One major barrier to high-quality blended learning

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Oct 22, 2019

Today in 2019, blended learning isn’t a new phenomenon. But after more than a decade of steady adoption and improvement, it hasn’t yet reached the degree of effectiveness, reliability, and usability to become the norm in K–12 education. 

First, the good news: During the nine years since the Institute’s first blended learning report, we’ve seen an increasing number of schools adopt blended learning, iterate on their practices, codify what works, and share their strategies. Working alongside these schools are organizations such as NGLC, Highlander Institute, Seton Education Partners, Education Elements, Transcend, Summit Learning, and The Learning Accelerator that have all played important roles in advancing blended learning. During that same time, we’ve also seen gradual improvements in the devices, software, and online learning resources that educators use to support blended learning. Over the course of these developments, we’ve come across many inspiring stories of educators using blended learning to better engage their students and address students’ individual learning needs. 

But now the frank reality: Blended learning isn’t yet a guaranteed home-run strategy for catapulting student achievement. While some schools using blended learning show noteworthy student achievement results, many do not. RAND’s recent study of personalized learning schools that use blended learning found only small positive gains in reading and math, and only the gains in math were statistically significant. Additionally, we continue to see breakdowns in the field where technologies don’t work well for teachers. For example, many teachers struggle to manage the plethora of technology platforms that provide various elements of their blended learning models. Additionally, schools and teachers often find that their available online learning resources don’t quite align with their particular instructional approaches, learning objectives, schedules, pacing guides, or grading policies. 

In short, innovative educators and technologists still have work to do to make their tools and practices more reliable and user-friendly. In the meantime, blended learning will remain a niche approach in the pantheon of educational best practices. 

Overcoming the barrier to high-quality blended learning

So what needs to happen to make blended learning more effective, reliable, and user-friendly? Given the current state of performance, Modularity Theory points to integration. According to Modularity Theory, the most effective way to improve performance of a system is to create an organization that can integrate all the components that affect performance. For blended learning, this would mean having an organization where educators and technologists work side-by-side to co-design the technologies, school policies, and teaching practices for a particular system of schools. 

To further illustrate the value of integrated design, consider an analogous example from the computer industry. Today everyone knows the story of how Apple created an entirely new product category with the iPad. What’s less known, however, is that Microsoft tried unsuccessfully for roughly two decades ahead of Apple to launch Windows-based tablet computers

One of Microsoft’s major mistakes was trying to just tweak the Windows operating system for tablets and then partner with PC manufacturers to build the hardware. Unfortunately, because the hardware and the operating system were built at arm’s length, no one had the ability to tinker with the interdependencies between the operating system, processing capabilities, battery capacity, physical dimensions, and touch interface. Instead, they had to agree on general specifications at the outset and then leave each organization to build its components according to those specifications. The result: tablets that were heavy, didn’t have a long battery life, and weren’t user-friendly as touch devices. 

Apple’s success with the iPad, in contrast, reveals the value of integration when performance isn’t yet good enough. By designing all the key components of the iPad in-house, Apple could rethink how all those components should fit together to deliver the best possible tablet computing experience. The success of the iPad is the proof in the pudding. 

The lesson for K–12 education: we’ll see better performance from blended learning when K–12 organizations start to integrate the design of technologies, school policies, and educator practices. For example, mastery-based instruction would work more smoothly if schools had the means to build mastery trackers that aligned with their particular grading policies and approaches to defining and measuring learning objectives. Similarly, the online learning resources a school uses could be more effective if they were aligned with that school’s particular culture and instructional strategies.

But now we come to the real problem for blended learning: in K-12 education it’s hard to create an organization that can bridge the key elements of blended learning in an integrated way. States don’t give schools big R&D budgets to do edtech development. Likewise, venture capital firms generally don’t invest in edtech startups that also aim to design and operate networks of K-12 schools. Unfortunately, this means blended learning is largely stuck in a world akin to bulky Windows tablets. 

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss a few promising organizations that have found creative ways to integrate blended learning technologies, policies, and practices under a single roof. 

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.