What Is Blended Learning: Definition, Overview, Pros and Cons

What Is Blended Learning: Definition, Overview, Pros and Cons
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

The progress being made in the sector of education and training has incorporated new methods of delivery. While traditional learning remains as the most widely used due to the convenience and accessibility it offers, new approaches have been introduced as technology advances.

The concept of teaching and learning using a combination of methodologies is not new, but incorporating online methods is still relatively contemporary. More specifically, for example, “blended learning” has emerged as a viable alternative to the traditional classroom setting of delivering education and training. But what is blended learning? Hrastinski (2019) calls attention to the fact that despite the widespread popularity of blended learning, its exact definition is still shrouded in ambiguity.

In this article, we will explore the concept of blended learning, how it works, what common models are in practice, how it affects both the academic and corporate learning experience, and its benefits and limitations.

Blended Learning Table of Contents

  1. What is blended learning?
  2. Essential Blended Learning Statistics
  3. Blended Learning Models in Practice
  4. What are the benefits of blended learning?
  5. What are the pitfalls of blended learning?
  6. Blended Learning in the Time of Global Pandemic

Historically, the concept of blended learning can be traced to as far back as the 1840s when Sir Isaac Pitman delivered instructions for his shorthand system by correspondence course, thus pioneering the idea of distance education. Fast forward to the 1960s and 1970s, computer-based training (CBT) was launched with Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (P.L.A.T.O.) as the first computer-assisted instruction system. It did not take long for television-based technology to start supporting live training, which was similar to webinars and video conferencing of the modern era. By 1980, learning management system (LMS) was introduced, followed by the first generation of web-based instruction, which ultimately led to the integration of blended learning at the beginning of the 21st century.

Since the early 2000s, blended learning has evolved at an impressive rate along with its associated technologies. By examining the current state of blended learning, we aim to deliver a deeper understanding of this approach and its integral role in the modern education system.

What is blended learning?

According to Driscoll (2019, p. 1), blended learning means different things to different people. The meaning of the term constantly evolves as it incorporates new concepts along with each new technology, thus illustrating blended learning’s potential for growth. Driscoll further explains that blended learning may take the form of combining modes of web-based technology, pedagogical approaches, instructional technologies, and actual job tasks.

For Elsenheimer (2006, p. 26), blended learning is “an approach to instructional design that seeks to maximize learning potential by applying the most effective form of instruction for a given program element.” This general description of blended learning is narrowed down by Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, which describes blended learning as “a way of studying a subject that combines being taught in class with the use of different technologies, including learning over the internet.” Furthermore, Graham (2013) provides a more straightforward definition of blended learning, which is the combination of “online and face-to-face instruction.”

Essential Blended Learning Statistics

  • Globally, 61% of students have taken at least one online course or participated in a completely online competency-based program in their life (Dahlstrom et al., 2015, p. 30).
  • 57% of students enrolled in an online degree program also visit their physical campus (Best Colleges, 2020, p. 3).
  • In the U.S., 79% of online programs are designed for adults returning to school after an absence (Best Colleges, 2020, p. 28).
  • 65% of faculty worldwide supports open educational sources, which is a less traditional approach (Dahlstrom et al., 2015, p. 31).

Source: ECAR

  •  35% of K-12 teachers in the U.S. reported that they use digital learning tools because of the immediate and actionable data these tools provide and because digital learning tools allow them to tailor their instructions according to their students’ skill levels (NewSchools Venture Fund & Gallup, 2019, 20).
  • 63% of teachers agreed that digital learning tools are generally more effective in connecting learning to students’ future jobs and careers than non-digital tools (NewSchools Venture Fund & Gallup, 2019, 49).
  • 89% of English language learning teachers agreed that they find using digital learning tools in the classroom to be valuable (NewSchools Venture Fund & Gallup, 2019, 27).

Percentage of Teachers Who Were Most Likely to Agree That Digital Learning Tools Are Valuable in the Classroom

(by their primary subject area)

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Source: Gallup; NewSchools Venture Fund

Designed by
  • In the fall of 2018, 18.7% of enrolled students in postsecondary institutions took at least one distance education course (NCES, 2019).
  • 28% of undergraduate students in the U.S. chose schools where they could take both online and on-campus courses (Statista, 2020, p. 9).
  • Online learners worldwide spent an average of 1.6 hours a week learning through digital reading.

