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Report: Blended learning could hit or miss

There are still obstacles that are preventing blended learning from reaching its full potential, says the report.

Blended learning has the ability to transform education, according to a new report—but if certain guidelines and practices aren’t ensured, blended learning could become just another add-on to an archaic system on its way out, the report warns.

The report, titled “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning,” by Michael B. Horn, co-founder and executive director of education at the Innosight Institute, and Heather Clayton Staker, a senior research fellow for education practice at the institute, describes how blended learning can affect education, but why it also could fall short of its potential.

The report defines blended learning as “any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.”

According to the report, online learning has grown exponentially over the past decade. For example, in 2000 roughly 45,000 K-12 students took an online course. In 2009, more than 3 million K-12 students did. One analysis the report mentions reveals that 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online by 2019.

“What was originally a distance-learning phenomenon no longer is,” explains the report. “Most of the growth is occurring in blended learning environments. … As this happens, online learning has the potential to transform America’s education system by serving as the backbone of a system that offers more personalized learning approaches for all students.”

However, the report also notes that policy makers and education leaders must adopt the right policies for this to happen.

“There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed model—and just as is the case now, too few students will receive an excellent education,” the report states.

“Today’s education system is a monolithic one that was built to be like a factory system,” Horn explained to eSchool News. “Rather than measure learning and move individual students along to new concepts as they master previous ones, it measures seat time and moves students along when they hit certain dates on a calendar.”

Watch an interview with Horn about his book Disrupting Class on eSN.TV:

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“Time is fixed,” he continued,  “and the learning is variable. This system worked really well in the past. But now that we are asking it to educate every student to his or her highest potential, it was never built to do this job.”

The big danger with integrating technology into education, said Horn, is “that we do what we’ve always done, which is to implement it as a sustaining innovation rather than a disruptive one—that we simply layer technology over the traditional system, which would then co-opt it.”

The report states that as policy makers open the gates for innovation by “creating zones with increased autonomy, they must simultaneously hold providers accountable for results so that the adoption of online learning leads to radically better outcomes for students.”

Apples to apples

To help policy makers and blended-learning operators (districts or other organizations that operate schools that use blended-learning models) know how to provide the best blended learning model for their unique students, the report describes six “distinct clusters,” or models, of blended learning:

  1. Face-to-Face Driver: Face-to-face teacher delivers most of the curricula. The teacher deploys online learning on a case-by-case basis to supplement or remediate a student’s education, often in the back of the classroom or in a technology lab.
  2. Rotation: Within a given course, students rotate on a fixed schedule between learning online in a one-to-one, self-paced environment and sitting in a classroom with a traditional face-to-face teacher.
  3. Flex: Uses an online platform that delivers most of the curricula. Teachers provide on-site support on a flexible and adaptive, as-needed basis through in-person tutoring sessions and small group sessions.
  4. Online Lab: Relies on an online platform to deliver the entire course, but in a brick-and-mortar lab environment. These usually provide online teachers, and paraprofessionals supervise. Often students in an online lab program also take traditional courses and have typical block schedules.
  5. Self-Blend: Students choose to take one or more courses online to supplement their traditional school’s catalog.
  6. Online Driver: Uses an online platform and teacher to deliver all curricula. Students work remotely and face-to-face check-ins are sometimes optional and sometimes required.

The report also notes that just because it’s blended learning doesn’t mean it’s always right.

Read more about blended learning:

Teachers turn learning upside down

Panel: Remove barriers to digital learning

eSN Special Report: Blended learning on the rise

“Just as a hybrid car can be either efficient or a clunker but still be a hybrid car, blended learning can be both good and bad. Some programs save money; others are more expensive. Some produce stellar results; others do not,” the report says.

When a program is good, and meets the needs of all students, blended learning’s potential is significant and allows for a fundamental redesign of the educational model, the report says—including a more consistent and personalized pedagogy that allows each student to work at his or her own pace and helps each child feel and be successful at school, and productive new school models that require fewer, more specialized teachers and use space more efficiently.

The report gives detailed examples of two schools that use blended learning in revolutionary ways to achieve positive student outcomes, which include closing the achievement gap for English-language learners.

“To do this in its most thoughtful and transformational way and really tap the potential of blended learning, models should allow for innovation across curriculum, culture, teaching, intervention, professional development, leadership development, and so forth—and that’s exactly what [these schools] have done,” said Horn.

Horn said that a larger study by the Innosight Institute, to be released in the spring, will profile a number of district efforts around blended learning.

What’s missing?

While some innovative schools are making the blended learning model work in incredible ways, there are still obstacles that are preventing this model from reaching its full potential, the report says.

“…The raw functionality [blended learning operators] need from online products is still lacking. Even more problematic is that the available offerings and different systems are not well integrated; as a result, the different products don’t ‘talk to’ and sync well with each other,” says the report.

The report theorizes that the “historically inhospitable” climate of the public K-12 education system for start-up companies has scared away private investment capital.

Also, “long, complicated, and political” district sales cycles make it hard to create a profitable education start-up, which has held back the evolution of the industry.

Read more about blended learning:

Teachers turn learning upside down

Panel: Remove barriers to digital learning

eSN Special Report: Blended learning on the rise

The report calls for:

  • Integrated systems that support the seamless assimilation of online content from different sources into the student experience, while allowing student achievement data to flow easily across the school in real time. School operators also should have a data dashboard that integrates academic progress, attendance, behavioral data, college planning, and more, all in one place in an actionable and simple format;
  • Hundreds of hours of high-quality, dynamic content aligned to standards;
  • Analytics;
  • Automation; and
  • Enhanced student motivation through applications that engage and incentivize students in their own learning through social networks, games, and rewards.

But it’s not just the technology and content that is needed to support blended learning; policy also must come into play—policy that allows for “autonomous spaces where schools can deploy innovative models in the right regulatory context,” says the report.

“If the regulatory structure demands affordable quality focused around each individual student, then education technology companies and school operators will chase the right goals,” it continues. “Policy makers must seek to create a better framework for blended learning models in every realm of public education—from charter to traditional districts—that, broadly speaking, escapes the current input-focused rules, in exchange for higher accountability around outcomes.”

The report mentions that strong charter laws that already do some of this—by allowing exemptions from class-size restrictions and certification requirements, for example, in exchange for tough accountability requirements—make new charter schools ripe for this kind of innovation.

It also describes specific policy points that states must “get right,” based on “Digital Learning Now!” a policy framework for states to use digital learning to transform the education system, headed by former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Bob Wise of West Virginia.

“If states climb on board with policies that incentivize outcomes and free up operators to create new schools with more flexibility,” concludes the report, “the transformation [to a more productive education system] could be breathtaking.”


“The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning”

Innosight Institute

“Digital Learning Now!”

Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the Interactive learning in the connected classroom resource center. Research has shown that technology can, indeed, help improve teaching and learning when used wisely-and companies have responded in kind, creating hardware, software, and other devices that give teachers innovative ways to engage students, improve retention, and make learning more interactive. Go to:

Interactive learning in the connected classroom

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