Opinion

Taking the correct temperature of blended learning

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) released a report last week warning that online and blended learning schools are struggling. Regarding blended learning in particular, the report used a deeply flawed methodology to count and evaluate the blended schools nationwide. Its conclusions run contrary to the on-the-ground reality lived by many educators and leaders dedicated to providing millions of students with blended-learning experiences.

The reality is that blended learning is flourishing. In fact, it is quickly spreading, as online learning becomes an integral part of the nation’s schools. We predict that by 2019, 50% of all high school courses will be online in some form or fashion, with the vast majority of these using blended learning instructional models – models that consist of students learning at least in part online and at least in part in brick-and-mortar school settings. Teachers, both online and face-to-face, are critical to the implementation and success of these models.

In light of this growth, it’s vital that we keep an eye on the quality and efficacy of blended learning. To rigorously assess quality, however, we must first have a sense of the scope of blended learning occurring nationwide. To be fair, with technology rapidly penetrating schools and classrooms, it can be difficult for researchers to keep track of precisely how many schools are implementing blended learning. Indeed, it’s quite likely that some of the greatest innovations are not even being measured, as they are happening behind closed doors, among teachers who are trying wholly new methods of instruction using the power of technology to reach students in new ways.

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But a few organizations — including the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Evergreen Education Group and the Christensen Institute — have done our best to monitor the pace of change. For example, the Christensen Institute’s Blended Learning Universe (BLU) houses a growing online database of blended schools, with 324 school profiles featuring blended learning models across the country.

Those profiles represent only a fraction of the activity afoot. Indeed, entire states are seeing an amazing uptick in blended learning. For example, we conducted a survey last year, in partnership with The Learning Accelerator, of the 994 public district and charter schools in Ohio. Of the 211 respondents, 122, or 57%, indicated that they were implementing blended learning. And, contrary to some accounts, blended learning is occurring throughout our public education system, in districts and charter schools alike. In fact, some of the largest urban districts (such as D.C. Public Schools and Miami Dade) have been pursuing blended models for years.

Perhaps most importantly, blended learning is yielding promising results for students. In our recent publication Proof Points, we chronicled 12 school districts within which approximately 111 schools were experiencing the benefits of blended learning as measured both by improved graduation rates and increased student achievement. For example, in the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, N.Y., students in blended elementary school classrooms outperformed students in traditional classrooms by 18% in reading and 7% in math. The D.C. public school district redesigned 17 schools to incorporate blended learning, and those schools have since recorded extensive and well-studied student gains in math and reading on district-wide assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students in one of the Summit network’s blended-learning schools in California.

As with most technological innovations, keeping up with change can be hard. Given the spread of blended learning, how can researchers and school systems continue to assess the state of blended learning to drive practice forward?

First, we need to appreciate that blended learning is not one thing, or a single intervention. Indeed, the variety of blended learning approaches emerging reflects a wide variety of delivery models and instructional choices — including how long students spend in online and face-to-face modalities, the software that best supports instruction, how teachers use online data to drive small group instruction. These can vary from school to school, depending on the circumstances they face and the students they serve.

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The best research shaping the field, then, will not ask the blunt question, “Does blended learning work?” That is tantamount to asking: Do textbooks work? Do lectures work? Do small group interactions work? Of course these delivery methods—like blended learning—vary widely in their effectiveness depending on how they are implemented. Instead, we need to evaluate specific blended learning models relative to acute problems that individual school systems are trying to solve.

We also need to take a long view when it comes to the role that technology stands to play in education. For the first time in America’s decades-long commitment to public education, we have tools and instructional models that can break open the factory model of school—the one that most of us grew up in, in which teachers taught to a non-existent middle, and could never truly differentiate the individual needs of students. Scarce research dollars should not go toward using skewed sample sets and simplistic definitions that ignore the smart ways in which so many educators have successfully integrated technology into their classrooms. Instead, we should focus on research and evaluation that helps educators make informed decisions about how best to use technology to support bold new instructional models.

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. See Archive