How to help parents feel comfortable with blended learning


Sep 24, 2013

Flipped classrooms, individual workstations, way fewer face-to-face lectures—when parents first see online learning blend into their school, they can feel alarmed.  Often blended courses dispense with some of the central things that parents remember about their own childhood classrooms, such as the rows of desks, the age-based cohorts of students moving through each grade together, and the image of the teacher leading from the front of the room. Many blended programs even allow students to bring their (time sucking, life sucking) digital devices to school. Is it any wonder that some parents feel concerned?

As they manage the change from a traditional to a blended environment, school leaders and teachers can do more to help parents feel at ease. In fact, parents are a crucial constituency to include in any change management plan at the school level, but they are also too often overlooked.

The key to helping parents feel comfortable with the change is to design it so that the new model does not conflict with parents’ wants and needs for their children. Ideally, the plan should even further the parents’ interests. But what do parents want, and how can schools use blended learning to help achieve that?

Fortunately, the Fordham Institute recently conducted an extensive survey of K–12 parents across America to answer that question. The survey found that parents differ widely in their secondary and tertiary preferences. Some care a lot about music and the arts, for example, whereas others care more about test scores or hands-on projects. But the important finding is that nearly all parents share the same two primary desires. Namely, they want their children to have a strong core curriculum in reading and math, and they want an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  Those two goals rank top of the list for the clear majority of parents. They are the must-haves.

Fordham’s study is not unique. In his 1999 book Market Education, author Andrew J. Coulson reviewed 20 years of public opinion research on parents’ education goals and came to roughly the same conclusion. Parents want children to acquire the right balance of knowledge, skills, and values to help them improve their career prospects and lead more satisfying lives. The basics that are fundamental to life success far outweigh secondary considerations.

Most educators presumably share the sentiment that mastering a strong core and STEM curriculum is nonnegotiable. How, then, can they implement a blended-learning strategy, or really any innovation, in a way that mitigates the risk of failing to make progress toward the must-haves?

Several business school professors have studied this question in detail, and their findings translate into a helpful risk-mitigation process for schools as well. The basic idea is that when leaders are implementing an emergent strategy, meaning a strategy that involves a degree of uncertainty and experimentation, they should move forward in a “discovery-driven” way to test and learn, fail fast but not spectacularly, and quickly make changes to ensure that the plan eventually reaches the defined goal.

As Michael Horn writes here, the key to discovery-driven planning is to start with a clear outcome in mind. Parents have done some of this work already by indicating that they want their children to master a strong core and STEM curriculum. But educators need to take that a step further by defining that outcome in a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) way. For example, a school might say that it wants its blended-learning program to lead to 90 percent of sixth graders scoring at least proficient in the statewide math test by 2015.

The next step is to list all the assumptions that must prove true to achieve the outcome. Assumptions are statements such as “the math software we’re using will be rigorous and engaging enough,” “face-to-face teachers will know when and how to intervene,” and “we can manage the I.T. so that there’s no system down time.” The critical question to ask, after developing the long list of assumptions that are baked into any plan, is “What are the most important uncertainties?” In other words, which assumptions, if proved untrue, would most seriously derail our success?

From there, schools can plan small experiments to test and learn about important assumptions in a controlled way, without risking the fate of the entire cohort in the blended pilot. At the Institute, we have used this technique with over a hundred educators who are working on blended learning, and it works dependably to surface risks and problems that planners might otherwise overlook until it’s too late. In fact, it’s a useful process for any entrepreneur embarking on a new path.

We live in an exciting time for schools, in the sense that disruptive innovation is changing the way the world learns. But parents need to know that even as schools experiment with promising new models, school leaders and teachers are systematically reducing the risk that the changes they instigate will do anything other than promote students progress in the things that matter most.


Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.