CHAPTER 1 : Blended Learning


This chapter is an introduction to blended learning: how it is defined, how it emerged, how it is being used and what it has to offer, as well as challenges you may encounter when implementing a blended learning approach in your teaching practice.

The Growth of Blended Learning

This guidebook presents new ways of thinking about teaching and learning to help you better prepare your students to learn and develop into 21st-century global citizens.

According to the U.S. Department of Education (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009), a blend of classroom and web-based teaching and learning offers access to the widest range of learning modes and methods for developing student skills and expertise as learners (Cleveland-Innes, 2017). Many findings on blended learning show an increase in learners’ ability to learn collaboratively, think creatively, study independently and tailor their own learning experiences to meet their individual needs.

This guidebook also provides information about some of the technology tools you can use to support in-person delivery in a seamless, truly blended way. Through careful, thoughtful blending and with consideration for technological skill levels and Internet access, learning for anyone can now take place with greater flexibility and convenience.

Innovative educators have for many years been creating new delivery methods in education by combining elements of in-person teaching with technology-enabled learning to bring people together virtually. Since the late 1990s, when simple learning management systems began to emerge, blended learning has grown very quickly. There are now many possible combinations and permutations, but it took time for this to occur.

While computers became part of everyday life for most in the early 2000s, education was slower to integrate computer technology. When it did, technology use was often limited to supplementing the usual teach-by-telling approach. As computers and the Internet demonstrated opportunities  for connecting people in multiple locations as well as for more interaction, more visuals and greater access to information, innovation increased but in fragmented, uneven ways.

Soon, Internet connectivity and browser development allowed broader and more user-friendly resources for anyone wanting to learn. Web-based learning replaced CD-ROM materials. “Rather than having to distribute CD-ROMs to learners, organizations could simply upload material, e Learning assessments, and assignments via the web, and learners could access them with a click of a mouse button” (Pappas, 2015b).

Today, computers, tablets and smartphones are available to the majority of the world’s population, and technology-enabled learning has become more varied and accessible. More and more institutions and teachers are adding web-based learning to their delivery methods, and learners have access to many applications to support their learning. The mantra “anytime, anywhere” has been taken up to describe the new wave of education. However, this notion is being challenged by education practitioners and researchers, who know that learning competence is not universal, student skills are very different from skills needed to participate in social media, and access to broadband Internet is not evenly distributed.

Teachers are still a key part of blended learning — teachers who have subject-matter expertise and basic technology skills, along with the new pedagogies that go with technology, such as constructivism and collaboration. Blended learning expertise provides  both.

What is Blended Learning?

The simplest definition of the term blended learning is the use of traditional classroom teaching methods together with the use of online learning for the same students studying the same content in the same course. It is a “thoughtful fusion of face-to-face and online learning experiences” (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). There are also blended programmes, in which students study some courses in face-to-face classrooms and other courses are delivered fully online.

In other words, blended learning is a term applied to the practice of providing instruction and learning experiences through some combination of both face-to-face and technology-mediated learning. During the technology-mediated components of these learning experiences, students are not required to be physically together in one place but may be connected digitally through online communities. For example, one blended learning course could involve students attending a class taught by a teacher in a traditional classroom setting while also completing online components of the course independently, outside of the classroom, on an online learning platform.

Classroom instruction time may be replaced or augmented by online learning experiences, and online learning can include varying degrees of interaction or just time alone in independent study and learning activities. However, in a quality blended learning experience, the content and activities of both in-person and online learning are integrated with one another and work toward the same learning outcomes with the same content. The various learning experiences are synthesised, complement each other, and are planned or orchestrated to run in parallel.

Blended learning is sometimes called hybrid or mixed-mode learning. These systems of instructional design use many types of teaching and learning experiences and vary in design and implementation across teachers, programmes and schools. The potential variations of mixed-mode learning are virtually endless; a good way to get a sense of the range of possibilities is to consider some examples:

  • In one school, a few teachers create mixed-mode delivery in their individual classrooms. In another, a whole programme chooses to make blended learning its choice of delivery for all students; all teachers work together to learn how to teach in a blended delivery system.
  • Video recorded lectures, live video and other digitally enabled learning opportunities can be a student’s primary instructional interactions with other students and the teacher. In some cases, students may work independently on online lessons, projects and assignments at home or else- where, only periodically meeting with teachers to review their learning progress, discuss their work, ask questions or receive assistance with difficult concepts. In other cases, students may spend their entire day in a traditional school building, but they will spend more time working online and independently than they do receiving instruction from a teacher.

