Blended learning is an instructional format that integrates online and face-to-face teaching modalities. Learners spend part of their learning time interacting face-to-face with a teacher and classmates and part of their learning time using a computer or portable digital device (such as a smartphone) to access online courses, curriculum, or other learning resources, by themselves or collaboratively, inside or outside of the classroom. Learning in the two modalities is integrated, complementary, and overlapping, and learners have some control over time, place, and pace (Maxwell, 2016; Staker & Horn, 2012).
Although blended learning affords opportunities for increased instructional richness and flexibility, social interaction, access to knowledge, personal agency, cost efficiency, and improved learner outcomes, practitioners, program managers, policy makers, and funders know little about the extent to which it is being implemented and the related challenges and opportunities.
ProLiteracy asked the field to tell us how blended learning is being used. In Spring 2019, we surveyed our members and New Readers Press customers. World Education also sent it out to their technology newsletter subscribers. In all, 509 responses were received. Of these, 12% were volunteers, 31% were teachers, and 57% were program managers. After providing them with a definition of blended learning similar to the one above, slightly less than half (48%) responded that they or their staff implement blended learning. Teachers and volunteers who say they use blended learning represented 25% of all respondents; 22% of respondents were program managers who say most or some of their teachers and/or volunteers use blended learning.
Even though nearly half reported that they or their staff do implement blended learning, they expressed considerable consensus about the challenges of doing so. They were asked about their own challenges as well as the challenges that learners face. The most common challenge relates to the learners. Nearly half (47%) said the learners have trouble being self-directed enough to make good use of the technology, and 25% reported learners not being interested in using technology. The other challenges focused on their own circumstances including not enough knowledge about technology to take full advantage of its affordances (26%), not having enough planning time (25%), and not having the budget to implement as they would like (22%). For responses listed as “other” challenges, nearly half had to do with access issues to Wi-Fi, hardware, or software.
The most frequently cited in-class blended learning challenge for learners identified by instructors was a lack of basic computer/digital skills including being able to navigate different platforms and devices, keyboarding, using a password, etc. Other frequently cited challenges were getting distracted and low independence/self-directedness and motivation, fear of and discomfort with technology, and language and comprehension barriers. The challenges that respondents assumed for learners engaging in blended learning outside the classroom overlapped with challenges observed inside the classroom, most especially with regard to lack of basic digital knowledge and skills, but they also reported affective issues and distractions. However, by far the most popular responses were lack of or poor internet service and lack of or outdated hardware. Other challenges unique to doing blended learning activities at home are poor motivation/self-directedness, and lack of time and/or time management skills.
Overall, responses indicated that barriers to implementing blended learning fall into four areas: 1) inadequate tools designed specifically for adult learners, 2) lack of practitioner know-how, 3) logistical barriers related to Wi-Fi and tool access, and 4) resistance. Many of the identified challenges suggest that instructors need meaningful professional development to help address them. They also make clear that blended learning is not a cure-all. Its potential is diminished by access issues in rural and impoverished communities. Expectations that learners will spend substantial time on educational activities outside of class may be unrealistic. The reality of adult lives and responsibilities should play an important role in blended learning instructional design decisions.