Source: Digital Learning Consortium (DLC)

Blended Learning Models in Practice

Blended learning can be approached by using a variety of methods. Depending on class requirements and available resources, schools may implement more than one model or combine different components of each based on what they deem as the most effective approach to teach their students. A number of blended learning models are listed in this section, which are generally used to help learners accomplish their coursework or lessons outside the traditional learning methods:

  • Station rotation model. This model is ideal for classrooms that have one online learning station. Following this model, students rotate through stations on a fixed schedule.
  • Lab rotation. This model operates in the same way as the station rotation model, with the difference that this takes place in a dedicated computer lab instead of a regular classroom.
  • Individual rotation. This model allows students to rotate through stations based on the individual schedules determined by a teacher or software algorithm. While station rotation model allows students to rotate through every station, individual rotation model does not necessarily operate in the same manner.
  • Flipped classroom. This model switches the activities between the time spent inside the classroom and the time spent by the students studying at home. Instead of doing the regular homework, students learn through online coursework and lectures from the comfort of their home. And instead of delivering the usual lectures in class, teachers use class time for projects and other teacher-guided practices.
  • Flex model. Students have more control over their learning as this model offers more flexibility in terms of students scheduling their learning activities according to their needs.
  • Enriched virtual model. This model allows students to complete most of their coursework outside of school. Unlike the flipped classroom model, enriched virtual model does not require students to attend school on a daily basis.

Source: Education Technology Use in Schools

In order to properly incorporate online learning into the blended learning approach, digital learning tools must be used and learning management systems or LMS is one of the popular choices. An LMS is an all-in-one solution that provides the necessary functionalities for course administration, managing assignments, collaboration, tracking student progress, and grading (Kuran et al., 2018).

Source: Docebo

Based on the result the 13th Annual Learning Tools Survey, below are the top five tools for learning (Top Tools for Learning, 2019):

  • Video platform (YouTube)
  • Web search engine (Google Search)
  • Presentation app (PowerPoint)
  • Social network (Twitter, LinkedIn)
  • File-sharing and collaboration platform (Google Docs and Google Drive)

Furthermore, below are the technologies that students in blended learning environments use:

  • Mobile learning. Technology that allows students access to the Internet is an integral part of a blended learning environment. To accomplish this setup, students or learners are either encouraged to bring their own devices or institutions provide them with the devices they need to access course materials or lessons provided in electronic format (document, podcast, video, etc.), as well as complete course works and home works.
  • Virtual classrooms. Often used for remote or distance learning, virtual classrooms have become the leading option for conducting online classes in the time of the global pandemic. But while virtual classrooms are the closest replacements to face-to-face classroom environment, not everyone has the means to access online platforms. Furthermore, there are teachers and instructors who are not well versed in navigating and managing an online classroom (Iwai, 2020), which, in itself, can render online learning ineffective.

Source: Gallup; NewSchools Venture Fund

What are the benefits of blended learning?

The purpose of incorporating blended learning into the pedagogical approach is not to extinguish the traditional practices but to provide teachers and learners alike with the inherent advantages of face-to-face interaction and online teaching methods. According to Osguthorpe and Graham, (2003, p.228), blended learning is all about “finding the balance between online access to knowledge and face-to-face human interaction.”

Research by Albiladi and Alshareef identifies three key areas where the use of blended learning method has been proven to be beneficial:

