Life Beyond the Classroom: A Different Type of Blended Learning

We typically use the phrase blended learning to describe an experience that combines face-to-face and digital learning activities, but I recently thought about it differently while watching a higher education commercial. We can also think of blended learning as a mix of the traditional schooling experience and the self-directed learning that happens as one lives, works, socializes, travels, and engages with people and communities around the world.

“There is a world you discover inside the classroom, and then there is a world you discover waiting right outside it. You can read about diverse cultures or live among them.” These are the opening lines of the following commercial for Loyola University. The  advertisement juxtaposes life in the classroom with life in the world beyond school. The short video ends by suggesting the Loyola “quad” is not limited to the physical campus. Rather, the entire city of Chicago is their quad.

While not the intent of the ad, it led me to think about the growing momentum of the unschooling and uncollege movement in comparison to the traditional schooling system. There are some who champion one at the exclusion of the other, but in practice that is not how most live. Plenty of unschoolers take advantage of the resources and learning opportunities available in traditional schools and Universities, and there are people attending Universities that want to mix formal learning with ample real-world opportunities: weekend road trips, world travel, networking in community hangouts, experiencing local culture, internships, personal reading and writing, tinkering, dorm-room startups, volunteerism, working on political campaigns or with interest groups, participation in religious communities, informal interviews with people of interest, as well as participation in online networks and communities of practice. Such activities allow one to blend school-directed learning with the self-directed learning that is the foundation of unschooling.

There is something significant in this commercial, inviting 21st century learners to imagine a different type of learning environment, one that embraces education in the classroom, but also recognizes the limitations of such learning.  The unschooling and uncollege movements have a compelling and important message.  At the same time, more traditional notions of schooling serve some students well. Both have affordances and limitations, and the proper mix of the two depends upon each learner’s goals, passions, abilities, and resources. My son is happy to drink straight lemon juice. He loves it. For most, that is far too sour. It isn’t that they dislike lemon. They just need to mix it with something else. I suspect that the same is true when it comes to learners finding the right fit, somewhere between unschooling and formal schooling.

The Loyola commercial fascinates and delights me because it embraces a truth that is sometimes ignored in formal learning organizations, whether they be elementary schools or a universities.  The truth is that school-based learning is not enough. It has limitations that can only be overcome by mixing school with life and learning beyond school. This happens when schools connect with people, resources, groups, and communities beyond their walls; but even that is within the context of school. This is part of why even the best school model fails to adequately address the needs of students from disadvantaged families. It is because growth and development is influenced by more than school. Those fortunate enough to live in families and communities that welcome them to live and learn outside of school gain immense benefits and opportunities. From this perspective, perfecting the blend of schooling and learning beyond the classroom is an exercise that has the potential to improve student learning, increase student engagement, cultivate more authentic learning, increase access and opportunity, empower learners with human agency, and help cultivate lifelong self-directed learners.