There’s a bottleneck in traditional classrooms. Teachers have more data than ever about what their students know (far more than when I was a high school teacher in the ‘90’s), as well as more precise insight into the skills and standards they need help with. Which is great. But once teachers know in great detail exactly where the gaps are in their students’ learning, they face the logical question: “OK, so now what?”
“Now what?” indeed. In an ideal world, each student’s daily learning experience would be shaped by individual accomplishments and challenges from the day before. The problem? Teachers in traditional classrooms already have full class loads and packed days. When can a teacher find the time to:
- Analyze the latest data;
- Track down (or create) materials that meet each student at his or her level;
- Write differentiated lesson plans to fit the wide range of ability levels and learning styles present in any given classroom;
- And devise a classroom management approach which allows all of these different lessons to happen simultaneously in one classroom with one teacher?
Taken together, these constraints form a bottleneck that prevent teachers from making the best possible use of classroom level data to create learning experiences fully customized to each and every students’ needs.
Addressing the bottleneck
Undoubtedly, some teachers can and do overcome these barriers on a regular basis. I’ve seen firsthand – both from five years in the classroom and nearly as many as a funder – the tremendous talent and dedication of our nation’s teachers. But I also know teachers are over-burdened, and so I wonder how we can best implement individualized, student-centered lesson planning at scale without completely burning them out.
My hypothesis is that blended learning offers a scalable approach to addressing this chronic bottleneck.
It’s still early days, of course, but I see tremendous potential. Thoughtful integration of live and online instruction may enable teachers to more readily address the ‘now what’ questions revealed by analysis of student level data. A carefully constructed blended learning model has the potential to enable dynamic delivery of lessons matched to student need and to engage students in learning certain skills and/or engaging with content online so that an educator may focus, for example, on coaching a small group of students through a more advanced concept or on holding a discussion about a novel read during independent reading time.
The need for evidence
In early 2011, as the foundation was contemplating ways to focus our first Innovation portfolio cohort of investments, a palpable sense of momentum in the blended learning space caught our attention. Given our interest in data-driven education – and the role that timely, relevant student level data plays in blended learning – it seemed a logical place to invest.
But even as the field moved forward rapidly, we remained cautious. Much remains unknown about blended learning models’ impact in schools. Do students in blended learning environments show significantly different learning outcomes from peers in more traditional environments? Do blended models show a propensity to close the achievement gap? Is blended learning more effective for some students than for others?
To help address these questions, we decided to focus our work in the field by contributing to the evidence base that we (and others) need to better understand what works for students in blended learning models. Today, our Innovation portfolio includes a direct investment in a small cohort of schools that not only operated blended learning models during the 2011-12 school year, but that also participated in a series of foundation-funded case studies (conducted by FSG) and a one-year impact evaluation (conducted by SRI.)
What we learn from the impact evaluation and case studies will certainly inform our own internal decisions as to how and whether we might make further investments in blended learning. But our goal is bigger than that: We hope to provide a jumping off point for a conversation within the larger blended learning community about what evidence on blended learning is available so far, what evidence is still needed to ensure we are positively impacting students and supporting educators, and what sorts of projects and studies are needed to evolve future reform efforts in the blended space. To fuel the conversation, we’ll be publishing the case studies later this month. We’ll also be publishing a series of blogs on blended learning from FSG, the charter management organizations we’ve studied, and others. And in the fall, we’ll host a series of webinars for operators interested in learning more about blended learning models, and we’ll publish our impact evaluations. Be sure to check back, and share your comments and questions as we share what we’ve learned.
If you are at the National Charter Schools Conference, please come to the session Blended Learning Models: Case Studies of Leading Charter Management Organizations on Wednesday June 20th at 2 pm. FSG will be moderating a panel with Summit Public Schools, Rocketship Education, FirstLine Schools, and Alliance College-Ready Public Schools.
 We follow the Innosight Institute’s definition of blended learning, and its categorization of models, as outlined in the recently released “Classifying K-12 Blended Learning”.
 The foundation is both an early and current investor in School of One, and our investment approach there informed the structure of our innovation portfolio.