  • Developing language skills. Various studies have examined the effectiveness of blended learning when used in English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL) classes. In 2011, Grgurovic published a case study that measures the effectiveness of blended learning in an ESL class. The result of the study indicated that the students and teacher believed that using a blended learning method improved the students’ capabilities to effectively learn the English language.
    In 2017, Ghazizadeh and Fatemipour published a study that focused on 60 Iranian EFL learners, all of whom were on the intermediate level. The students were divided into two groups, one of which was taught using a blended learning approach, whereas the other group received a more traditional teaching. Using a t-test, the researchers found that the class that used blended learning delivered a statistically better result in reading proficiency compared to the group that received English lessons traditionally.
  • Increasing motivation and engagement. Albiladi and Alshareef state that language learners are usually more motivated, satisfied and engaged when the approach to teaching combines the traditional face-to-face and online methods (2019, p. 234). Blended learning method also leaves room for more learning opportunities for students outside the traditional class setting. This benefit, however, relies on the effective use of both face-to-face and online teaching approaches.
  • Improving the learning environment. According to Senffner and Kepler (2015), blended learning is a flexible, scalable, and meaningful way of teaching and learning. One major factor that defines blended learning’s dynamic nature is its online component, which allows students to learn at their own pace without being limited to a strict schedule, class or groups, or partners.

Academic institutions are not the only ones that benefit from the blended learning approach. Organizations, particularly corporations and learning and development (L&D) professionals are also incorporating the combined face-to-face and online learning approach into their training practices. One of the major corporate benefits of blended learning is that it is more economical than traditional face-to-face training.

Blended learning has the potential to be more economical than traditional face-to-face learning as it requires fewer teachers’ load to supervise students. It offers the potential to create effective training, to save time and money for the Institute, to make training more engaging and convenient for learners and to offer learning professionals the chance to innovate (Atef & Medhat, 2015).

What are the pitfalls of blended learning?

Despite its proven effectiveness and promising potential, blended learning has its own challenges. According to Hoffman (2014), a major challenge is how to ensure participants’ commitment to successfully using the technology associated with blended learning, especially given the individual learner characteristics and encounters with technology.

Graham (2006) identified the following limitations, which stand in the way of a successful implementation of blended learning:

  • Live interaction. Reduced human interactions may affect the learning experience of individuals who prefer the face-to-face approach. Some teachers and instructors may find transitioning from pure traditional teaching practices to incorporating online learning as a major challenge, especially in terms of understanding that blended learning is not just book-based lecture but a completely new strategy for facilitating student growth compared to simply delivering content.
  • Self-regulation. While learners choose blended learning primarily for the convenience and access it offers, they lack the proper guidance to understand how their choice of blended learning method can affect their learning experience. Also, for students or learners, the greatest limitation of blended learning is the need to be or quickly become an intrinsically motivated and self-directed learner.
  • Cultural adaptation. While online learning platforms provide a fast way to disseminate uniform learning materials, a balance between global and local interests must be established. This can be achieved through customization of globally distributed learning materials to ensure that they are culturally relevant.
  • Balance between innovation and production. The constant battle between innovation and production can also affect the quality and cost of blended learning technology. While it is ideal to take full advantage of technological innovations and incorporate them into designing learning systems, design sophistication might get in the way of being cost-effective.
  • Internet access and user adoption. Atef and Medhat (2015, p. 358) bring forth two of the biggest challenges faced by developing countries when it comes to adopting blended learning method: limited Internet access or lack thereof and the fact that there are locations where some learners are unfamiliar with using technology associated with blended learning.

Source: UNESCO

Blended Learning in the Time of Global Pandemic

According to UNESCO, COVID-19’s impact on global education has affected approximately 1.38 billion learners from pre-primary to tertiary levels. With schools and universities declaring closure for the rest of the school year and transitioning to distance learning, the effectiveness of online learning methods and systems are being put to the test. An article from World Economic Forum (Li & Lalani, 2020) states that learning online can be more effective in a number of ways than physical classroom learning but only for those who have access to the right technology. UNESCO (2020) then provides a comprehensive list of distance learning solutions for schools and school administrators, teachers, students, and parents or caregivers, which include learning solutions with strong offline capability for those who have limited online access.

The reality is COVID-19 can reshape the education system for better and for worse (Li & Lalani, 2020). While the sudden transition to distance learning has caught academic institutions, teachers, and learners off guard, it also offers a preview of potential long-term changes in the education system (Tam & El-Azar, 2020). But with only approximately 60% of the world’s population having online access (Kemp, 2020), the digitization of education can arguably be only beneficial to those with quality access to online learning tools, which can be costly to the less affluent population. The current situation, however, also presents an opportunity to work on bridging the digital divide by improving connectivity, device access, and developing strategies for effective offline learning.

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