CHAPTER 2: Theories Supporting Blended Learning


Grounding our practice in theory will help us make better decisions when implementing blended learning and support our learners more effectively to achieve deep and meaningful learning. In this chapter, we review two main theoretical frameworks that can be applied to blended learning, then consider several models of blended learning and technology integration.


As most of us around the world have done the majority of our learning in person and in classrooms, we usually refer to the combination of in-person and online teaching as a special form of learning called “blended.” Someday, however, we expect this form will become the standard, and we will drop the term “blended learning” altogether.

Blended learning “is part of the ongoing convergence of two archetypal learning environments” (Bonk & Graham, 2006, p. 2). However, the influences of the two types of delivery are not equal, and how to blend looks different if you are starting from an in-person school to how it looks if you are coming from a distance education background.

Traditional face-to-face, in-person, classroom-based teaching and learning has been used for centuries as the ubiquitous delivery method. Distance and distributed teaching and learning opportunities are much newer, particularly in reference to technology-enabled learning. When online education became available, it was used first in distance education, with students studying fully online. Notions of blending classroom-based learning and online or distance education came later.

Only over the last few decades has technology for learning been readily available. It emerged so quickly that use of these technologies was implemented well before we had substantial knowledge of its impact and the differences it made for teachers and students. Now, with more evidence, improved theories and models, and more clarity about how to use both in-person and online teaching and learning, we can blend the two delivery modes with careful attention to each.

Using Theory to Support Blended Learning Practice

Why is theory important?Effective blended learning is more than just tips and techniques;understanding the key concepts in blended learning and what makes it successful are important.First,we will talk about theory and conceptual frameworks for blended learning;the tips will come later!

It is not possible to review all models of blended learning here. Wang, Han and Yang (2015) provide an important overview of all major blended learning theoretical frameworks available. Our focus in this chapter will be on two frameworks: the Complex Adaptive Blended Learning System and the Community of  Inquiry.

These two models take a comprehensive view of the design and implementation of blended learning. They are applicable to blended learning in any segment of education, with appropriate adjustments as necessary based on learners’ needs and characteristics, whether you are a teacher or instructor in K–12 schools, colleges and universities, the military, the industrial workplace or the corporate world.

The Complex Adaptive Blended Learning System

Figure 2.1 presents a diagram that outlines all the components of the Complex Adaptive Blended Learning System, or CABLES framework. The learner sits at the center of the model, but all components impact each other. There are six elements in the system, all with their own sub-systems. These six elements are:

  • the learner
  • the teacher
  • the technology
  • the content
  • the learning support
  • the institution

Not only does each element have its own character and subsystem, but each acts in relationship to all the others. As in any complex system, the relationships are dynamic and integrative. This adaptive system of blended learning emerges from the relationships and the effects of each element acting with and on the other elements.


Figure 2.1. The CABLS framework

Table 2.1. The six elements of the CABLS framework.

LEARNERS The role  of  learners changes,  or  adapts,  as  learners engage  for  the first  time  or  in  new ways  with  the  elements  in  the  system.  Most important is the well-researched change from passive to active learner. This is key to the support and training of lifelong learners, a characteristic identified as important in 21st-century society.
TEACHERS The of teachers is also new in blended environments and will co-evolve with students as both engage with and adapt to each other and the other four elements in the system. The assumption is that teachers engaging in blended learning will adapt to pedagogies appropriate not only for blended learning but for learners preparing to engage productively in 21st-century societies, which are characterized by significant diversity.
These “teachers” will be identified by new labels, such as facilitators, mentors, advisers and moderators.
CONTENT Subject matter is still an important influence on the delivery of learning.Contents refers to subject matter and the material elements used to engage learners in the process of mastering that subject. The  interactive,  dynamic,media-rich  materials available online create opportunities for teachers and learners to add content before, during and even after the course experience. The dynamic between the learner,the teacher,the technology,
The learning support and the institution impacts the choice and use of content.The opportunity for deep learning of content is available via this complex engagement of multiple learning modes influenced by many elements.
TECHNOLOGY Technology in general terms refers to any equipment or mechanism that extends the human capacity to get things done, the creation and use of technical means, and their interrelation with life. Emerging technologies are tested and then either adapted for new uses or discarded if not of significant value. Technology for learning requires new roles for the learner and teacher and new ways of accessing and working with content. Much research is available on technology for learning in many settings with diverse learner groups, resulting in a large range of outcomes. There is still much testing and research needed to identify the applications, challenges and outcomes of technology for learning. In this theoretical framework, the technology has to be seen as part of the system of blended learning, one that includes all elements working in relation to each  other.
LEARNER SUPPORT Helping learners master the content and become competent has to be part of their education. Learner support is included in this framework to emphasize the development required to be a competent blended learner and the ongoing support needed when the system includes complexity. Support can involve   technology
troubleshooting, material access and learning to communicate effectively online, as well as all the other usual support around understanding content and assignments. In addition, there is a measure of independence attached to online learning that, once mastered, is a lifelong asset. However, it does require the scaffolding of support across diverse learners and over time. For Wang et al. (2015), learner support means “academic support focusing on helping learners to develop effective learning strategies, such as time management and collaborative skills, and technical support aiming to help students improve their knowledge of the technological tools and the fluency with which they use the tools to complete specific learning tasks” (p.384).
INSTITUTION Just as classroom-based learning requires buildings,desks,lighting and other accessories of brick-and-mortar institutions,blended  learning  requires  technological  infrastructure and digital janitors. Institutional support is a necessary if not sufficient condition for successful blended learning.

