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If you’ve attended a major education conference this year or follow education trends, you’ve likely heard a phrase that is creating great excitement: blended learning.

The concept is gaining traction because it allows teachers to work with students at their individual level and at their own pace. Via technology, students get real-time instruction and instant feedback as needed to help them master skills and content. Blended learning classrooms look different: instead of a teacher lecturing in front, you might see students wearing headsets and looking intently at computer screens.

While we are no fans of education jargon here at The Hechinger Report, we do want to know which innovations have the potential to change teaching and learning, narrow achievement gaps and help struggling learners succeed. So we are closely following the evolution of blended learning, also known as personalized learning.

The Learning Accelerator
The Learning Accelerator is a non-profit working with school districts across the U.S. to help them get “blended learning,” off the ground.

It’s one reason why I wanted to have a conversation with Scott Ellis, CEO of a new nonprofit called The Learning Accelerator that is working with an array of school districts and attracting major foundation funding to help schools get blended learning off the ground.

TLA produced a video that helps illustrate and explain how blended learning works, so you can see for yourself. Ellis believes it is the best idea for improving education in the U.S.

“Schools are going to have to evolve,’’ Ellis told me. “If we can show people how to do this, and how to make it easier, we can make it happen across the country faster. There is tremendous momentum.”

“Technology has transformed every industry on the planet with incredible benefits. Why would education be different?’’ – Scott Ellis of The Learning Accelerator

There are also tremendous obstacles and barriers, and it is part of TLA’s role help identify and remove them in the next five years – and to become a catalyst for transformation. After that, Ellis hopes they won’t be needed.

Education researchers say more than 4 million elementary through high school students participated in some kind of learning online in 2010, and the number is growing. While more and more students are learning on computers — playing educational games, watching teacher lectures, researching projects and taking online courses — a survey of schools by the Federal Communications Commission found that half of schools have “lower speed internet connectivity than the average American household.”

In addition, the national ratio of computers to students in schools is only 5 to 1, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey of teachers published in 2010.

And not all blended learning models are created equally. A lot more research – along with actual results of how students are doing — will be needed before it’s clear how blended learning will succeed. Critics worry about the quality of learning. And while there is some early available research; we look forward to sharing more.

Ellis, an experienced consultant in technology and non-profits, nonetheless is convinced we have entered a “transformational magic moment,’’ for education right now. “Technology has transformed every industry on the planet with incredible benefits. Why would education be different?’’ he says.

TLA’s hope is that the phrase “blended,’’ will simply be incorporated into the word “learning,’’ in the years to come.

The Learning Accelerator
Scott Ellis, CEO of the Learning Accelerator. (Photo: The Learning Accelerator)

At the moment, TLA is working with states and with school districts in Greeley-Evans, Colorado, Reynoldsburg, Ohio and the Partnership for Los Angeles schools in California, where Ellis says anecdotal evidence shows students are interested, engaged — and less likely to end up in the principal’s office.

“Based on what I see from classrooms, we are going to see significant number of students moving at their own pace and getting the help they need,’’ Ellis said.

It is not just students who want help. Teachers are reporting that they want more training to better use technology in classrooms and get up to speed.

Here are excerpts of my recent conversation with Ellis, which have been edited for clarity and length. Disclosure: The Learning Accelerator shares some of the same funders as The Hechinger Report, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Q. You are so excited about blended learning, but when you go into a school district, do you experience resistance?

A. There are folks who don’t understand what this means and how it will work, so much of what we are focusing on — since this is innovative and new – is starting to work with [educators] who want to move in this direction. They see it is the future and want to be part of it, but a key step is helping to explain what it [blended learning] is and how it works. So when they do it, it is not hard and scary.

Q. What are some of the obstacles you are finding?

A. Technology infrastructure. Over 70 percent [of school districts] don’t have the infrastructure we need and don’t have the connectivity. How can it be that in 21st century United States of America – the leader and driver of so much innovation — doesn’t have every school in the country with blazing internet? Why are we not the leaders?

Q. How does TLA work with school districts?

A. We need every teacher and every administrator to feel comfortable using blended learning and incorporating it with their teaching. We need to help find the people who want to be in these roles and give them the support they need so they can thrive and kids can thrive. Part of it is learning the technology, but it’s more than that. There is a mindset. What does it mean to work in an environment with blended learning so they [students] can learn in different ways but move forward as they master content? It’s a different way of teaching. Part of it is a conversation. It is about describing what the teacher’s role looks like in the future.

Q. How will we know if blending learning works?

A. Student learning outcomes. We are in a phase of innovation so it will take us time. We will talk to students who say… before I was bored, but now I get feedback right away. We are hearing that is hard to integrate tech, but it’s worth it. We will know impact by talking to teachers and kids and parents and seeing kids moving forward at their own pace.

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