Blended Learning, a hybrid of face-to-face and online learning, is the buzz phrase of this year’s prep schools admissions round.
The phrase, ‘Blended Learning’, delivers two messages. One defensive; ‘We can educate your child remotely should they need to self-isolate’. And the other aspirational; ‘We can develop the skills for your child to master their technology enhanced future’.
The defensive message is understandable. COVID-19 lockdowns and self-isolations showed the limited degree of integration of technology into curriculum delivery. Overnight, schools went from teaching 100% of lessons in class to teaching 100% remotely. A shock to the system. How they coped after that reflected their ability to procure hardware and learning software, train staff, and adapt to a different method of teaching. And though, on the whole, independent schools fared better than state schools, there was a wide range of performance across both.
The aspirational message leverages the perennial ‘we’ve got more devices than them’ competition with an increasing emphasis on so-called ‘Future Skills’ development in the curriculum. Future Skills are the transferable skills that pupils might need when they leave school, for life and for work. In the classroom, skills development often takes place in project work. A ‘Creative Curriculum’ or STEM projects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), for example.
But, beyond the hype, is there anything different about Blended Learning than that which preceded it? And if Blended Learning is here to stay, what should you be looking for in a prospective school?
What is Blended Learning?
Well, there’s face-to-face teaching, the so-called traditional method. Here the lesson content is delivered by the teacher to pupils in the same classroom. The teacher engages pupils individually or as a group. And there’s plenty of opportunity for peer-to-peer interaction, dare I say collaboration?
And then there’s online learning, where the lesson content is delivered, not by a teacher, but online. It might include reference resources such as digital archives, Wikipedia pages, but especially (YouTube) videos. Or it might include more interactive resources such as training courses, revision aids, and quizzes.
A feature of online learning is that it can be delivered anywhere. At home, for example, as it was during lockdown. Or even in class, as happens in some Christian schools, for example. One advantage of online learning is that the pupil can learn at their own pace, though often unsupervised.
What if you could get the best of both? Voilà!
Apparently, Blended Learning means that 20% to 70% of the curriculum is delivered face-to-face, ideally 50% to 70%. Outside those parameters the learning is considered ‘traditional’ or ‘online’.
Now this is where the waters muddy. Because the two delivery methods don’t have to be mutually exclusive. During lockdown, some teachers were delivering lessons to a class at the same time as broadcasting to remote, isolating, pupils. More common though, is for a teacher to ask pupils to review online materials to discuss together in class; so-called ‘Flipped Learning’.
Flipped Learning and Blended Learning. Two buzzwords for the price of one!
Weren’t schools doing this before the pandemic?
In short, yes. Pupils would access online resources in lessons or as part of homework. And many schools collected and disseminated homework and course materials over a ‘learning management system’ such as Edmodo or Moodle.
There had been a gentle evolution of IT hardware infrastructures from a dedicated computer suite, to wi-fi enabled laptops and tablets in the classroom. The two can co-exist. The computer suite is typically for skills training. Which includes spreadsheets, word processing, presentations, publishing, coding, animation, even touch-typing applications. Outside lessons, they are a resource for fulfilling homework assignments. And wealthier schools have invested in specialist computer rooms for languages, music technology, and computer aided design, among others.
In the classroom, however, laptops and tablets are used to support research and project work pertinent to the subject. Devices have typically been available in small numbers or shared across classes from the laptop or tablet ‘trolley’. Relatively few schools had truly integrated technology into the whole curriculum. Those that did might have been certified as champions of Google, Microsoft or Apple.
The pandemic, however, brought into focus a school’s ability to teach remotely. Which has led to investment in server and cloud capacity (and security), wi-fi infrastructure, learning management systems, and, critically, pupils’ access to an appropriate device and broadband.
These are the tools to deliver Blended Learning, with Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom and Zoom, as the most visible apps. But there’s also investment in staff training and curriculum design.
Furthermore, before the pandemic, most schools were reluctant to issue laptops or tablets on a one-to-one basis. This was partly because of costs, and partly because of utility. Now, an increasing number of Prep schools are rolling out schemes that provide a dedicated laptop or tablet to all children from Year 5, or even from Year 3.
Is Blended Learning effective?
According to US research, 73% of teachers say that Blended Learning has benefits for pupil engagement1, which has something to do with pupils being able to learn at their own pace. Furthermore, 82% of students say they prefer it2.
However, there are limitations. In particular, the suitability of the online element for younger pupils, certain styles of curriculum, and for those with limited access to technology.
Blended Learning and younger pupils
Blended Learning, or the online part, is less effective for younger children of nursery, Reception, infant/pre-prep age. Children at this age are less independent as learners and need more support and social interaction.
