Important Questions About Blended Learning

I’m teaching another online course on blended learning now, and I always love the questions, even the doubts, posed by participants. There are four common concerns or questions that arise when starting to explore the possibilities for different forms of blended learning.  The rotation model options are least resisted, but discussing the flex model, a-la-carte, and virtual enhanced models often lead to the following good, important, even essential questions about the benefits and limitations of blended learning.

1) How do you find the time to do this?

2) What about behavior and attention problems?

3) What about students without technology access outside of school?

4) Will this make teachers obsolete or less valuable?

It is important to work through such questions and not dismiss them. This will take time, practice, and often some good and substantive research and discussion. In response to each of these questions, I contend that there are four important related questions.  Each one corresponds to the above questions.

1) How can blended learning free up teachers to do that which learners most need from them (namely coaching, mentoring, etc.)?

2) How can blended learning empower students to develop more self-regulation? How can we design the lessons in a way to mitigate against learning distractions?

3) How can we leverage blended learning to increase access and opportunity for all students?

4) Like question 2, how can blended learning help take away lower level tasks from teachers, empower them with better data to help learners, and enable them to create an even more personal and individualized learning experience for each student?

These questions highlight the fact that blended learning is not one thing. Each model can be applied, designed, and imagined in many ways; and these last four questions help us start to do that good and important design thinking work needed to use blended learning for the good of learners and learning organizations. We want to leverage blended learning so that it increases student engagement, improves or enhances student learning, and/or increases flexibility/access/opportunity for learners; and that is unlikely to happen by chance.

Revisiting the Knowledge/Skill Ratio in School

A young woman studies education for four years in college. She graduates and struggles to teach a class of students?

A psychology professor teaches about positive relationships, but has difficulty applying these ideas in his personal life.

A student gets high marks in geometry class, but struggles to build a simple bookshelf, complete a straightforward woodworking project, or make the adjustments necessary to hit a shot in billiards.

A football fan knows the game inside and out, but still can’t manage to throw a spiral. 

I can love movies and music, but not be able to make an engaging 5-minute video, sing in tune, or play an instrument.

A business professor teaches about how to write a business plan but never started or ran a successful business.

We’ve all experienced these types of distinctions. We’ve seen them in others, and if we are honest and self-reflective, we’ve seen them in ourselves. We know about things, but we lack skill with them.

That opening list gives examples of people with knowledge in an area, but potentially a low level of skill. We all know that learning about something is not the same as learning to do something. Each requires a different mindset and process. I suspect that this is part of why some critique higher education. It is why we don’t allow people to conduct brain surgery after sitting in a class, reading a bunch of books, and passing paper tests. It is also why much professional development in education falls short.

I love knowledge. I’m one of those people who delights in discovering largely unknown facts, and exploring novel concepts…even when they don’t seem to have much relevance to the rest of life. Furthermore, I am not one to propose that education should be light on content. Content matters.  Depth of knowledge can lead to depth of insight. And yet, I’m increasingly convinced that the knowledge/skill ratio needs to be revisited in much of formal education.

It is one thing to learn about historical facts. It is another to learn these facts and also learn how to use history to think, make decisions, and analyze current events.

It is one thing to memorize the rules of grammar and a robust vocabulary. It is yet another to apply this knowledge to craft multi-model messages.

It is one thing to learn about statistics. It is another to use statistics to solve real world problems, conduct research, or judge the validity of research reported in the media.

It is one thing to learn about music. It is another to sing and play an instrument.

it is one thing to study a foreign language in a class, but a largely different thing to live and speak with people in that language.

We study to remember knowledge. We practice to cultivate skill, and I suspect that more skill-based learning in school would result in increased student competence and confidence. It would address criticisms about school being disconnected from “the real world.”

