Blended Learning is the ‘New Normal’ and Here’s Why

This article originally appeared as part of a series on LinkedIn.

As promised, I’m back with a deep dive into blended learning and how it will become the ‘new normal’ for teaching and learning on campuses. When Covid-19 first began to spread, all colleges were caught completely off guard and rushed to find ad-hoc solutions as they pivoted to fully remote teaching and learning.  As I mentioned in my earlier article re: the new normal, now is the moment for a thoughtful approach, focused on delivering impactful blended learning.

Blended learning has long been known to be more effective than either of its constituents – namely in-person learning or online learning. I consider myself a longtime champion of the blended approach (I talked about it in my 2013 TED Talk), but for many universities this is entirely new. Until now they’ve only used in-person teaching, and now need support to offer online learning with the right courses. Colleges can create their own online content or they can leverage content from colleagues at other universities. For universities and instructors who want to build upon additional resources, we launched edX Online Campus specifically for this group.

Academic institutions around the world are using Online Campus primarily in three ways: to quickly and easily add new online courses – and even whole subject areas – to their catalogs to attract and serve more students; to support faculty with more digital resources to incorporate into their classes; and to provide lifelong learning opportunities to faculty, staff and alumni.

Faculty reactions vary as they pivoted to this medium from never having taught online before. Many have embraced it and are never going back, while others cannot wait to go back to the traditional approach. I’ve heard from a few converts, for example a colleague who, having pivoted to remote teaching halfway through the semester, mentioned that his first online lecture was the most engaging lecture he’d given in the entire semester. There were more students attending class, they were more engaged and asked more questions, laughed (via emojis) at his jokes. And of course, they would retain the knowledge better as they would be able to revisit the lecture as many times as they needed, from anywhere, or at any time.

Let’s explore the pathway to blended learning adoption over the next few months and years (note, the image with this post is a visualization of the timeline – check out what is essentially an inverted pan curve of adoption. This image is shared under creative commons license CC BY, so free to share it or use it as you find helpful. This graphic builds upon Phil Hill’s representation early on in the pandemic.)

Before Covid Era, BCE: Before the Covid Era, for the Spring 2020 semester (if you were in the northern hemisphere), teaching and learning was all in person, all the time. Of course, some universities were actively offering online learning opportunities for on-campus students, but they were the rare exception, and in person and on campus was universally the model.

Covid Era, CE: As the pandemic took hold and universities were forced to shut down, we pivoted to fully remote teaching and learning, going from zero to one hundred percent online in a matter of days, and this trend will continue through the end of calendar 2020. Faculty used Zoom, Google Hangouts, Webex, Skype or other means to give their hour-long lectures remotely, an activity a colleague of mine at Columbia quipped is better termed “Remote Teaching,” since it was not clear how much learning was actually happening.

I am confident we can and will improve during this era. This interim time (Summer/Fall of calendar 2020) will be pivotal, as universities have more time over the summer and fall to create more online experiences using techniques that are specifically designed for great learner experiences and outcomes. We have built great experiences with quality online learning in this past decade since the start of the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC revolution, with techniques including active learning with short videos and interleaved exercises, instant feedback, self-paced learning, peer learning, gamification and virtual labs, spaced repetition, and mastery learning.

By Spring 2021, many universities will have more online content, but they will nonetheless rubber-band back towards in-person teaching, although they will not go all the way back to zero online. In engineering speak, there will be some hysteresis in the system, and we will see a fair amount of online teaching and learning on campuses as many faculty will have seen the benefits of online learning and will be loath to revert to the status quo.

After Spring 2021, the pace of blended learning will pick up as more courses are developed and as faculty build experience with creating and sharing content. Rice University, one of our partners,  is suggesting a dual delivery approach starting as early as Fall 2020. Curtin University is planning a move to an “online first” model for new course development, which will accelerate the blended model for campus teaching.

Within a few years (2025?) I expect most universities will have roughly 40-50% of online activities co-mingled with in-person work, thereby ushering in the ‘new normal.’

I am optimistic we will gravitate to the new normal. Why? Simple – because blended learning works (just google blended learning and try finding studies that show negative results). Second, it is important for learning continuity in the face of future disruptions.

Next up: There is a broader way of looking at blended learning, and how and when you combine in-person learning and online approaches results, which in many ways results in fundamentally rethinking our education system. When we look at learning as something that can happen on campus AND off campus, in person AND online, we start to uncover the possibility of moving between work and school without having to choose one, or getting a headstart on college before we leave high school. This brings us to a model of continuous, lifelong learning. More to come.