Blended Learning – moving from new programs to new paradigms

What does the experience of five school operators have to say about the future of blended learning?

Over the past few weeks, the foundation and FSG released five case studies of leading blended learning operators and published a series of fantastic blog posts from the operators themselves. The examples represented have spanned from elementary schools to high schools, from California to Louisiana, from year one startups to mature schools models. With blended learning, these operators have unlocked a range of innovations. They’ve responded to cuts in state budgets, better served special populations, forged new roles for teachers, developed tools for learning, and built a culture of continuous improvement.

Lessons learned: Blended learning has the potential to enable whole school reform

Each of the school models is detailed in the case studies. But just as important as their individual innovations and programs is the shared approach the five operators have taken to implementing blended learning as a means to whole-school reform. Their integration of blended learning into an overall model stands out from prevailing approaches to school improvement, and indicates how other practitioners and reformers might better realize the potential of blended learning in the future.

As a case in point, consider Summit Public Schools. At first glance, you see an innovative math program that uses Khan Academy. But dig deeper and the “program” is about more than math. Teachers are using data to make more informed decisions across subjects.  Students are taking more ownership of their own learning. Network leaders have learned from the blended learning pilot, and are reshaping the entire school experience.

At Rocketship, the story is similar. Blended learning is a tool to raise academic achievement, but it has also opened new communications channels with parents, informed how the CMO identifies and trains high quality teachers, and helped create a financially-sustainable model. Alliance, FirstLine, and KIPP Empower have likewise found blended learning to be a key that unlocks many doors, reshaping not just a student’s approach to learning, but the surrounding structures and culture that support it.

Of course,  whole-school improvement is not a new aim. Multiple “ingredients” need to be in place to make a great school, and these ingredients work best together. Yet school reform in the U.S. has the habit of extracting one ingredient and treating it as a cure-all. From teacher quality to better data to class size to school choice and beyond, every few years brings a new reform du jour. This approach may be well-intentioned, and schools and school systems should absolutely set priorities.

But too often pressures from in and outside of the system make reform a zero-sum game, where a focus on teachers might come at the cost of engaging parents, or emphasizing class size overlooks financial constraints.

Lessons learned: Embrace blended learning as a new paradigm, not a bolt-on program

Blended learning has the potential to address this dilemma. In each school we studied, blended learning enriches multiple ingredients that go into a great school, thereby easing the either/or challenge of reform. Extending this approach nationally will require others to likewise see blended learning as a new paradigm for how schools are structured and learning delivered – rather than a bolt-on program.

This can be challenging amid today’s buzz over blended learning. It can be tempting for school systems, funders and policymakers to rush into blended learning, and end up with little more than a new computer program that’s disconnected from the broader school system’s needs and likely to gather dust alongside other would-be reforms.

Lessons learned: Have a clear vision; stay flexible; question assumptions

The lessons illustrated by these five operators can be a useful guide to avoiding this risk and pursuing blended learning as part of a whole-school design. While the list below is by no means exhaustive, it provides a starting point for shifting blended learning from a new program to a new school paradigm:

  1. Start with Your Vision – Blended learning should support the vision for a great school. At KIPP Empower Academy, for example, blended learning helps enable the school leader’s goal of quality small group instruction for all students. By placing the vision first and the technology second, KIPP and others have seen more clearly the strengths and limitations of online learning even as they expand it within their model.
  2. Embrace the Unexpected – Each operator profiled shifted its model considerably over implementation. In some cases blended learning started in just one grade or subject, but over time rippled to other areas of the school – sometimes in unexpected ways (Alliance, for instance, has attributed a considerable spike in student engagement and ownership to blended learning). The most successful blended learning operators will be open to changes to their Day 1 model, and will see this adaptability as a key element of the school’s culture and ability to continuously improve.
  3. Re-Think Assumptions – After months of iteration and working with blended learning, several of the operators profiled have questioned historical assumptions about education. Summit, for example, has piloted a mixed-grade, competency-based blended math program. KIPP Empower and Alliance have further varied class size, time, and type of instruction based on each student’s needs. While in early stages, the experiences of these operators suggest that this experimentation will not just integrate blended learning further into schools, but will alter the fundamental structures of schooling in potentially exciting ways.

In the future, the benefits of blended learning will accrue to schools that can integrate it across their instructional, operational and financial models. And while blended learning holds the potential to reshape the bedrock structures of school as well, we are still in the first steps of a longer race.

More models are needed to drive innovation. More evidence can shine a light on which models and approaches are effective. Existing knowledge about what works in schools will need to be combined with new advances (FirstLine, for instance, has coupled a strong focus on building school culture alongside more novel technology-driven reforms). We hope that these case studies can deepen the national conversation on blended learning through their focus on practical experience, and we look forward to the journey ahead.

Matt Wilka is a consultant and Brad Bernatek is a director with FSG, a nonprofit consulting firm specializing is strategy, evaluation, and research.