Don't Let a Crisis Go to Waste: Blended & Online Learning and the Future of Education

Teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine was not easy. Like many educators, I found myself teaching in a virtual environment almost overnight with little preparation and training to transition from in-person to virtual teaching. One of the biggest obstacles for me was learning the hardware and software to teach remotely. Before the quarantine, I had little understanding or experience with Google Meets or Zoom. I am not that familiar with the hardware side of computing, and I only had a basic grasp of computer video and sound. In addition, I had never designed a course using a learning management system (LMS), and I only had a rudimentary understanding of online learning tools. I am not a Luddite, but going from casual computer user to online teacher was a giant leap for me. There were many sleepless, stressed-filled nights during those first several weeks of distance learning as I tried to design and teach online for the first time. I was truly in crisis mode.

Besides the technical side, the most challenging part of distance learning was not being in the classroom with my students. Despite trying to engage them with ice-breaker activities and various other attempts at getting to know them, I found it extremely difficult to connect with them personally the way I had in the physical classroom. In my opinion, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact when trying to build relationships. In addition, the teaching process is hampered when teaching remotely. I liken the experience to flying a plane by its instruments rather than by sight. Meaning that teachers depend on student nonverbals when teaching a lesson. Reading students’ body language to see if they understand a concept is a fundamental teaching skill that is hampered when teachers cannot see their students because they are unable or refuse to turn on their cameras. In this scenario, teachers only have the data provided through various formative and summative assessments to guide their instruction. Further, situational awareness, or understanding what is going on in the classroom at all times, is almost impossible to do well in a remote teaching setting. Finally, teachers cannot use their physical proximity and voice dynamics to keep students focused and on task.

Despite the challenges of remote teaching, several positive outcomes came from the experience. As a result of the COVID-19 quarantine, school districts made a mad scramble to provide one-to-one computers to their students. A recent EdWeek Research Center survey found that 90% of educators polled indicated that their school had issued a laptop to every high schooler and middle school student by March of 2021. Elementary teachers reported that 84% of their students had a school computer. In addition to students having appropriate technology and connectivity, many teachers had the same experience I did in receiving a crash course in distance learning to include learning management systems or LMS to deliver online content to students. LMSs allow teachers to create, organize, administer, document, and track student learning using various online tools and analytics. Some of the most popular LMSs include Canvas, Schoology, and Google Classroom. In addition to using LMSs, many teachers became proficient at using various digital tools such as the Google Workspace for Education suite including Docs, Forms, and Drive.

Now that most students have returned to in-person school, the question is whether teachers will continue to deploy online tools in what is known as blended learning. Sometimes referred to as mixed learning, blended learning is when the teacher combines synchronous in-person teaching with asynchronous online tools to deliver content and instruction. Research has shown that students benefit when teachers employ blended learning. The approach has been shown to increase student engagement and learning by facilitating independent and collaborative learning opportunities and developing students’ digital literacy skills (Rafiola, Setyosari, Radjah, & Ramli, 2020). Further, research indicates that students have an overall favorable view of blended learning (Alsalhi, Eltahir, & Al-Qatawneh, 2019) because it allows them to use apps, games, programs, and various digital media to learn at their own pace, allowing students to engage with content on their schedules, independent of when they are physically in the classroom. This, in turn, reduces students’ stress, increases their satisfaction, and leads to deeper learning.

Besides increases in student engagement and achievement, blended learning saves money and resources by reducing the amount of paper used in the classroom. According to a recent survey, the typical American teacher uses between 25-75 pieces of paper every day for tests, homework, and other resources. A school typically uses about 360,00 pieces of paper per school year at an annual cost of $16,000. Nationally that translates to 32 billion pieces of paper used every year at the expense of 1.6 billion dollars! Almost all my assignments, handouts, and resources are now provided to students via LMS or Google Docs, cutting my copy paper consumption by approximately 90%. Not only does going digital save money, but it also saves time. I no longer have to prepare resources for printing or waste precious class time passing them out to students. Additionally, because students submit their assignments through the LMS, I don’t have to carry piles of paper home to grade, and I have the convenience of grading students’ work anytime and anyplace I want. Additionally, using an LMS makes learning accessible to students who are unable to come to school. Assuming the student has the appropriate technology and access to the internet. Students will never fall behind in a blended learning environment because they cannot attend school in person. Further, building a course in an LMS requires the teacher to be organized and thoughtful. Teachers must be reflective practitioners when thinking about sequencing concepts, assignments, and activities and how students access and utilize them. I found transitioning my courses to online learning an excellent opportunity to reflect and critically analyze my curriculum. Instead of doing what I have always done, I had the chance to reevaluate my approach and optimize students learning by taking advantage of digital tools and resources. Another benefit to blended learning is that the courses are transparent. This means that families can see what their students are learning, including the assignments, activities, resources, and due dates. This is an excellent way to build bridges between the school and students’ families, keep them engaged in their student's learning, and provide direct communication through the LMS.

Finally, K-12 students will benefit from blended learning because distance and blended learning have become the norm on most college campuses. A survey of 232 college faculty members across the country revealed that 73% utilize blended learning, while 12% teach entirely online. Further, the National Center for education statistics reported that in the Fall of 2019, there were 7,313,623 students enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting colleges and universities. That translates to approximately 37% of all college students took at least one online class. K-12 teachers who utilize blended learning approaches in their courses are preparing their students for the future as the number of courses and programs colleges offer online is only increasing. For example, since 2020, 98% of universities have reported that they provide online classes, and 75% of schools polled are investing in online technology to expand and improve their online course offerings. Currently, over 2,500 colleges offer fully online degree programs, with over 3 million students graduating from college never having stepped foot on campus. From associate degrees to doctoral level programs, online learning is growing in popularity. The online education market is forecasted to swell to over $350 Billion by 2025.

Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff under President Barrack Obama, famously said during the 2008 financial crisis, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” While stated in much different circumstances, this advice could be applied to schools and blended learning. This means that the transition to blended and fully online programs, due to the COVID quarantine, is an excellent opportunity for the field of education to evolve to a more high-tech future. Although, we have the opportunity to reimagine the possibilities and build on what we have collectively learned, we should not waste it by drifting back to the status quo.

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