Blended learning can be divided into three main models.


Figure 1.1. Models of blended learning

The first model, blended presentation and interaction, has classroom engagement as its primary component, with support from out-of-class, online exercises. The flipped classroom or flipped curriculum approach is a common example of this model, with students viewing podcasts or other online resources independently, followed by classroom-based tutorials or seminars for group learning based upon these resources.

The second is the blended block model (sometimes called a programme flow model), in which a sequence of activities, or “blocks,” is structured to incorporate both face-to-face learning and online study, usually with consideration for both pedagogical goals and practical constraints. For example, a course for geographically distributed learners or working professionals may have limited opportunities for classroom-based learning and therefore begin with a block of intensive face-to-face sessions, followed by blocks of online study and collaboration through online tutorials, possibly followed by a further block of face-to-face learning or group presentations.

The third model is fully online but may still be considered blended if it incorporates both synchronous learning (for example, online tutorials) and asynchronous activities (for example, discussion forums). Thus, blended learning covers one or more of the following three situations:

  • Combining instructional modalities (or delivery media).
  • Combining instructional methods.
  • Combining online and face-to-face instruction.

Table 1.1 Three models of blended learning.

Blended presentation and interaction Blended block Fully online
Activity-focused face-to-face sessions blended with online resources.

For example, the flipped curriculum model combines:

  • short lecture podcasts, online resources with
  • face-to-face tutorial/seminars for interaction and presentation of group  work.
Combination of:

  • intensive face-to-face sessions as one day or half days
  • weekly online tutorial/seminars for activities and interaction
  • online content and resources
Combination of:

  • short lecture podcasts with online resources and learning activities
  • online tutorials (synchronous)
  • interaction via online collaboration, discussion forums and/or group work

Source: Hannon & Macken (2014)

Blended Learning Uses

As we saw above regarding the blended block model, there are often practical considerations leading us to choose blended learning. In addition, many policy makers and post secondary leaders believe that replacing some components of a learning programme with online or distance education is a cost-effective way to deliver post secondary education.

Our focus in this guidebook is on professional development and the effective introduction of blended learning to improve instructional practice and learner outcomes, not solely to introduce a blended learning resource. While some efficiencies might be created through online delivery, there is increasing evidence about its effectiveness in delivering instruction.

Two recent studies provide different views of whether online education will increase student learning and success. Nevertheless, over the past several years, perceptions of online learning have been shifting in its favor as more learners and educators see it as a viable alternative to some forms of face-to-face learning. Drawing from best practices in both online and face-to-face methods, blended learning is on the rise at colleges and universities as the number of digital learning platforms and ways to leverage them for educational purposes continues to grow.

The opportunities for learning or the affordances blended learning offers are now well understood, and both educators and students find its flexibility, ease Opportunity for collaboration at a distance: Individual students work together virtually in an intellectual endeavor as a learning practice of access, and integration of sophisticated multimedia and technologies highly appealing. The current focus of this trend has shifted to understanding how applications of digital modes of teaching are impacting students. Findings are showing increases in learner creativity, independence and self-direction.

Benefits of Blended Learning

The advantages of blended learning for students include increased learning skills, greater access to information, improved satisfaction and learning outcomes, and opportunities both to learn with others and to teach others. Recent research identifies the following key benefits of blended learning:

  1. Opportunity for collaboration at a distance: Individual students work together virtually in an intellectual endeavor as a learning practice.
  2. Increased flexibility: Technology-enabled learning allows for learning anytime and anywhere, letting students learn without the barriers of time and location but with the possible support of in-person engagement.
  3. Increased interaction: Blended learning offers a platform to facilitate greater interactivity between students, as well as between students and teachers.
  4. Enhanced learning: Additional types of learning activities improve engagement and can help students achieve higher and more meaningful levels of learning.
  5. Learning to be virtual citizens: Learners practice the ability to project themselves socially and academically in an online community of inquiry. Digital learning skills are becoming essential to be a lifelong learner, and blended courses help learners master the skills for using a variety of technologies.

