We can all agree that the phrase “blended learning” is well and truly a part of the modern-day discourse on education; so much so that academics have begun to curate a universal definition, as well as identify sub-themes and genres of the concept.

Taxonomy (the science of classifying things) is important here, because we remain in flux when it comes to online learning modes, and it is always helpful to know when we repeat phrases — such as “blended learning” — in a discussion, most people will know what we are referring to.

This is especially important because, on consideration, we will realize that blended learning is distinct and different from learning modes such as traditional instruction, technology-rich instruction, informal online learning, and full-time virtual learning. The hawk-eyed among us will further realize that what defines blended learning is precisely a blend and interconnected use of the above modalities.

In 2012 Heather Staker and Michael B. Horn, of the Christensen Institute, wrote a definitive report on blended learning taxonomies, that aimed to define the term “blended learning” completely and accurately. They studied not only the meeting notes and outcomes of the iNACOL Virtual School Symposium of 2011, but also analyzed over 80 individual blended learning projects. The definition below is a refinement of a previous definition suggested in their report “The rise of K-12 Blended Learning”.

Blended Learning is defined as: A formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.

Refinements to the previous definition include the addition of the word “formal” to distinguish blended learning from casual online research or incidental learning.

4 Models of blended learning

In addition to providing ongoing clarification of the term itself, Staker and Horn made helpful strides in defining the various modes of blended learning. As such let’s take a deeper look at the terms and phrases they have suggested and why.

The rotation model

Simply, this means that the modes of learning are rotated on a fixed schedule. The modes range from group work, online work, and tutoring to pen and pencil work, assessments, lectures or project assignments. Modes can be rotated in a number of ways:

  • Station Rotation: Here the various modalities are presented in the classroom, as stations, one of which will include an online learning component.
  • Lab Rotation: Similar to station rotation, within a course or subject students use the various modalities across venues on campus, rather than in a single classroom.
  • Flipped Classroom: Students rotate on a fixed schedule primarily between teacher instruction and individual online work, done away from school, usually at home. Flipped classrooms are also defined by using the Internet as the primary mode for delivery of content.
  • Individual Rotation: In this mode students have an individualized rotation schedule, which does not necessarily include all of the modalities available. This is an unusual model; read about a good example of how it can work here.

The flex model

Here students experience a blend of modalities, but in a flexible, rather than fixed schedule. Content is delivered primarily online, yet students remain within the campus, moving fluidly from group instructions, face-to-face interventions, small breakaway rooms and lectures enhanced by on-site teacher intervention and recommendation. The AdvancedPath Academy is a good example of an entire school running on the Flex model.

The self-blended model

Students who want to supplement their course with an elective online module are supported by the school, and the online content is delivered and managed by their teacher of record. The online courses are not compulsory, and individual students may choose if, when and where to do them.

The enriched virtual model

This model is similar to Flipped Classroom, and Self-Blend model because it is an “entire school” experience. Very often these models begin exclusively as online learning environments, that have built brick-and-mortar environments to supplement and assist students with face-to-face instruction, however should students wish to they can complete the entire semester exclusively online.


It is not necessarily very interesting to read the taxonomies of areas of study, but I am a firm believer that agreed definitions — especially in the fast-changing world of technology — are essential if we are to scaffold our understanding of the new modalities in a way that builds better student-centric solutions.

Author: Susannah Holz

Susannah has years of writing experience. She would have liked to be forever a student, but life had other things in mind. So NEO is the perfect place for her to address topics about e-learning and ed-tech for schools.