The CABLS framework is designed to “facilitate a deeper, more accurate understanding of the dynamic and adaptive nature of blended learning” (Wang et al., 2015, p. 390). This systems approach allows someone new to blended learning to consider key interacting components at work as they create and offer a blended learning course or programme. Teachers will be most interested in the relationship between content, learners and technology. For more on designing with interacting components, see Richardson et al. (2012).

The Community of Inquiry Theoretical Framework in Blended Learning

In 2000, Garrison, Anderson and Archer published a theoretical framework developed to structure the process of learning in an online or blended environment. The Community of Inquiry (CoI), a model of inquiry-based teaching and learning, is based on the work of John Dewey and constructive views of experiential learning.

The CoI framework describes the necessary elements to create deep and meaningful learning. The original framework identifies the education experience as occurring at the convergence of three presences: cognitive, teaching and social. In our application of this model, presence is defined as a state of alert awareness, receptivity and contentedness to the social, cognitive, emotional and physical workings of both the individual and the group in the context of their learning environments (adapted from a definition by Rodgers and Raider-Roth, 2006, p. 1).

Inquiry-based teaching and learning is more important now than ever before, as both a process for learning and a subject for learning to learn. Inquiry-based teaching and learning has its roots in the new learning movement of the 1960s, the time of the so-called “me generation.” This call for more active learning drew insight from foundation thinkers in education like Dewey (1938) and Vygotsky (1997), who saw the use of individual experience and the construction of one’s own knowledge structures as key to engagement and learning outcomes. Now called inquiry-based learning by way .of contrast to content-based learning, learning through cognitive engagement allows students more control over the way they develop a knowledge base. Beyond content acquisition, inquiry-based learning is seen as a key opportunity for developing competence in higher-order thinking skills (Garrison, 2016). Passive, amateur learners are not part of inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based teaching, then, requires a focus on providing meaningful engagement opportunities rather than direct instruction about content; the latter supports and fosters passive learning.

Inquiry-based teaching also requires making the learning process explicit. Building on the early work of Schwab (1966), this teaching practice offers structure to move learners through active inquiry processes. For Schwab, the active inquiry process starts by using questions, problems and material to invite learners to identify relationships between concepts or variables. As learners advance, questions or problems are presented and the learners discover the path to answers themselves. As a third and final stage, a topic is presented, and learners themselves identify questions, problems, methods and answers while the teacher provides guidance and facilitates learning.

Creating a Community of Inquiry: What the Research Tells Us

The CoI framework supports guided inquiry by identifying teaching activity and provides guidance, based on theory and practice, on content and processes for blended learning.

In keeping with the original three presences of the CoI framework (social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence), blended learning using the CoI framework creates opportunities for self-reflection, active cognitive processing, interaction and peer-teaching. In addition, expert guidance from teachers at the right time encourages engagement and shared application activities, highlighting the importance of creating communities of inquiry in the classroom — whether face-to-face, online or blended.

Creating communities of inquiry in blended learning is one of the most researched pedagogical approaches in universities and colleges. The original Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) article explaining this framework has been cited in the scholarly literature over 4,000 times. Much of the early research focused on understanding social presence (Richardson & Swan, 2003) as a new way to approach teaching beyond strict transmission models of delivery. A significant amount of research has also been done to measure the components of this framework and how they operate in reference to one another (Arbaugh et al., 2008; Garrison, Cleveland-Innes & Fung, 2010). A recent analysis of the literature identified that in measuring and applying the CoI, “the most frequently used and the one adopted the most commonly in the literature is the CoI survey instrument developed by Arbaugh et al. (2008)” (Olpak, Yagci & Basarmak, 2016, p.  1090).