This is not some argument for replacing the liberal arts with strictly vocational training. This applies to the liberal arts or the humanities as much as applied fields. We don’t just read and study poetry. We learn to write it, to recite or perform it. The same goes for the learning music, languages, math skills, theatre, historical and philosophical thinking, citizenship, fitness and health, art and great literature. Simply gaining knowledge about these things is like visiting a lifeless museum of knowledge, but experiencing them “in the wild” calls for skill development.

Some argue that teaching the knowledge is foundational. Once the learner has the knowledge, the skill can be developed at a later time. There is an important truth in this claim, but I also see three problems if we take it too far. First, learning knowledge entirely apart from any skill development often leads to a low motivation to pursue the skill at a later time. Second, skill development requires a different type of learning. Third, while basic knowledge is sometimes an important prerequisite to skill development, deeper insights and understandings often do not emerge until we reach a certain level of skill. Skill acquisition provides experiences and access to perspectives that remain hidden to someone who is just learning about a subject. For these reasons, learning organizations are wise to revisit the percentage of time spent on teaching knowledge versus skill development.

When I look at most lists of award-winning teachers, I find that they usually teach applied, skill-based subjects; or they invest a significant part of their time helping students develop skills, not just knowledge. Skill development is difficult, time-consuming, but it is also rewarding and easier to see progress.  If we want to help students grow in competence and confidence, I suspect that changing this knowledge acquisition / skill development ratio is a helpful starting point.

This is not a new concept, but it remains something that we can overlook in our schools and other learning organizations. Or, we largely focus upon “skills” that have little relevance outside of a school setting. These are the types of mistakes that lead to disinterested or dissatisfied learners, frustrated educators and administrators, and communities questioning the relevance of modern education. It is also something that can be relatively easily addressed by adjusting the knowledge/skill ratio…helping people learn to do alongside learning to know and remember.

11 Resources Pointing to the Promise of 3D Video in Education

A colleague recently shared the benefits that he is seeing with 3D video. His school uses it to teach middle school science concepts. While 3D video has been around for a long time, it is an area that I’ve not examined closely. So, I decided to do a bit of exploring. This is still a new area for me, but I am excited about what I’m learning. The technology is quickly maturing, hardware costs are increasingly affordable, and there is a growing body of literature pointing to increased student engagement and improved student learning. Here are some of the more interesting resources that I’ve discovered so far. You will find examples of companies/products, research reports, and usage scenarios ranging from the middle school classroom to medical school. As always, please consider sharing some of your own resources in the comment area.

Eon Reality – This is one of many companies investing in 3D Learning. Be sure to check out their short YouTube video which illustrates several ways 3D video is already being used to engage and teach students everything from math to astronomy to anatomy. Note that their solution includes options to create and use existing 3D content, but also a chance to collaborate in 3D. Their creator tool allows you to build entire 3D lessons with embedded quizzes, text and video callouts, and much more.

Texas Instruments 3D Classroom Research – Is there any educational benefit to all the time, money and effort involved with 3D video? This page provides promising research findings about the affordances of 3D video for educational purposes, including a study showing significant performance increases between students learning from 2D content and others learning from 3D content.

A Case Study of Engaging Primary School Students with Active Worlds – This case study describes how the use of 3D technology helped “underachieving” students make impressive learning gains.

Xpand 3D Education White Paper – This provides research on some of the affordances of 3D content in education, including promising results about retention, increased engagement, and improved student learning. By the way, the site on which this white paper resides belongs to Xpand, a company that sells both 3D hardware and offers content from many of the leading 3D education content companies on the market.

Designmate – This is another company that provides rich 3D content for the classroom….and has been doing so for almost 8 years.

The 3D in Education White Paper – This short Q & A provides a helpful introduction to the potential of 3D computer-generated animations in education, including a great list of starting points for educators.

Cyber Anatomy – They are producing brilliant interactive science experiences, including interactive dissections of everything from frogs to human cadavers. Be sure to watch the short video on their site for a sense of what they can do.

