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New Survey, Research Point to Need for Balanced Computer Use in Learning

Given the prodigious quantity of blogging here, some may find the contents of this particular post somewhat hypocritical, or perhaps just a little bit ironic. But I certainly strive to keep things interesting.

Once upon a time, you heard quite a bit more from little Eddie about blended learning — though recently my eyebrows have been raised about the opening of Denver’s Roots Elementary, my dreams rekindled of Rocketship Education landing in Jeffco, and my repetition that Colorado needs course choice was, well, repeated.

For those who need a refresher, one commonly accepted definition for blended learning comes from the Clayton Christensen Institute:

a formal education program in which a student learns: at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

The Christensen Institute’s disclaimer that blended learning is not “technology-rich instruction” should not be brushed aside. It’s not just using more technology in the same structures and practices. Technology, though, is critical to the rethinking that comes with designing and implementing various blended learning models.

But how much technology is the right amount of balance? Well, I’m very glad you asked. Because this week, Education Next editor-in-chief and Harvard’s long-time education policy expert Paul Peterson teamed up with blended learning guru Michael Horn to shine some light on a survey crafted to help answer just that question.

Tapping into the popular concept of “crowdsourcing,” Peterson and Horn hone in on the main findings:

Among the general public, 60 percent thought that students should work at least 30 percent of the time on the computer; 62 percent thought that students should not work any more than 30 percent of the time on the computer. Sixty-four percent of parents of children currently in school said the same thing. More than half of the public as a whole said the amount should be somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent. In other words, the crowdsourced answer is pretty clear: the right way to blend computer time and teacher time is to give the computer about 30 percent, or about one-third, of the school day.

For every hour with a computer, the public appears to settle on two hours with a teacher as the appropriate balance. If you gauge teachers’ opinions, the figure falls from 30 percent to 20. But if you ask the leading experts in the emerging blended learning field, it increases to 40 percent. The crowdsourcing approach lands us right in between.

Peterson and Horn close with the important caveat that the ratio of time will vary with the individual student. Little me also wonders if some variation must be considered based on the subject matter, too.

Anyway, a few days before the Education Next article, the OECD that oversees the international PISA test released a thick report titled Students, Computers, and Learning. Yes, thick. I just want to hone in briefly on some pieces in the chapter “How Computers Are Related to Student Performance.”

In fact, you can hone in on the bullet points of large-scale, international research findings located on page 148:

  • Investing more funds in Internet and communication technology for schools is not associated with improved student achievement in any subject measured
  • Less common usage of Internet at school corresponds with greater gains in reading ability (maybe some of the old-fashioned ways are better?)
  • Though results are only suggestive, not definitive, limited school computer use appears better than none at all, but above-average use of technology may actually lead to poorer results

Admittedly, I’m just scratching the surface here. Technology certainly can help, but the big picture takeaway may be that there can be too much of a good thing. Again, balance is the key. Simply dumping in more technology isn’t the solution. Using it smartly to rethink instruction through blended learning holds promise, but even in that context, both popular and expert opinion strongly point toward a limited amount of computer time.

Okay, okay, I hear you. Time for little Eddie to stop blogging, to go read a book, and then head outside to play. Balance!