5 blended-learning trends to watch


Oct 30, 2019

For the last decade, the Christensen Institute has investigated how schools are integrating face-to-face and online learning modalities in ways that enable greater flexibility and student control, otherwise known as “blended learning.” As strategies for student-centered learning evolve, how are we seeing schools combine blended-learning practices with other approaches to innovation?

That was one of many questions intriguing our team at the Christensen Institute going into the Canopy project, a collaborative effort to surface a more diverse set of schools that are making strides towards student-centered learning using a variety of innovative approaches. After building a dataset on school innovation resulting from participation from 76 ed-focused organizations and 173 schools, we recently released the findings from this effort.

Within the Canopy dataset, there are 89 schools identified as practicing blended learning. (We know this because nominating organizations and schools applied “tags,” or keywords and phrases, to describe each school’s model. Blended learning was one of 88 total tags.) In fact, blended-learning schools account for over half of all schools identified in the Canopy process. Across the Canopy’s blended-learning schools, 25 states are represented, with the largest concentrations coming from Texas, New York, and Arkansas. After analyzing the data, here are five trends we learned from the Canopy about blended learning in 2019.

1. Station Rotation ranks as the most commonly adopted model

Beyond being identified for blended-learning practice in general, schools in the Canopy could also be cited for any of the seven models of blended learning. Station Rotation was the most frequently identified model (51% of all schools tagged blended learning). The Flex model was nearly as common, tagged by 46% of Canopy’s blended schools. The least commonly identified model? A La Carte. We surmise that low reporting of A La Carte, despite it being a fairly common practice in secondary schools, is due to many educators perceiving this approach as “online learning” rather than blended learning.  It was also typical to see schools tag multiple blended approaches; 62% tagged two or more models. These patterns align with what we’ve seen in recent years in our research through the Blended Learning Universe (BLU).

2. Approaches to blended learning and learner agency often work together

Among the 12 tags representing high-level approaches to student-centered learning, including blended learning, the most popular tag was learner agency. The Canopy tagging system describes learner agency as when students have ownership over their learning by setting learning goals, initiating action toward those goals, and reflecting on their growth. Among all schools tagged learner agency, about half (52%) are likewise tagged blended learning, while a higher proportion of blended schools (76%) are tagged learner agency as well. Further research on the relationship between blended learning and learner agency may be worthwhile to better understand this finding, but in the interim, we can hypothesize that while most schools adopt approaches to learner agency, only some use blended learning to support that approach. Given that our research shows that blended learning is what enables scalable and flexible time, pace, path, and place for learning, we are curious to learn more about how schools are pursuing greater student agency in learning, at scale, without a blended-learning approach. 

3. Student-led goal setting is frequently featured in blended-learning schools

Canopy data features 76 tags that identify more specific practices in schools. Among schools that tagged themselves with blended learning, the most common specific practice was student-led goal setting (82% of blended schools), defined as when students set and pursue their own learning goals and self-assess their progress. Other top specific practices cited concurrently with blended learning were multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, rigorous coursework for all students, commitment to whole child or social-emotional learning in a strategic plan, and relevant and contextualized learning assignments

4. Many blended schools in the Canopy don’t report data-driven instruction

At the Christensen Institute, we’ve observed that one of blended learning’s biggest areas of potential is to help educators customize learning at scale. In blended-learning environments, the online learning component offers students individualized data, timely feedback, and oftentimes flexible pathways. Teachers can also use data gathered by edtech to inform student groupings and differentiated assignments. In other words, harnessing data from online learning has a strong potential to drive more student-centered instruction. 

In the Canopy, however, we see that just half (53%) of blended schools reported using data analytics to drive instruction. On a similar note, just 45% of them use adaptive content for students. More research may be needed in this area, but Canopy data suggests many schools may be missing key opportunities to leverage blended learning as a means to customize learning.

5. Field leaders highlight personalization, flexibility at blended schools

Nominators of schools for the Canopy dataset each had an opportunity to describe in their own words what made the schools they nominated stand out from the crowd. We took a look at how nominators talked about schools tagged blended learning to understand where and how blended learning contributed to making the schools worthy of nominations. The top things that nominators called out about these schools: “personalization,” “student-centered learning,” “access to advanced coursework,” “affords new learning opportunities,” “voice and choice,” “flexible learning experiences,” “teacher leaders,” and “intentional instructional time.” 

Of course, blended learning wasn’t the only approach used to achieve these improvements to student learning. Dive into the Canopy findings and data to see how schools more often than not adopt a whole suite of innovative tactics in pursuit of student-centered learning. And to explore more about practical steps in blended-learning design, check out the BLU.

Jenny White is the K-12 education research associate as well as content manager of the Blended Learning Universe, a comprehensive online hub filled with blended-learning resources and a dynamic directory of blended-learning programs worldwide.