Experience from lockdown showed the parental involvement in learning was particularly important for younger children. In the first lockdown, upwards of 60% of remote learning was delivered by parents for children aged 5 to 7 years (Key Stage 1)3. For children aged 7 to 11 (Key Stage 2) parents delivered 30%. By the end of the second lockdown, schools had established a rhythm so that the respective percentages had dropped to 40% and 20%.
Blended Learning for different subjects and learning styles
Maths, English, science, to an extent, history and geography can all work well in a Blended Learning environment.
Practical and arts subjects such as DT, art and music work less well online. During the lockdowns only 50%-60% of the curriculum for these subjects was covered, compared to 70%-80% for others. Surprisingly, languages proved to be less well suited to online techniques as well. In the first lockdown 40% of secondary school pupils, and 50% of primary had no language tuition at all.4
Which then leads to the so-called ‘creative curriculum’ which is increasingly popular, for younger (Key Stage 1) pupils. And for older pupils there is ‘skills development’ project work such as STEAM/STEM. All of these depend on teamwork and collaboration, which are not best suited to the online environment, despite chat and video apps. Schools that promote this style of curriculum might struggle with Blended Learning, and certainly with remote working. And that includes school pedagogy models such as Steiner, and even Montessori.
Blended Learning and access to devices
Blended Learning, and by implication, remote learning, can only work if a pupil has access to a suitable device, and internet connection. The lockdowns exposed a socio-economic ‘digital divide’.
But measures of access vary wildly.
According to Ofcom5, 83% of parents of 5- to 15-year-olds said that their children had access ‘all the time’ to an appropriate device for home schooling and online learning. 13% reported access some of the time, and 4% rarely or never. That 83% average is weighted to older children, where 90% aged 12 and above have access all the time. It’s 64% for 5- to 7-year-olds.
Other studies are gloomier and help explain why private schools are championing Blended Learning.
A survey of teachers6 found a huge disparity in device access. 54% of private school teachers said that all their students have devices, compared to 5% in state schools.
A different study7 found that 38% of prep schools could provide hardware to take home, compared to 1% of state primary schools. For older pupils, 20% of private senior schools could provide hardware to take home compared to 7% of state secondaries.
And then there is the nature of the remote provision. We have all hear anecdotes of some schools ‘doing nothing’, some sending out a bunch of independent work ‘assignments’, and others actually teaching online. One study8 found that 74% of private school students had full virtual days compared to 38% of state school students. 25% of students had no schooling at all.
Pure Online Learning as an alternative model
There are some providers that offer online-only lessons, without the face-to-face element. They are popular with parents who, for a variety of reasons, wish to home-school their children. They also provide a cost-effective way to prepare their children’s chances at 11+.
Of course, they came into their own during the pandemic when some schools couldn’t deliver lessons.
There are relatively few scale providers. Oak National Academy is a new one. It was set up by teachers during the pandemic, supported by the Department of Education. It covers the subjects of the English National Curriculum for children from Reception to GCSE. Within those subjects, topic coverage is of varying comprehensiveness (it is still building). But the predominant curriculum delivery method is video.
Atom Learning is another. It starts at Year 3, and for £9.99 per month covers maths, English and science. There is an upgrade option for verbal and non-verbal reasoning. Its content is video and quizzes.
King’s InterHigh has a different model. It runs virtual lessons from Year 3 to GCSE. An annual fee of £2,750 buys access to lessons in the main National Curriculum subjects. English, maths, French, science, humanities, STEM, and creative media (art and digital media). There are upgrades for music and drama. This model is, in many ways, a blended learning model, without the bricks and mortar, and social interaction of a physical classroom. There are up to 20 pupils per virtual class, breakout groups, and lessons are recorded for later reference. Lessons take place in the morning, leaving the afternoon free.
What you should ask your prospective school
Who knows whether we will experience another lockdown or some form of mandatory isolation for school children? But it’s worth asking the school how it coped over 2020-21. More importantly, what steps the school has subsequently taken to improve its ability to deliver virtual lessons.
It would also be good to know the extent to which regular subject teaching is enhanced by Blended Learning. Examples, which subjects, which projects, which pupils, and how often?
1 EdTech Review 2021 (US)
2 Macro Connect 2018 (US)
3 Office for National Statistics: Remote schooling during the pandemic, England, April 2020 to June 2021
4 British Council: Language Trends Survey 2020/2021
5 Ofcom: Children & Parents media use and attitudes report, April 2021
6 Sutton Trust: ‘Remote Learning, the digital divide’, January 2021
7 Centre for Education & Youth/Microsoft. December 2021
8 British Academy: The Covid Decade; ‘Understanding the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19’ March 2021