What About Health Concerns – This short document was drafted by the American Optometric Association, addressing questions about the impact of emerging 3D classroom technology on eye health for young people.

What About the Younger Grades – 3D EduMagic answers this question by offering a variety of content packages focused upon younger learners.

JTM Concepts – This company boasts involvement in 3D work for over a decade and they offer 3D content designed specifically for different grades from early elementary through high school.

Reachout Interactives – This provider includes 3D content for math and science, but also areas like English.

And for future possibilities in education, I’m looking forward to applications of Oculus Rift. We already see some of the possibilities here.

5 Keys to Keeping the Physical University Campus Relevant

In College Needs to Act Like Startups – Or Risk Becoming Obsolete, Evan Selinger and Andrew Phelps reveal what countless articles and conversations about the future of education fail to recognize.  They wrote, “Recently, universities are being painted with a too-broad brush that equates all forms of higher education into a single model of archaic practice while reducing all elements of the campus experience to only the classroom.” In my words, the higher education residential experience is about much more than taking classes.

Their essay highlights a critical reality for higher education of the future. In the presence of online learning, MOOCs, adaptive learning software, personal learning plans and networks, and increasingly ubiquitous access to learning resources; courses, credits, degrees and programs are not what will keep the doors open to physical campuses of the future. It is the learning community. They explain that startups and Universities both thrive on density, shared resources and nurturing communities. The power comes from having a large group of people gathered in a well-resourced physical community with opportunities for informal collaboration, connections, mentoring, rich social interaction, interest-driven groups, ideation, exploration, and more (March Madness, anyone?). This is illustrated by experiments like the Black Mountain Sole that I wrote about in 2013, essentially a learning community with some density, shared resources and a nurturing community; but they don’t actually offer degrees.

If Universities want to have a solid standing in the upcoming years and decades, that means investing in and capitalizing on the best of emerging teaching and learning, but investing even more in cultivating community. I suggest 5 good places to start.

1. Student life and academics must function as more of a common unit.

This happens in some Universities, but not all. The learning mission of a school needs to be evident not only in the academic programming, but in the vision (and resources) for the community experience: activities, events, clubs, symposia, guest speakers, etc.

2. IT must be driven by the charge to develop systems that enhance community.

It should go without saying that open and accessible wifi needs to be available everywhere, but also quick access to power (not just on the edges of rooms, but in centers as well). It also means policies that encourage and empower the use of social media and other tools and technologies to easily connect with one another. Apps like Social Radar take on new meaning with this in mind. Find ways to help students connect with others; instructors, support people, and other people who have shared passions and projects.

3. Student life must embrace the student who wants to live on campus and learn online (for a personalized blend or all courses).

Policies requiring students to take a certain number of face-to-face classes to live on campus miss some important points. Online or face-to-face students may want access to physical library resources, coffee with a professor/mentor/advisor, a rich community of learners with whom to connect and network, great learning spaces, student support services, and everything else that a physical campus has to offer.

4. Build community opportunity around online programs.

Since the majority of higher education institutions are offering online courses and/or programs, this is an important point. Some online programs run apart from the rest of the University, sometimes offering lesser services to the remove students, and paying no attention to learning and community beyond the classes. The best online programs will do things differently; coming up with powerful, creative and engaging opportunities and experiences that extend beyond the standard online classroom.

5. Pursue new building projects with community, collaboration and experimentation at the center of the design.

There are countless books and resources to guide these considerations, but it means reconsidering how spaces are used, creating more spaces for informal networking and collaboration. Visit some of the emerging workplaces of this age and use that as inspiration for how to re-imagine spaces.

Higher education is changing, but one thing has not changed; the fact that institutions of higher learning are and have always been about more than courses, credits, degrees and programs. Given the nature of life and learning in the digital age; it is more important than ever to recognize this reality, build upon this strength, but do so in a way that leverages the best and mitigates against the worst of this technological world.

