Does blended learning allow teachers to use their time more effectively?
Blended learning has the potential to transform how teachers use their time. As one blended-learning teacher recently said in a phone interview we conducted: “Blended learning … requires a lot of hard work, effort, and dedication during and outside of school hours. However, the reward is great. … I can accomplish more in one class period than I ever have before.” By freeing teachers from some of the activities that typically occupy the bulk of their time—such as lesson planning, grading, and delivering lectures—blended learning should allow teachers to focus more on giving their students other important learning experiences—such as providing students with individualized instruction, coaching students on deeper learning and higher-order thinking, developing students’ noncognitive skills, and mentoring students on their educational goals. But in practice, does blended learning actually lead teachers to shift how they allocate their time?
Last fall, in an effort to develop preliminary answers to this question, I led a project to survey and interview blended-learning teachers about how they use their time. (I am sincerely grateful to a group of students from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who helped with this research.) For the project, we surveyed and interviewed teachers from schools in our Blended Learning Universe (BLU) school directory. Of the 44 blended-learning teachers we surveyed or interviewed, 16 teach in public charter schools, 23 in traditional public schools, and four in private schools. Additionally, 18 are high school teachers, 11 are middle school teachers, and 13 are elementary school teachers. We are still in the process of analyzing the results from this research to understand the degree to which blended learning had shifted teacher practice, but below are some of our initial findings.
One of our primary research questions was whether blended learning allows teachers to shift away from whole-class instruction to instead focus on working in a more targeted manner with small groups of students. To develop tentative answers to this question, we compared responses to our survey with those of teachers who participated in the Gates Foundation’s Teachers Know Best survey, which sampled teachers across many school settings, including some where teachers use blended learning. As shown in the table below, the average blended-learning teacher we surveyed spends only 23 percent of her class time on whole-class instruction, whereas teachers from the Teachers Know Best survey reported spending an average of 35 percent of class time on whole-class instruction. Furthermore, the teachers we surveyed reported spending 30 percent of their class time on small-group instruction, whereas teachers from the Teachers Know Best survey reported spending an average of only 19 percent of class time on small-group instruction. The fact that the blended-learning teachers we surveyed seem to spend less class time on whole-class instruction and more time on small-group instruction seems to confirm our hypothesis that blended learning allows teachers to focus more in personalized instruction. But there are almost certainly important nuances of teacher practice that are not captured in this aggregated data, such as how class time allocation varies across different subjects, grade levels, and blended-learning models.
Proportion of instructional time spent on ...
Blended-learning teachers who responded to our survey
Teachers who responded to the Gates Foundation’s Teachers Know Best survey
Supporting students as they practice individually using software
Supporting students as they practice individually without software
In addition to the numerical data we gathered on how teachers use their time, we asked many teachers during our interviews how blended learning affected their practices. In the interviews, teachers frequently reported that blended learning required a lot of up-front planning and preparation, but that it improved their ability to serve their students once they had prepared their instructional materials. Teachers also reported that in general blended learning freed them up to spend more time with students individually and in small groups. As one teacher said, “I love the blended-learning model. It empowers me to work one-on-one with students and meet their individual learning needs daily.” Another teacher said, “I’m totally freed up to work with kids one-on-one … so I do.”
Given the informal design of this research project, we cannot conclude that these results are representative of the majority of blended-learning teachers across the country, or that they necessarily lead to improved student outcomes. To build on these initial findings, we are considering further research to observe teachers in specific blended schools or classrooms in order to measure their time allocations and determine whether differences in how they use their time are associated with improved student outcomes. Nonetheless, the results of the research reported here give us tentative optimism that blended learning may allow teachers to use their time more effectively.