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Blended Learning: Introduction

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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At its simplest, blended learning courses are those in which a significant amount of seat time, that is, time spent in the classroom, is replaced with online activities that involve students in meeting course objectives 



The posting below is the introduction to the new book, Blended Learning: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy, edited by  Francine S. Glazer who is also the author of the introduction. Published in Association with the National Teaching and Learning Forum, by Stylus Publishing, LLC. 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. []. Copyright © 2012 by Stylus Publishing, LLC.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Blended Learning: Introduction


Today's college students lead blended lives. In fact, if we loosely define the term blended to mean \"partially virtual, partially tangible,\" then we can safely say all our lives have steadily become more and more blended. We access our news online, we pay bills online, we communicate through e-mail and social networks. People with Internet access go first to the web for information. We access the world via smartphones; why not access education that way too?

At its simplest, blended learning courses are those in which a significant amount of seat time, that is, time spent in the classroom, is replaced with online activities that involve students in meeting course objectives. Educause, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the intelligent use of information technology in higher education, classifies courses based on the amount of time spent in each modality (Allen, Seaman, & Garrett, 2007). According to its classification scheme, blended courses have between 30% and 79% of activities online, face-to-face courses can include up to 29% of online activities, and fully online courses can include up to 20% of face-to-face activities.

Garrison and Vaughan (2008) define blended learning as \"the thoughtful fusion of face-to-face and online learning experiences . . . such that the strengths of each are blended into a unique learning experience . . . Blended learning is a fundamental redesign that transforms the structure of, and approach to, teaching and learning\" (p. 5).

The unique characteristic of blended learning is that a significant portion of the activities occur in two areas: in person and online. Various other pedagogies - lecture, problem-based learning, Just-in-Time Teaching, cooperative learning, and others - can then be superimposed on the blended framework. The challenge of blended learning is to link, or blend, what happens in each medium so that face-to-face and online activities reinforce each other to create a single, unified, course.

A large body of literature, often categorized as the no significant difference literature, is often cited in support of the contention that there is no discernible benefit in the learning outcomes of students taught online compared to students taught in a face-to-face environment. In fact, careful meta-analyses of this literature reveal an important difference: Online learning, and in particular blended learning, can result in significantly better student learning compared to learning in the conventional classroom.

A meta-analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Education (2009) winnowed down over 1,000 empirical studies to 51 that used a rigorous research design to measure student learning outcomes in both environments and provided sufficient information to allow calculation of an effect size. The finding was that students in fully online and blended courses tend to perform better than students in face-to-face courses, with students in blended courses performing significantly better. Another finding of the study was that the more time students spent on task, the greater the differential in student performance. These findings are attributable in part to active learning strategies, which include opportunities for reflection and interaction with peers, and in part to the enriched content that characterizes well-designed online and blended courses.

However, a significant caveat is in order: The studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior regardless of how it is implemented. The combination of elements in the treatment conditions produced the observed benefits. In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum, and pedagogy. The successful courses included additional learning time. Online and blended learning, lacking the time constraints imposed by face-to-face courses, are much more conducive to the expansion of learning time (U.S. Department of Education [2009] p. xvii). The successful courses also included more interactive materials (learning objects) and additional opportunities for collaboration.

In another meta-analysis of the literature, Zhao, Lei, Yan, Lai, and Tan (2005) identified three types of interactions-instructor and students, students and their peers, and students and content-as essential elements in determining the efficacy of a course's design. They further stated that courses with synchronous and asynchronous components-for example, blended courses-report more positive outcomes than courses that are entirely synchronous or entirely asynchronous. When the design of the various studies is teased apart, it's possible to group subsets that identify specific variables. Three components of online learning stand out as contributing to more effective learning: discourse, via discussion boards, blogs, or other media; reflection, either public or private; and writing to learn strategies.

To summarize, blended learning courses employ active learning strategies through the use of a variety of pedagogical approaches. The asynchronous nature of the blended component of the courses has the salutary effect of expanding the time students spend on course material. Discussions conducted online encourage reflection and usually reach 100% participation. As a result, the face-to-face time can be used more effectively, with students extending the material beyond what might be achieved in a conventional face-to-face course. The students in a blended course make more and richer connections between what they are learning and what they already know, creating a robust scaffold to organize the information. The following sections contain a more detailed look at some of the characteristics of successful blended learning courses.


Allen, I. E., Seaman, J., & Garrett, R. (2007). Blending in: The extent and promise of blended education in the United States. Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2007). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

U.S. Department of Education. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: Author.

Zhao, Y., Lei, J., Yan, B., Lai, C., & Tan, S. (2005). What makes the difference? A practical analysis of research on the effectiveness of distance education. Teachers College Record, 107(8), 1836-1834.