School reforms are often recognized as successful when champions are able to package their essential elements for easy implementation in various environments—this is what grant-makers sometimes call “scale and spread,” or what reformers sometimes cynically call “innovation-in-a-box.” Trying to package all of blended learning as a set of market-ready models, however, isn’t possible just yet—and in the end is probably the least desirable goal.
Based on early observations, it is plausible that schools can learn to craft their own solutions to local problems while still benefiting from a selection of increasingly high-quality commercial tools and a body of knowledge accumulated by their peers. The emergence of locally born, ground-up networks could help schools leverage more template solutions to blended learning on one hand, while exercising a more problem-focused, “hacker-iteration” ethos on the other.
Developing a new mindset for school design. I’ve never met a great school or district leader whose goal was “to do blended learning well.” Great leaders care about wielding blended learning as part of a wide toolset used to accelerate learning with the goal of improved college and career readiness. Students are coming to school with an unlimited range of needs, paces, and preferences, and budgets are flat at best. To move forward, schools need to customize strategies for kids, as well as develop more nimble organizational models that deliver student-centric experiences. This approach is well underway at Reynoldsburg City Schools whose own internal innovation fund requires schools to contemplate reform by first defining the problem they’re trying to solve, deploying the right team to attack it, designing the right model for their kids, and then identifying what support for implementation is needed.
But this kind of innovation always forces important decisions and trade-offs, many of which individuals find difficult to make. Situating diverse district and school leadership among their peers informs and collectively strengthens how they prepare themselves for transformational change, albeit somewhat uniquely. A good example of this kind of support is found in the newly minted Ohio Blended Learning Network (OBLN), which is comprised of 13 Ohio public schools and districts, led by Mentor Public Schools and facilitated by the nonprofit SmarterSchools. OBLN is driven by local needs, not a platform or model, and so it will be interesting to track the kinds of trade-offs the network makes early on, and the kinds of assets they will deploy in pursuit of improved student outcomes (and not just the financial type of assets).
Increasing the capacity of teachers and principals. At the same time leaders assert local needs, they attest to the fact that where blended learning is concerned, there is a need for more simple, working, ready-to-go pieces. Beginning with a focus on blended instructional strategies and modes of operation that work absent much customization and that most likely affect student achievement helps build familiarity and confidence with “blended tools,” and helps schools be clearer about the degree to which the approaches they adopt are having an impact on students’ progress. A focus on standardization of the most basic elements is widely accepted as the path to quality at scale.
In the case of OBLN, network members will receive early technical support from Education Elements, which has worked with more than 100 schools across the nation, including Reynoldsburg and Mentor in Ohio. Putting support close to teachers and principals is critical, and OBLN members will access assistance across the spectrum of implementation.
At the same time, however, OBLN will build its own capacity to implement blended learning beyond the initial cohort, while anticipating its needs will change. OBLN will form more training centers like that already underway at Mentor Schools and in blueprint at Reynoldsburg with several more districts, Education Service Centers, and non-profit partners in Ohio ready to craft the capacity the state needs.
Creating a culture of innovation. Blended learning presents an occasion to rethink what teachers, students, and schools do, and how they are organized to do it. But figuring out the right models, the right strategies, is often a matter of setting goals and being adaptive. Innovation is messy and it requires a strong backbone as well as flexibility. Given the odds that schools will end up with a strategy different than the one they initially pursued, local networks may play a key role in fostering the conditions where new approaches can evolve and thrive over time.
Success happens when people believe their ideas are valued and when they trust that it is safe to express those ideas, and this happens exponentially when risk is overseen collectively. OBLN’s network approach presents an opportunity to create a culture of innovation in Ohio—the kind and magnitude of which cannot be born of an exceptional district, policy reforms, or programmatic efforts. Its members just may have the power to shape the context within which successive innovative efforts will fail, or succeed, over time.