February 10, 2016

Blending learning from the top down or the ground up?

by Julia Freeland Fisher

As more states gear up for online testing regimes, state agencies and advocacy groups are flocking to support digital infrastructure and learning. For example, in Georgia, the Connections for Classrooms initiative has given $8.2 million in grant money to 47 Georgia school districts in order to provide high-speed broadband access and to strengthen blended learning in the state. Similarly, in Massachusetts, the Digital Connections Partnership Schools Grant is a competitive, matching state grant program to bridge the digital divide that exists in some schools across the Commonwealth and strengthen 21st-century teaching and learning. The state match provides funding for infrastructure and the local match may be used to fund any combination of infrastructure, devices for students and educators, professional development, and assistive technology.

These are encouraging signals that states are getting serious about investing in laying the foundation for next generation learning models. The best of these efforts will bear in mind that broadband and hardware will only drive learning if we pair those investments with investments in redesigning classrooms to include blended-learning models. This may not happen, however, if we lack vision and concrete examples of the types of classrooms we’re hoping to build. How can we make sure that these dollars will stretch far enough to help schools transform classroom practice?

One critical step to ensuring that ambitious policies actually yield innovative practice is to keep track of bold new practices that are actually happening in classrooms and schools—rather than mandating new practices in a vacuum. To that end, we’ve re-launched our Blended Learning Universe, or BLU, school directory, which features more than 300 profiles of schools that have already gone blended across various grades and subject areas. We’re hoping that the tool can offer critical guidance to states and districts trying to embrace blended learning by illustrating what is happening on the ground inside actual schools. With new features and functionalities, this can play out in a number of ways:

First, we can save districts and states from reinventing the wheel. When the Christensen Institute started to profile schools going blended, something happened: we began to observe patterns across how schools had organized their classrooms and schools to integrate online instruction into different parts of students’ days. We codified these patterns into blended-learning models. These models tend to be more or less successful depending on what schools are trying to optimize for—some, like the Flex model, can afford students more choice in how they move through online and offline modalities. Others, like the Station Rotation model, may be easier to implement in lower grade levels where teachers have historically split students into small groups, even before the rise of online “stations.” The point of these models is not to prescribe what classrooms should look like, but to help newcomers to blended learning grasp how to choreograph these new approaches. As districts compete for state infrastructure grants or bootstrap blended learning efforts on their own, we hope that they will learn from those who came before them.

Second, we can find other schools tackling similar problems. Although statewide digital learning initiatives may be important to jumpstarting momentum, these efforts can fall into the trap of treating all schools as though they are created equal. Our research on blended learning has shown that schools successfully going blended tend to be integrating technology in service of a particular problem they are trying to solve. Furthermore, what worked in one school may not be at all appropriate for a different set of students or circumstances at a different school. To that end, users can pull data from our directory by different subjects, demographics, and grade levels to find other schools tackling similar challenges to their own.

Third, we can increasingly see where blended learning is thriving—or not. The directory not only illustrates a heat map of the problems that different schools are solving—it also lets users sort by state and locale to see the pockets of innovation in their own backyard. Our hope is that over time this map feature will not only show schools who their blended neighbors are, but will also give state education agencies insight into where blended learning is taking root across a state or region. Perhaps entire swaths of the state are not exploring blended learning, whereas other regions may be thriving. Armed with this information, statewide efforts to expand blended models can be better targeted and coordinated.

Fourth, we can combat the myth that going blended is a one-time endeavor. Oftentimes, state or federal grants support one-time efforts—that is, they tend to fund design and implementation of a given intervention in a time-bounded manner. Although this obviously reflects resource constraints, it risks setting up a troubling dynamic: treating blended learning as an off-the-shelf intervention. More often than not, however, schools going blended must iterate on their model—sometimes making tweaks to their schedule or switching vendors, other times scrapping and revamping their entire blended-learning model. Our directory captures those changes with a new timeline feature, which shows how programs evolve over time. Although funders and states will not have endless dollars to support these changes over time, if we can capture an accurate narrative of how leaders and teachers are refining their models, we can start to identify realistic estimates of how long it actually takes to get a program up and running, common pitfalls, and unanticipated challenges.

This list is an ambitious one, but it’s grounded in the hope that innovative practitioners and policymakers championing the power of technology in education have real examples to point to and learn from. Blended learning—like all of education—is as much a local endeavor as it is a statewide initiative or a national phenomenon. As states turn their attention to blended learning, we hope that the BLU can shed light on the most promising practices inside and beyond their borders.

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