50 Education Documentaries to Challenge & Inspire

Are you interested in exploring some of the most pressing topics in recent and contemporary education? Here is a list of some of my favorites, not because I agree with them but because them make me think. Expect to be challenged, moved, inspired, troubled, educated, confused, mad, sad, and glad. These represent diverse perspectives and each one provides a platform for thinking and talking about the past, present and future of education.

  1. Unschooled The Film (2014) – homeschooling/unschooling
  2. Class Dismissed: A Film About Learning Outside the Classroom (2014) – homeschooling
  3. American Promise (2013) – race, class, access and opportunity
  4. One Child at a Time (2013) – audio documentary, digital age education, personalized learning [listen online]
  5. The Raising of America (2013) – early childhood education
  6. Technology and the 21st Century – short documentaries, educational innovators, educational technology, educational reform [watch online]
  7. Future Learning (2012) – short documentary, the future of education, education reform [watch online]
  8. Chile Rising (2012) – free education vs privatized education, educational inequality [watch online]
  9. Educating Black Boys (2012) – race, stereotyping and education [watch online]
  10. The Forbidden Education (2012) – education reform, social criticism, Latin American education [watch online]
  11. The Revisionaries (2012) – textbook bias, political influence on school curricula
  12. Education for a Sustainable Future (2012) – education reform, preparing for the future [watch online]
  13. Brooklyn Castle (2012) – race and class, the impact of mentoring and extracurriculars
  14. Education Education: Why Poverty? (2012) – Chinese education system, poverty and opportunity [watch online]
  15. Two Million Minutes / A Right Denied / China Wins / Finland Phenomenon (2008-2011) – series of documentaries comparing education systems in different parts of the world
  16. American Teacher (2011) – the lived experiences of American teachers
  17. College Conspiracy (2011) – critiquing the promise of higher education [watch online]
  18. Free to Learn: A Radical Experiment in Education (2011) – free schooling, democratic schooling, student-led education, self-directed learning [watch online]
  19. The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman (2011) – ed reform, critique of charter schools and private influences on public education [watch online]
  20. Bully (2011) – bullying, school safety
  21. Building Hope (2011) – intercultural education, Kenyan education
  22. Digital Nation – Frontline (2011)- digital culture and youth [watch online]
  23. Project Happiness (2011) – the pursuit of happiness
  24. Precious Knowledge (2011) – social criticism, social-political influences on curriculum, Mexican American studies in Tucson schools
  25. The Cartel (2010) – education reform, social issues, political influences
  26. The Lottery (2010) – school lotteries, charter school, parent choice, access and opportunity
  27. Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden (2010) – influence of Western education around the world, social-cultural issues, contrasting philosophies of education, education reform
  28. Waiting for Superman (2010) - critique of American public education [watch online]
  29. Teached (2009) – race and the achievement gap
  30. Stupid in America (2009) – school culture and climate concerns [watch online]
  31. Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon (2009) – educational access and opportunity, inspirational
  32. Race to Nowhere (2009) – education reform, critique of testing culture, school climate and culture
  33. The War on kids (2009) – education reform, critique of schools as autocratic systems
  34. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed – intelligent design in education, social/political perspectives on curriculum
  35. Flunked (2008) – survey of high-performing schools
  36. Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood (2008) – social criticism [watch online]
  37. Final Score (2007) – high-stakes testing, education in Thailand
  38. Please Vote for Me (2007) – education in China, democracy in education, school culture
  39. Wings of Evolution (2007) – education in India, social criticism, access and opportunity
  40. The Pact (2006) – educational access and opportunity, inspirational
  41. The World’s Best Prom (2006) – prom, school culture and climate
  42. The World According to Sesame Street (2006) – educational television
  43. Being Human (2005) – education reform, low-performing schools, school climate and culture
  44. The Education of Shelby Knox (2005) – sex education, curriculum in public education
  45. Rock School (2005) – an interesting take of music education
  46. Children Full of Life (2003) – inspirational teaching, education in a Tokyo classroom [watch online]
  47. American Experience: The Monkey Trail – creation/evolution in public education
  48. Why Do These Kids Love School? (1999) – innovative schooling, independent schools, self-directed learning, creativity in schools
  49. A Class Divided (1985) – the classic story of one teacher’s attempt to teach about racism and prejudice [watch online]
  50. A City Decides (1956) – racial integration in St. Louis

10 Resources for Teaching and Learning About Copyright & Fair Use

Inspired by a recent Twitter chat on the subject, here are ten sources to use for teaching (and learning) about fair use and copyright.