Accurate measurement of the framework allows for a more detailed examination of cognitive presence. This is important, as none of the presences stand alone. Cognitive presence emerges out of four distinct but overlapping components of practical inquiry: triggering events, exploration, integration and resolution. Establishing deep and meaningful learning requires activity in all four components. However, Akyol and Garrison (2011) report evidence that cognitive presence requires a balance among cognitive, social and teaching presence. Direct instruction and facilitation of cognitive activity, beyond just explaining content, is a key role for teachers using this framework. This corroborates Archibald’s (2010) evidence that teaching presence and social presence explain 69% of the variance in cognitive presence.

Teaching presence, rather than “teacher presence,” is so named to allow for a teaching function for both teachers and students in a CoI. While the teacher, or instructor of record, plays a leadership role, teaching presence allows for and fosters peer-teaching among students. Recent studies clarify the importance of teaching presence in the generation of satisfying learning experiences among students (Chakraborty & Nafukho, 2015; Morgan, 2011; Shea, Hayes & Vickers, 2010). It is, however,  linked to other presences in a significant way. For example, Shea and Bidjerano (2009) report evidence that the student experience of teaching presence affects the emergence of social presence.

In addition to these three presences, emotional presence has been suggested (Cleveland-Innes & Campbell, 2012; Stenbom, Cleveland-Innes & Hrastinski, 2016). Emotional presence is defined as the outward expression of emotion, affect and feeling, by individuals and among individuals in a community of inquiry, as they relate to and interact with the learning technology, course content, students and instructor. Item indicators for emotional presence have been analysed with the instrument measuring the original three presences (Arbaugh et. al, 2008). Exploratory factor analysis suggests emotional presence may stand alone as a separate element in this framework (Cleveland-Innes, Ally, Wark & Fung, 2013). Further research is required to evaluate the relationship between emotional presence and other elements in the framework.


Figure 2.2. The Community of Inquiry model

Seven Blended Learning Structures in Education

Now that you have a view on the theory underlying blended learning, we can discuss more concrete applications of types of instruction.

Many factors must be considered when choosing how to blend in-person and online teaching and learning activities. In some cases, most interactions between students and the teacher, as well as the direct delivery of instruction, take place in person in the classroom, while materials and possibly some additional activities are delivered online. In other cases, most of the class activities occur online, with infrequent meetings in person to solve problems and support community building. In some blended arrangements, students may choose which activities to complete online and which to complete in a classroom.

Ideally, blends are personalized so individual students have the blend that best fits their age, life circumstances and learning needs. These are called à la carte models. Students choose what to take fully online, what to take fully in person and, when the design is available, blended courses where they choose when to go to in-person classes and when to watch videos, download readings and complete assignments online.

This kind of personalization is not always available. Most important is ensuring that students are able to function well as learners with any delivery method, single-mode or blended, even if it is not their preference or the best situation for them. Teachers are valuable coaches for helping students manage  in any learning situation; it is up to teachers and learning designers to offer blended activities that best suit the subject, the learners’ needs and the curriculum requirements. Not all unique and interesting blended learning designs are one-size-fits-all model.

Below are seven sample configurations of blended learning activities, offered by O’Connell (2016) for you to consider for your teaching situation. These examples of blended learning are drawn from higher education but can be shaped to fit any teaching and learning situation. Chapter 3 will provide further information about creating your own unique design of blended learning.

  • Blended face-to-face class: Also sometimes called the “face-to-face driver model,” the blended face-to-face class model is based in the classroom, although a significant amount of classroom time has been replaced by online activities. Seat time is required for this model, while online activities are used to supplement the in-person classes; readings, quizzes or other assessments are done online at home. This model allows students and faculty to share more high-value instructional time because class time is used for higher-order learning activities such as discussions and group projects.
  • Blended online class: Sometimes referred to as the “online driver model,” this class is the inverse of the blended face-to-face class. The class is mostly conducted online, but there are some required in-person activities such as lectures or labs.
  • The flipped classroom: The flipped classroom reverses the traditional class structure of listening to a lecture in class and completing homework activities at home. Students in flipped classes watch a short lecture video online and come into the classroom to complete activities such as group work, projects or other exercises. The flipped classroom model can be seen as a sub-model of the blended face-to-face or blended online class.
  • The rotation model: In this model, students in a course rotate between various modalities, one of which is online learning. There are various sub-models: station rotation, lab rotation and individual rotation. Some of these sub-models are better suited to K–12 education; station rotation, for example, requires students to rotate between stations in the classroom at an instructor’s discretion. Others work well on a college campus; the lab rotation model, for example, requires students in a course to rotate among locations on campus (at least one of which is an online learning lab). In the individual rotation model, a student rotates through learning modalities on a customized schedule.
  • The self-blend model: While many of the blended learning models on this list are at the course level, self-blending is a programmer-level model and is familiar to many college students. Learners using this model are enrolled in a school but take online courses in addition to their traditional face-to-face courses. They are not directed by a faculty member and choose which courses they will take online and which they will take in person.
  • The blended MOOC: The blended MOOC is a form of flipped classroom using in-person class meetings to supplement a massive open online course. Students access MOOC materials— Perhaps from another institution or instructor if the course is openly accessible — outside of  class and then come to a class meeting for discussions or in-class activities. In 2012, according to Campus Technology, San Jose State University piloted a blended MOOC using MITs Circuits and Electronics course, with students taking the MOOC out of class while face-to-face time was used for additional problem solving (LA Martina, 2012).
  • Flexible-mode courses: Flexible-mode courses offer all instruction in multiple modes — in person and online — and students choose how to take their course. An example of this is San Francisco State University’s hybrid flexible (HyFlex) model, which offers classroom-based and online options for all or most learning activities, allowing students the ability to choose how they will attend classes: online or in person (Beastly, 2016).

