More to come.