April 27, 2017

By Jan Bryan

“To have a great idea, have a lot of them.” – Thomas A. Edison

Creating a set of practical ideas begins with gathering a lot of ideas. Fortunately, ideas about blended learning are abundant—with one of the first being focused on feedback. In the 1840s, Sir Isaac Pitman offered the first long-distance education course focused on shorthand. Students received tasks, via postcards. After completing the tasks, they returned the postcards to be graded and corrected (Pappas, 2015).

About 125 years later, computer-based training has lessened the need for paper-based materials and face-to-face interaction. Paper reduction is always a practical idea, but moving away from human interaction brings its own set of impracticalities, such as losing opportunities for conversations and personalized feedback.

Forty years ago, televised training ushered in another practical idea: keeping learners engaged. However, to turn these ideas into great, practical ideas, we explore three elements that make blended learning work: 1) focus on the learning, 2) monitor student engagement, and 3) insist on actionable feedback.

Focus on the learning

Learning is best realized when students know exactly what they are expected to learn and how they can demonstrate what they have learned (Chappuis, 2012; Hattie, 2012; Stiggins, 2014; Wiliam, 2011). In a practical blended model, teachers take great care to keep the learning target visible. This model is about more than posting the standard or objective in the classroom. The target is visible on resources used during instruction, audible during instruction and modeling, and tangible as students review authentic work aimed at that target.

For an example, let’s look at Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360®. Teachers make the target visible and audible during explicit instruction as they explain and model how to meet the target, which in this example is identifying the main idea and two supporting details. Following explicit instruction, students work with examples either from online sources or previous students’ work with this same learning target (with all identifying information removed), which makes the target tangible. As students review examples, they embed ideas related to the main idea and supporting details. To bring greater focus, the teacher then assigns a variety of additional articles at students’ reading levels so they can practice finding the main idea and supporting details on their own. Focusing on the learning—when it includes explicit instruction, modeling, and reviewing authentic samples of students’ work—is a practical idea for making blended learning work in your classroom.

Monitor student engagement

I found it intriguing that television was connected to engagement. Perhaps in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it seems that too much TV might have an unintended, negative consequence on student engagement. Usher in online engagement with short, targeted videos and opportunities for classroom interaction—that’s blended learning. Many are familiar with Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) and the idea of targeted tutorials with accompanying practice. In addition, teachers have identified an abundance of online, interactive mathematics support sites. For example, explore www.hippocampus.org, which is part of the National Repository of Online Courses (NROC). Courses are designed around online engagement and teacher–student face-to-face interactions. Regardless of students’ learning preferences or the quality of the online content, engagement remains a critical component of learning. Watching a video is one level of engagement, while participating in an online game or simulation is another. Conversations about what students are watching and simulating takes engagement to a deeper level. As Vygotsky (1978) writes, learning is a social enterprise mediated by language; speech is the social means of thought. Part of engagement is acquiring vocabulary to express what you are learning. Monitoring engagement by talking to students and gauging their development of content-specific vocabulary is another practical idea for blended learning.

Insist on actionable feedback

Some digital resources provide feedback in the form of visual or auditory congratulations. At that point, the learning is done. Other resources mark completion of a level and move the student forward to the next level. The learning continues. Actionable feedback is multi-dimensional, requiring student and teacher involvement. The key is remembering that when the feedback is definitive, as in a grade, that bit of learning stops. When the feedback is targeted and aimed at moving to the next level, that bit of learning continues.

Students should use the target to review their work. What is the target? Where did I start? Where am I today? How much further do I need to go? How can I get there? In conversations with the teacher, each student’s question becomes an action item and the learning continues. Ongoing learning via student feedback is another practical idea for blended learning.

Great, practical ideas

Like Edison, you pondered lots of ideas as you implemented blended learning. Please share your greatest, most practical ideas for blended learning in the comments below!


Chappuis, J. (2012). How am I doing? Educational Leadership. 70(1), 36–41. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/%C2%A3How-Am-I-Doing%C2%A2%C2%A3.aspx

Hattie, J. (2014). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Maxwell, C. (2016). What blended learning is—and isn’t. Retrieved from http://www.blendedlearning.org/what-blended-learning-is-and-isnt

Pappas, C. (2015). The history of blended learning. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/history-of-blended-learning

Reed, K. (2014). Student-centered learning: How to implement a blended learning program. Retrieved from https://www.knewton.com/resources/blog/ed-tech/blended-learning

Stiggins, R. (2014). Revolutionize assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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