On Vocabulary: “Blended Learning” vs. “Hybrid Pedagogy”

Everything I read either ignores the issue and chooses only one term to use — without commenting on that decision — or treats the two as synonymous, making a nod to the alternate term on first mention of the preferred one. It seems the literature generally assumes there is no need to differentiate the terms. But academics are not known for being haphazard with their word choice. Why should these terms be some kind of exception? I believe there is a difference, perhaps subconscious, between a hybrid and a blended approach to education, and that difference helps indicate the priorities of the author.

In education, educational technology, and instructional-design circles, the term blended enjoys nearly exclusive use in the literature. These fields emphasized the design and structure of the course, rather than its content. To them, blended learning seeks to create a path of instruction that best guides students through a prescribed path to reach predetermined outcomes. It emphasizes smooth integration of two delivery modes and a predictable, manageable approach to routine learning.

In other disciplines, the term hybrid is far more common, with blended being used parenthetically just to make sure readers know what authors are talking about. Rather than being concerned with how to structure the specifics of a course, these fields are interested in helping students master the subject matter. To them, each delivery mode serves as a tool, allowing them to instruct students a different way. Their outlook on a course that uses both in person and online instruction modes emphasizes use of whatever delivery mode is most appropriate for whatever task needs to be accomplished.

Course registration systems refer to these courses as web-enhanced, mixed-mode, or reduced seat time, further muddying the lexicographical waters. Each of these terms takes a resource-based view of course delivery, emphasizing what systems are necessary to make the course happen, rather than any reference to how students engage with course material or how they are expected to learn. While I like the idea of saying a traditional course can be “web-enhanced,” I worry that this approach makes online components seem an optional add-on, almost as though traditional instruction can come with a side of online activities or french fries, depending on your mood.

The distinctions in terminology are apropos, too, consistent with other uses in society. For instance, if you have a blended drink, be it a milkshake or something perhaps a little stronger, the point of the blending is to ensure no one flavor or texture stands out, to provide a consistent experience toward a predictable goal. If you have a hybrid vehicle, the point is to use the electric motor at times when it excels (such as slow speeds and stop-and-go traffic) and the combustion engine when it excels (such as highway speeds and inclines). To be sure, a sophisticated hybrid vehicle manages the handoff from one power source to another fairly adeptly. That’s a matter of good design, just like a hybrid course needs good design to feel like it fits two disparate course types together naturally.

Is there a formula for how to predictably create a successful hybrid course? Absolutely not. While blended courses grow from the idea that learning can be predictable, measurable, and predetermined, the hybrid classroom embraces spontaneity, creativity, and play to let learning happen however it chooses. As Pete Rorabaugh said in “The Hybrid Scholar,” his manifesto about why pedagogues need to bridge the gap between learning in a classroom learning and life, “student minds want to build and experiment more than they want to be measured.” Blending a course constrains students to do exactly what every other student has been doing before them — arguably one of the most boring educational arrangements possible (for students doing work and the teachers grading it). But making a course hybrid taps into strengths. Hybrid pedagogy uses the strengths of networked thinking, the strengths of in-person instruction, the strengths of teachers’ expertise, and the strengths of students’ desires to learn and explore to create something delightfully unpredictable where learning happens anywhere and at any time, as it should… and must.

[Delicious-looking blended raspberry smoothie (and the photo thereof) by madlyinlovewithlife on Flickr.]