Blending Research and Technology

Why Blended Learning?

It’s a question that as an educator that can be answered many different ways and from many different perspectives.  Many point to the prevalence of technology in the “real world” as a primary motivator for integrating technology into the classroom, and though there is some truth to this, there is a body of established and emerging science that supports the use of blended learning on a much deeper level than just the casual observance of real world use.

The cognitive load theory was developed through a study by John Sweller in the late 1980’s. The study focused on the ability of learners to  exert metal energy or effort in the solving of complex tasks.  It was through this research, that Sweller suggested that instructional design can play a critical role in the ability of learners to digest and understand a large cognitive load.  The study revealed that learners varying in the following capacities:

  1. Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the difficulty of the subject at hand.  Ideas that are more complex presumably will be more difficult for learners to understand.
  2. Extraneous cognitive load is the method of content delivery.  Instructional designers make intentional choices on how and when to deliver content to the learner.  As the level of difficulty of the Intrinsic load increases, it is important to consider ways that we as teacher can reduce external cognitive stresses, in other words efficiency.
  3. Germane cognitive load refers to the cognitive load that drives the creation of schema.  In essence this refers to brain power and how we are able to understand and categorize new information.

So what does this mean and how does blended learning provide us with a pathway to better student outcomes?

Deliberate planning with the use of technology is critical because computers can have a negative impact on cognitive load.  Computers can serve as a distraction to learning thereby increasing the extraneous cognitive load and decreasing learning efficiency.     Despite the potential pitfalls of technology on cognitive load it is important to recognize that learning with the use of technology can provide educators a valuable ally in learning. Below I explain 3 specific ways blended learning can aid in growth of student learning.

  1. Data-  For as long as there has been teachers, there has been educational data.  Formal or informal, this data has been used to help drive instruction for 1000’s of years, unfortunately as a teacher for 20, 25,  30 students it can be difficult and time consuming to gather the data necessary to drive instruction to deeper levels.  Technology and more specifically blended learning can now afford classroom teachers the time to not only collect data, but take action on data that is mined through online work.  Diagnostic tests, Learning Management Systems, and various applications can serve as a critical tool in understanding where students are academically, and thereby can pave the way to more efficient instructional design.  Efficiency in instructional design can help reduce the extraneous cognitive load placed on students and provide them with the path of least resistance depending on their needs.
  2. Freeing up working memory-  Blended learning provides teachers a number of ways to make content easier to digest for their students.  The ability of teachers to chunk content using learning or content management systems means that teachers can plug and play instruction at just the right moment.  We all have limited working memory capacity, and at times it can become overloaded.   Online learning tools, accessible via the web 24/7, provide the learner the just in time information needed to meet their needs.  By removing the overload on the front side of instructional delivery that typically pervades traditional learning practice (lecture), we can provide students the time and support necessary to build long term memory.
  3. Enriching- Cognitive theory and research shows that the larger amount of background knowledge one has on a subject, directly relates to their ability to process information.  Technology can provide educators with limitless access to materials that can be shared with and accessed by students.  Providing students additional content to enrich the curriculum is not only good practice form a classroom management perspective, but it is also sound cognitive practice.
  4. Auditory and Visual Access-The internet has a wealth of instructional materials available to students.  One challenge in that is there can be conflict in the way we present information visually to students, slowing the process of learning.  Providing visual information along with an auditory component can help close the gaps that visual information alone may leave.  The first thought here is the wealth of video already created through various video platforms such as YouTube, Ted ed, and the list goes on.  Besides already created content their are a large array of educational applications that create opportunities for teachers and students to screen cast their work.

Blended learning and technology has the ability to be transformative to education, however we must be intentional with the way we design and deliver learning experiences for our students.

For more information on the Cognitive Load Theory check out some of the links below.


Educational Psychologist: Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does not Work

Cognitive Load Theory: Helping People Learn Effectively


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