1. Understanding Fair Use in the Digital World – When we start to teach about copyright, we can approach it by starting with what we can do or what we cant’ do. I happen to be a fan of starting with what we can do by teaching “fair use.” This is a good introduction to the topic.

2. Teaching Copyright – This site includes 5 60-minute lesson to teach about copyright and fair use. It is accurate, well designed, and ready to use with students.

3. YouTube Copyright School – Do you want to teach copyright through high-interest video and some checks for understanding? if so, this might be a good option for you.

4. Fair Use Tool – Use this tool to determine whether your usage scenario is fair use.

5. Copyright Web Site – If you are looking for copyright case studies and examples to use with your students, this is an excellent resource.

6. PBS Learning Media Copyright Lessons – This site has series of ready-made, high-interest lessons on copyright and fair use, designed and labeled for different ages.

7. A Fairy Use Tale – No lesson in fair use is complete without this video. :-)

8. Flickr – The Commons and The Library of Congress American Memory – If we are going to teach about copyright, why not include finding some great sources, like these two sites, for accessing public domain resources?

9. Find Creative Commons Resources - This is a great search engine for finding resources that you can “use, share and remix.”

10 Fair Use Letter Generator and Creative Common Attribution- Part of teaching copyright and fair use is learning how to request and gain the rights to use something…as well as how to give attribution. These sites will help.

What Educators Can Learn from the Fact that I Almost Failed Calculus 24 Years Ago

I’ve always enjoyed learning new things. In fact, there is little that I enjoy more than discovering some new idea or possibility. This is not to suggest that I was a skilled learner. In fact, my obsession with new ideas was what led me to sometimes struggle in school. As a student in high school, I was far more interested in experiencing a new idea than doing the hard work of mastering a concept enough that I could recall and use it.

This served me well in classes where my interest in comparing and contrasting ideas was rewarded. I was generally curious enough to that my emotional connection with new ideas embedded them in my memory, but practicing with them was another thing. It was not until I took calculus as a college freshman that I discovered the limitation of my approach. I would learn about a new concept in the calculus class, be quite excited about it, and want to talk about what was next. Of course, that isn’t how math works. Once you are introduced to a new concept, you need to practice it, and I didn’t do practice…not that much.

This limitation with my approach to learning didn’t show up as much in a history or English courses because I could always cram for the tests. You can’t cram for calculus tests, at least most of us can’t do that with effectiveness. You might be able to do so with the first unit or two, but as concept builds upon concept, you are quickly lost, and your grade reflects that by the second test in the class.

Much of my problem had to do with the fact that I didn’t understand the difference between mass and distributed practice. Mass practice is also known as cramming. You cram in all the studying for a big event into a single marathon study session, often the night or two before the big assessment. Deceptively, it actually works for some of us in the short-term. The problem is that mass practice has very poor results when we look at long-term retention and recall. So, cramming for the first test will do little to prepare me for the next, and almost nothing to help me recall and use that knowledge six months or two years after the class ends. Cramming causes mental fatigue and decreases the efficiency of studying. The result is possible evidence of a gain in the short-term, but abysmal long-term results.

Distributed practice is when there is space between studying, rehearsing and/or reviewing a concept or skill. It requires setting aside time to review and practice concepts over an extended period. The body of research is hard to deny. Distributed practice results in better retention and recall.  If you want to remember something from a class four or five years after taking it, then that requires reviewing and/or using what you learned over time, with breaks between reviewing sessions. As you extend the time between the rehearsals (to a reasonable extent), this increases your learning.