Evaluations are sparse but are now under way , testing different types of blended learning models for results — see, for example, Stockwell, Stockwell, Cennamo and Jiang (2015).

Blended Learning as Technology-Enabled Learning in the Classroom

Another type of blend adds technology in the classroom. Often called technology-enabled learning, adding technology to in-person teaching and learning may foster engagement and improve learning outcomes. The SAMR model, well-suited for K–12, is an approach for the progressive implementation of new technology.

Table 2.2. SAMR descriptors

SUBSTITUTION Here, computer technology is used in the same way pen and paper might be used: a worksheet is filled out, either on paper or on a tablet, smartphone or computer. There is no functional difference, only the opportunity to use a different tool for the same exercise. This can be the learner’s choice or teacher directed.
AUGMENTATION Here, the technology adds a dimension not available with traditional teaching tools:  a computer quiz can be taken rather than a pen-and-paper quiz.The difference lies in immediate feedback, as the computer provides correct answers and additional reinforcement with video,audio or text when correcting an answer or acknowledging  a correct answer.
MODIFICATION In modifying the traditional tools, technology is used to change the function of the lesson. For example, an essay-writing exercise uses video and/or audio software to turn the essay into a story and performance. Technology offers new recording functions for peer and teacher feedback and student editing.
REDEFINITION In this case, using technology is an entirely new teaching and learning activity: students use devices to search the Internet for material rather than looking in books or going to the library. Applications to help complete tasks are offered, such  as Spell-check or Grammar. Wikis are used to create multi-authored art facts and texts to complete group assignments.

The following graphic illustrates these comments,using types of coffee as examples.


Figure 2.3. SAMR Model (Brubaker, 2013)


In this chapter, we have laid the theoretical foundations for the successful implementation of blended learning, with a special focus on two frameworks: the Complex Adaptive Blended Learning System and the Community of Inquiry.

The CABLS framework analyses learning into a complex and dynamic system of six interacting elements: learner, teacher, technology, content, learner support and institution. The CoI emphasizes inquiry-based  teaching, describing meaningful learning as the convergence of cognitive, teaching and social presences, with emotional presence as a potential fourth component. Both frameworks can provide guidance in developing blended learning content and processes to support active, lifelong learners.

We have also looked at seven sample configurations of blended learning design: blended face-to-face class, blended online class, flipped classroom, rotation model, self-blend model, blended MOOC and flexible-mode courses. When it comes to blended learning models, one size does not fit all; teachers and learning designers should offer blended learning activities to best suit the content, the learners’ needs and the curriculum requirements.

Finally, we considered the relationship between blended learning and technology-enabled learning, using the SAMR model — substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition — to describe how technology can be progressively integrated into the classroom.

Guided by these theoretical frameworks and models, we turn in Chapter Three to the development of purposeful and successful blended learning, from initial instructional design decisions to evaluation.


  1. Identify the six components of the CABLES framework as applied to your own teaching setting. How might this framework support improvements in your teaching setting?
  2. Consider your own course as you review the questions in the CoI Survey found in Appendix 1. Are all three presences — cognitive, teaching and social — represented?
  3. Consider the seven blended learning structures as they might be used in your own teaching setting. Which do you think would be most successful? Which do you find most appealing in your context? Design your own model of blended learning.
  4. Consider the SAMR model as it might apply to your teaching setting. At which stage of technology integration are you currently? What might it take to move to the next stage?

Resources for Further Reading

The  Community of Inquiry resource site, including an overview of the CoI framework, survey and key publications. Retrieved from

Common Sense Education. (2016). Introduction to the SAMR model. Common Sense Education.  Retrieved  from

O’Connell, A. (2016). Seven blended learning models used today in higher ed. Retrieved from

Wang, Y., Han, X., & Yang, J. (2015). Revisiting the blended learning literature: Using a complex adaptive systems framework. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 18(2), 380–393. Retrieved from


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