Close Relatives: Student-Centered Learning and Blended Learning

Vector of two human heads made of gears with light bulb shape inside. Innovation technology and new idea generation concept
As school leaders, we sometimes confuse the labels that we place on educational strategies and models. This happens frequently when we talk about “blended learning” and “student-centered learning,” two closely related terms with distinct meanings. In this article, the research team of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) discusses how student-centered learning relates to the ideas and promise of blended learning.

Not the Same

As we continue to work with schools and districts of all shapes and sizes, we often find ourselves engaged in conversations that use the terms “student-centered learning” and “blended learning” interchangeably. The fact of the matter is that, while these two terms are closely related, they are really not the same thing.

Last month, we published a blog post that explained the characteristics of student-centered learning. Student-centered learning is an educational philosophy or approach to learning that places students’ needs and interests at the forefront of the operations and decision-making of a school or district. 

Conversely, blended learning is a format or a method of learning experienced by students. In short, blended learning combines traditional face-to-face instruction with online experiences that work together as an integrated experience for students.

Another way to look at the difference

Student-centered learning could be a guiding approach to learning within a school that utilizes a blended learning format. This means that the overall educational experience of a student is driven by a collaboration between students and teachers (and even parents!) and considers the individual needs, interests, and abilities of a student when determining curriculum and learning experiences (student-centered learning). Each student’s format of learning is likely to be different based on their needs, interests, and abilities. 

For some students, the combination of online and face-to-face learning experiences (blended learning) may be a fantastic option. For others, it might not be. Blended learning is a format of learning, among a variety of other formats, that could play a role in delivering a student-centered learning experience. Other formats could include the purely traditional face-to-face instructional model that limits the use of technology or a fully online experience in which real-time interaction with a teacher is limited or non-existent.

The extended family

So we now see that student-centered learning and blended learning are not really the same thing, but we do recognize that they are related. Other relatives within this “family” are educational concepts or approaches such as personalized learning and customized learning, which are often built upon a foundation of the use of digital tools and resources.

In a personalized learning environment, students have a degree of control over their curricular pacing and pathways as well as variations in content based on their “personal pathway” to achieving established standards. 

Similarly, customized learning is a variation of personalized learning that embraces a deeper philosophy of customizing the entire learning experience of child to be aligned with academic, career, and life goals.

What does this all mean?

While blended learning, personalized learning, and customized learning are all intended to help each individual student grow based on their own individual wants and needs, there are some distinct differences. The common thread through all of these education concepts is that they are all approaches or methods aimed at placing students at the center of learning.

Student-centered learning is an approach that aligns all aspects of a school community (curriculum, staffing, finances, technology, facilities, schedules, community partnerships, etc.) in a way that truly focuses on the desired outcomes for each individual student, while accounting for the differences of each student.

A blended school model, personalized learning, and customized learning approaches could all be adopted by a school to create a student-centered learning environment. How a particular school or district creates a student-centered learning environment will vary from district to district or from school to school depending on the specific needs of the student and school community populations.

Celebrating uniqueness!

Next month, we will feature a blog post on a school that has adopted components of student-centered learning to highlight the uniqueness of the school and to illustrate how it is accommodating the needs of its specific community.

Student-Centered Learning Blog Series

In our Student-Centered Learning blog series, we lead a discussion each month about student-centered learning, what it is, how it can help students and schools, and how to make it a reality. Our hope with this series is to provide practical insights to school leaders, teachers, and parents on how to make education more meaningful to students. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the authors

Christopher Harrington
Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with iNACOL and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Kristen DeBruler
Dr. Kristen DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University. She taught in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University for three years. Her work focuses on K-12 online learning policy in Michigan and nation wide as well as understanding online learning best practices.

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.