Making Blended Learning Work

Technology integration in itself is not necessarily blended learning. If online learning is only a minor component of a classroom-based course, without offering students the independence, convenience and interaction opportunities of being online, it may not really be a blended learning system but simply a case of technology integration.

Creating an effective blended learning environment means making appropriate choices and overcoming the challenges that come with the use of technology. The following challenges and recommendations were identified in recent research on teacher perspectives, conducted by Athabasca University and the Commonwealth of Learning (Cleveland-Innes, Ostashewski, Mishra, Gauvreau, & Richardson, 2017):

  1. Technology access: A critical first step is to know which resources are available to your students. Is there limited bandwidth, unreliable Internet connectivity, or lack of devices such as laptops or smartphones? Once you are clear about access, you can choose learning activities with the technology in ways that allow all to participate.
  2. Design: Creating the appropriate in-person and online activities means designing courses with the pedagogic principles of both and integrating technology in a way that supports meaningful learning.
  3. Safety and security: Create awareness of cyber-malice and ensure security interventions against unethical learning practices, academic dishonesty, identity theft and bullying are in place.
  4. Skill development, support and training: Both students and instructors must have technological literacy and competence with technology applications.
  5. Motivation: Students need adequate motivation when engaging in a wide range of often shifting learning modalities, some of which may require significant skill development.

Later chapters will provide further guidance on using technology to create your blended learning environment.


This first chapter has introduced blended learning as an important and rapidly developing form of education, with an emphasis on the benefits it offers to both educators and students, including greater flexibility and convenience, as well as potential increases in learner creativity and independence.

Blended learning can be defined as the combination of face-to-face classroom instruction with online learning within a course or programme — a definition broad enough to include a wide range of variations appropriate to the individual needs and contexts of a school or course.

One key concept is that blended learning is not merely the addition of some technological element to an existing course but rather is an integrated plan utilizing the best of what both face-to-face and online learning have to offer. The blended presentation and interaction model, the blended block model and the fully online model provide initial frameworks for the deliberate structuring of blended learning to improve learning outcomes.

The next chapter will expand on this idea by considering additional models and frameworks for developing effective blended learning, including the Community of Inquiry framework and a systems-based  approach.


A Blended Learning Programme for Teachers

A blended learning programme including the following components was designed to provide teachers in a rural area with the knowledge required to implement technology-enabled learning, as shown by the following blended block model.


Figure 1.2. Blended block model

Pre-workshop preparation: A questionnaire was sent to participants before the online phase, asking them to describe their role in the educational system and their particular skills. The questionnaire helped facilitators adjust activities to the participants’ backgrounds.

Online workshop (core component): The workshop included individual study with online lessons and activities supported by facilitators. Both synchronous and asynchronous communication were used for online discussions and group work. The main outcome of the online component was an individual activity plan to help participants reflect on their teaching situation and to serve as a resource for the later face-to-face activities.

Bridge period: During this period between the two core components of the course, online support was provided to participants as they prepared for the face-to-face component.

Face-to-face workshop (core component): The face-to-face workshop consisted of classroom activities where participants presented and discussed their activity plans, practiced teaching principles and techniques, and further developed their activity plans.

Online resources: After completion of the course, additional online resources were available to help teachers transfer their new knowledge to their individual teaching settings.

(Adapted from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [2011],p.19.)


  1. What access to technology do your students have?
  2. How are your technology skills? Do you need technology support? Where is it available?
  3. What tools would you use to decide which learning activities to offer in person and which to offer online?
  4. What is the nature of blended learning? What are the different components of your blended learning?
  5. Do you need instructional design support?

Resources for Further Reading

The following examples are in-practice blends of technology-enabled learning with in person teaching:

Bowman, J.D. (2017). Facilitating a class Twitter chat. Edutopia. Retrieved from

    All steps you need to prepare for and use Twitter as a way to engage students in learning activity discussions.

Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2017). Extending classroom management online. Edutopia. Retrieved from

    A case example of management strategies when you are using a blended classroom.


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Guide to Blended Learning by Commonwealth of Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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