Chad Dorsey

Perspective: True Blended and Flipped Learning

Today’s conversation about technology in education rings with promise as educators discuss “blended learning” and “flipping the classroom.” New ages in education always introduce their share of new terms and ideas, and this one is no exception. These bring energy to the discussion and help people engage with technology in ways they hadn’t previously. But these terms can be thought of in several ways.

Blending Labs and Learning

One of the most critical issues in science and engineering learning today is the disconnect between labs and other instruction. Any science teacher who has seen students burst into class asking, “Is this a lab day?” understands the magnitude of this concern. Even in the best classrooms, students see investigation and hands-on activities as separate from the rest of their “regular” learning. And even established labs can be practically devoid of learning, as twenty students follow a preordained recipe in hopes of reproducing identical, already-known results. Such practices only reinforce the idea that science is about devouring and re-telling information.

In deeply digital materials, the line between learning and labs evaporates entirely, and original student discovery is the norm. Students use models and simulations to engage in digital inquiry on topics that must otherwise be relegated to lecture. Everyday phenomena fold naturally into instruction as probes and sensors bring a new dimension to hands-on exploration. In deeply digital curricula, every day is lab day, and students move seamlessly between individual exploration of a topic via computer, investigation of phenomena via probeware, whole-class discussion, student-student collaboration, and teacher-led summary and explanation.

Blending Data Collection and Analysis

New Concord Consortium projects are pushing the boundaries of this blending. InquirySpace will be an entirely new learning environment that erases the boundaries between data collection and analysis and brings collaboration to the fore. Students will view, combine, and compare data from multiple experiments instantly to manipulate and explore patterns and relationships that were once almost entirely out of reach.

With tools like this, whole classes can collect data for a joint experiment in minutes. Data capture will turn playful investigation using a model or simulation into an opportunity for rich analysis of underlying mathematical models. Such deeply digital affordances make inquiry highly accessible for students, highlighting their individual contributions and building a strong understanding of the processes of collaboration and scientific discovery.

Blending Probes, Models, and Assessment

More meanings for “blending” come into play when we consider what the marriage of simulation and probeware offers for learning. Charles Xie describes our experiments with mixed reality and the creation of the Frame (see page 8). This example combines the power of models with the engagement of real-world exploration through probeware to offer perhaps the most forward-looking vision of what deeply digital materials might offer.

Deeply digital curricula also permit the blending and blurring of what are often thought of as set curricular lines. They permit collection of important data about student performance in a way that opens the door to true formative assessment (as opposed to the myriad of summative assessments that masquerade under that title today). Real-time information about student thinking can open up entirely new horizons for teachers, demonstrating student misconceptions, generating new questions, and helping guide the direction of classroom discussion at prime learning opportunities, when important student ideas may be most malleable. The feature article in this issue (page 4) documents our development of technology to support these real-time formative assessment feedback loops.

Digital media bring special views into individual student learning and permit important flexibility. When instrumented and designed properly, simulations can transform students’ everyday experimentation into true performance assessment. If student performance data indicate that a new instructional variation is more effective than the original, teachers can change the materials easily and immediately as the next period’s students settle into their seats.

Flipping the Role of Teachers and Students

Deeply digital learning can also help bring new dimensions to “flipping” in the classroom. For many, this term indicates that students listen to or watch a lecture outside of class and then work on exercises with a teacher in class. But we believe technology should offer much more than this slightly enhanced variation on transmissivist pedagogy. In deeply digital learning, the role of both teachers and students should be redefined entirely and the process of learning should occur in rich new ways.

We know from learning research that students retain misconceptions about science even after hearing the most skilled and veteran lecturers. And we know that inquiry is critical to truly understanding science. By moving inquiry to the center of instruction and personalizing instruction for all learners, deeply digital curricula can cut directly to the activities that make the most difference and engage students in the practices of science the next-generation science standards and new AP curricula will require.

In deeply digital learning, teachers are guides to students as they explore, experiment, and engage with new concepts. They help students move through and unpack ideas for themselves and aid them in synthesizing knowledge. Explanation has its place, and may even take the form of a digitally supplied commentary. But more often than not, the value of lecture is most evident when teachers lead carefully targeted class discussions at critical learning moments. This is deeply digital learning at its best, technology-enhanced student learning mediated by great teachers. Indeed, in deeply digital curricula, teachers are not replaced by technology, but become essential as guides and careful interpreters in a classroom where students are brought as close as possible to the content and practices they learn.

Flipping Students’ Roles with Seamless Collaboration

Deeply digital learning also presents exciting opportunities to flip students’ roles in learning. When all students have access to resources via technology, collaboration can be built into the fabric of all curricula. Ad hoc groups of students can work on different parts of a problem. A whole class can generate a set of ideas quickly and individual students can explore and add to the ideas. Detailed dashboards and real-time views into what students are doing throughout the learning process permit teachers to direct collaborations deftly and tailor new learning opportunities for individual students or subgroups.

In fact, the power of collaboration is an area that deeply digital curricula have barely begun to tap. It is a frontier so exciting that it merits significant time and energy. Skilled teachers have for ages facilitated highly effective collaboration in their classrooms— digital curricula should be able to make this process easier, determine new and more effective patterns of collaboration, help distribute these patterns to anyone, and facilitate teachers in enacting them in classrooms across the country.

Building collaborative learning opportunities into curricula is one of many examples of important new ways we can explore the incredible possibilities of digital resources for learning. At a critical time such as this, when society is making great strides in digital learning, we must not grow complacent or slow our investigation into how technology can improve education. On the contrary, we must keep generating as many new and innovative ideas as possible. Only through this process — by blending innovations together to form entirely new creations and continuing to flip our own expectations upside down — will we ever truly reach the potential of deeply digital learning.

Chad Dorsey ( is President of the Concord Consortium.