Research roundup: 4 new reports on what’s working for blended-learning practitioners

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Apr 26, 2018

At the start of the year, we published a blog post on interesting research from 2017 related to innovative approaches to school design. Even though we aren’t even half-way through 2018, there are already several insightful reports on blended and personalized learning from this year that are worth highlighting.

These reports examined various tools and approaches to implement blended and personalized learning models, as well as the potential impact these models could have on students and teachers. From examining how schools implemented their models sustainably to recommending methods to best support teachers, these are informative reports for anyone interested in implementing blended and personalized learning models in their schools.[Tweet “Recent research highlights circumstances that support successful #blendedlearning implementation”]

1. Digital math tool produces gains in student achievement

While many people seek a definitive answer to whether blended learning works, the reality is much more complicated. Successful blended learning comes from a combination of different instructional models, teaching practices, and digital tools. In a recent report, WestEd, a nonprofit research agency, analyzed the impact of one such tool: Spatial-Temporal Math (ST Math), a game-based, instructional software for K-12 students developed by the MIND Research Institute.

WestEd found that the 474 treatment schools that implemented ST Math saw, on average, statistically significant gains of up to seven percentile points on their state standardized math assessment over comparable schools that did not use ST Math. Additionally, the researchers identified that schools that covered at least half of the content on ST Math saw gains of up to 14 percentile points. This study adds to the growing collection of research reports demonstrating the potential benefits of certain software platforms, such as Cognitive Tutor Algebra I and DreamBox Learning, on student achievement. While we can’t say that every blended-learning model will work for every school or district, studies like this one can help us ensure that we at least know which tools can best support desired outcomes in blended-learning models.

2. Personalized learning can be implemented sustainably

Schools thinking about implementing personalized learning models often wonder what the costs of implementation are and if the models are sustainable over multiple years. In this report, LEAP Innovations, a Chicago-based non-profit organization working to reinvent the current education system, and Afton Partners, a financial consultant for public education organizations, provided some initial answers to these questions using data gathered from six schools in the LEAP Innovations Breakthrough Schools Chicago program.

Researchers found that the upfront costs ranged from 1% to 7% of the school’s funding, and often came from one-time funding sources, such as grants. Approximately 83% of those upfront costs went to software and devices, professional development (in the form of site visits, consultants, planning time, and substitutes), one-time stipends for teachers leading planning and implementation, and hiring instructional support staff. All six schools relied on one-time grants to cover their upfront costs. All principals indicated that they would have planned to transition to personalized learning without grant funding, but expected implementation to be much slower or much less effective than without grant program support.

While the schools used grants for the upstart costs, they were able to continue funding the models after implementation with existing school budgets by leveraging flexibilities in the budget. One example of a flexibility was the use of alternative staffing arrangements, such as team-teaching structures, teacher leadership roles, and instructional support staff. These staffing arrangements provide teachers the opportunity to take on more students and responsibilities for more pay, to reach more students, and to have more support in the classroom. These staffing arrangements also allow schools to increase the amount of personalized instruction students receive while operating within existing school budgets. (If you are interested in learning more about using alternative staffing arrangements to personalize learning for students, stay tuned for our paper on innovative staffing coming out in May.)

3. PD-rich blended-learning plans increase chances of success

In 2015, the Tennessee Department of Education (DOE) created a state-wide pilot program to explore the best methods for supporting districts in implementing blended learning in Algebra I and Integrated Math I classes. This report summarizes the key findings and recommendations from their in-depth examination of the factors that could lead to successful implementation.

The first point of interest that the DOE observed was student outcomes. An analysis of the data showed that students in the blended pilot saw small gains in test scores. These gains were statistically significant for African American students and students with disabilities.  

Another point of interest was how technology allowed teachers to change how they provided instruction to students. A survey given to teachers revealed that the number of teachers using technology to differentiate instruction at least once per week increased by 25% from the first semester to the second semester. The DOE believed that this increase was due, at least in part, to coaching and support from BetterLesson, a personalized professional development provider. In fact, 87% of all teachers in the pilot agreed or strongly agreed that BetterLesson’s coaches helped them identify practical strategies for differentiating instruction in their classrooms. Additionally, 84% of all teachers reported that students engaged more with the content and had more dynamic conversations with their peers during blended lessons this year than in prior years.  

In the final section of the report, the DOE provided a set of recommendations for implementing blended learning. Schools should start by creating a vision of what blended learning will look like, along with what outcomes they want, and develop a plan that includes training before, during, and after the initial implementation. Lastly, the DOE recommended that districts select a set of tools that the whole district or school will use. This is to ensure that the district can provide all stakeholders with adequate training on available tools and to limit the confusion that comes when every teacher is working with a different tool.

4. Ensure that teachers create, and design strategies for, their goals

The LearnLaunch Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports efforts to drive innovation in education, released a report earlier this month on the conditions for successful implementation of digital instructional tools within Boston Public Schools. The report examined the second year of LearnLaunch’s Massachusetts School Support Network Edtech Testbed (MassNET) project, which provided instructional software and professional development to English Language Arts teachers interested in transitioning towards blended learning. The main goal of the analysis was to identify circumstances that impacted edtech adoption and progress toward personalized learning.

To better understand how implementation impacted teachers’ experiences, LearnLaunch conducted educator focus groups. Teachers reported that students liked the objective feedback from the software because it was “proof that they were good at something” and that the software “printouts are way more useful than any other programs [teachers] have used” to inform parents about their child’s progress.

Based on their findings, the researchers recommended two strategies for other schools and districts that are interested in launching their own blended and personalized learning pilot programs. First, they expressed the importance of helping teachers identify their specific instructional goals and the strategies for reaching those goals before implementation. Second, they recommended purchasing only the devices needed for the pilot and scaling up only as the district or school can purchase more devices.

These reports should prove to be valuable resources for school and district leaders considering how to use blended learning to support more personalized instruction. As we continue to the second half of this year, we are excited for the research that will come out in the remaining months and the impact it will have on better defining the tools and conditions that lead to successful blended- and personalized-learning implementation.

As a research assistant on the K-12 team, Luis supports research efforts around the changing roles of teachers in blended learning environments and teacher professional development.