The research is clear. For most purposes, distributed practice rules. The one exception that I’ve seen is when we need to prepare people to function under fatigue. That is where a coach might use mass practice to get players fatigued and then have to perform…simulating an end of game performance. Apart from that, distributed practice gets at the long-term results that most of us want from our learning.

This contract of mass versus distributed practice is a simple concept, one that most education students had to at least read about at some point. However, perhaps that was when many of us were trying to get by on mass practice strategies in our courses. Perhaps that explains why we persist with the following.


  • One-day training workshops with no intentional plan for ongoing practice, rehearsal and review.
  • Massive investments in attending conferences and webinars, sometimes taking voracious notes; and then forgetting about it all, thinking perhaps the exposure was enough for us to be influenced or transformed by what took place.
  • Course designs that introduce ideas and then move on, never using, applying or referencing them again.
  • Recognizing people for diplomas earned years or decades ago with little evidence that any of that prior work reflects current capabilities;
  • Assessment plans that seem to reward mass practice, failing to build in formative assessment that serve to promote distributed practice.
  • Emerging competency-based programs that ignore these realities and provide credentials on the basis of a single performance or product that may never be reviewed again.
  • Some Universities cutting courses lengths down to as short as 2-5 weeks, but arguing that they are “covering” the same amount of content, when there are not enough hours in the day for a learner to engage in distributed practice with all the key concepts during such a short time.
  • People (myself included) getting addicted to scanning and skimming mass amounts of information in the web; but failing to take the time to practice with these ideas in a way that they will stick and be of use in six months or longer.

These are real problems. We invest massive time, money and resources on learning experiences that have little chance of benefitting us down the road. They fail to be high-impact experiences. At the same time, we have wonderfully promising practice that seem to align quite well with the benefits of distributed practice.

  • Online communities of practice where people learn new ideas, put them into practice in their life and work, and continue to reflect and review with the group over months, years, even decades.
  • The slow learning movement, which is pushing back against the unrealistic demands of immediate results from contemporary society.
  • Project-based learning that invites a person to grapple with a narrow topic over an extended period, representing a form of natural and authentic distributed practice.
  • Personal learning networks that invite people to remain in perpetual conversation, application and reflection about what we are learning.
  • Learning In Depth projects that have students focus upon a narrow topic for years.
  • Competency-based approaches that require performance over extended time, perhaps using gamification concepts like levels, macro-badges, and the scaffolding of learning (new knowledge building upon prior knowledge…which also happens to involve a review of the prior knowledge).
  • Game-based learning models that are designed with this idea of distributed practice in mind. The learning happens within the game, with ample spaced practice incorporate right into the experience.
  • Blended learning models that can be designed to create space between practice.
  • Emerging learning analytic tools that allow learners and teachers to track progress over months and years.
  • Adaptive learning software that monitors learner progress and helps design personalized lessons that incorporate ample opportunities for distributed practice.
  • Training for critical knowledge and skills that requires renewal and re-certification processes, calling for long-term retention and recall.
  • Fields like heutagogy that emphasize the development as a self-directed learner who discovers and leverages successful strategies and heuristics for lifelong learning, including understanding things like distributed versus mass practice.
  • Conferences and webinars that are extended through social media, remote collaborative projects, and other forms of ongoing connections. These all represent authentic forms of distributed practice with ideas that might first be learned about at the initial event.

Distributed PracticeI almost failed Calculus in college before I discovered the importance of distributed practice over mass practice. Despite some wonderful teachers along the way, I made it through thirteen years of an educational system without discovering this truth. The exciting part is that we have an opportunity to make experiences like mine a rarity. We do it by embracing some of these emerging practices that help us leverage the power of distributed practice in a digital age.