Technology doesn’t drive blended learning success … or does it?


Jun 8, 2017

Blended-learning proponents can point to a growing number of schools that consistently achieve extraordinary student learning results. But is technology the key to their success?

Recently, I visited five blended-learning schools in Las Vegas and the San Jose area that are earning accolades for serving low-income and minority students and achieving strong student learning outcomes: Dr. Owen C. Roundy Elementary, Vegas Verdes Elementary, and Elaine Wynn Elementary, three franchise schools in Las Vegas’s Clark County School District, and Hollister Prep and Gilroy Prep, two charter elementary schools operated by Navigator Schools in the San Jose area. All five schools use some variation of the Station Rotation or Lab Rotation blended-learning models for core instruction in math and English language arts. But even though blended learning is a deliberate part of their instructional approaches, it didn’t seem to be the differentiating factor driving their success.

When I observed their classrooms and interviewed many of their teachers and administrators, the thing that stood out as the likely key contributor to student learning was high-quality teaching practices, inspired and supported by effective school leadership. This should come as no surprise given that education research consistently shows that the quality of a school’s teachers has a bigger impact on student achievement than any other school-level factor.

So what does high-quality teaching in these blended-learning schools look like?

Teacher coaching

All five schools have created systems and structures to help drive teachers’ professional learning through individual coaching and goal setting. At the Clark County schools, a few experienced teachers serve as “growth analysts.” Growth analysts’ responsibilities include observing teachers’ lessons, modeling best teaching practices, and meeting with teachers on a regular basis to provide targeted feedback.

Similarly, at Navigator Schools, school administrators observe and provide live coaching to teachers on a daily basis and meet with teachers weekly to discuss specific areas of improvement. These school administrators have reported that they spend roughly 70 percent of their time providing coaching to teachers.

Research supports these five schools’ emphasis on coaching. A recent meta-analysis of 37 studies on teacher coaching revealed that coaching positively impacts both teaching practices and student achievement.

Data-driven instruction

Data-driven instruction is another core strategy that all five schools have employed to improve student learning. At the Clark County schools, teachers meet individually with each of their students at the beginning of the school year to help students set individual academic growth goals and show students how to track their student learning data using individual tracking sheets. Teachers also display and regularly update student growth data on wall charts in their classrooms so that students can know their learning progress at any given time. Additionally, growth analysts’ coaching and support to teachers starts with analyzing data on student learning growth.

Similarly, at Navigator Schools, teachers hang charts on their classroom walls that show students their learning progress throughout the school year. Navigator Schools also uses student learning data to plan instructional units and to identify students in need of targeted interventions. Additionally, school administrators’ weekly coaching sessions with teachers center on analyzing student learning data.

Small-group instruction

All five schools have also designed their class schedules and instructional models to provide teachers with opportunities to work with small groups of seven to 10 students. The philosophy guiding this practice is that working with small groups of students allows teachers to give students more individualized attention and provide instruction targeted to students’ individual learning needs. Working with small groups of students also gives teachers more opportunities to build stronger relationships with individual students..

… and technology?

During my interviews at these schools, blended learning was mentioned only occasionally as teachers and school leaders described what they were doing to ensure the academic success of their students. But if blended learning were unimportant, why did these schools spend money and time to implement blended learning in their classrooms?

Although technology is not the driving force behind student learning at these schools, it amplifies the real driving force: high-quality teaching. Online assessments through the Evaluate and Illuminate platforms significantly reduce the burden on teachers to administer, grade, and aggregate the student learning data for data-driven instruction. And this data, in turn, is an essential component of purposeful teacher coaching. Teachers also use learning data from online software—such as ST Math, Accelerated Reader, DreamBox Learning, Reading Plus, and Lexia Learning—to invest students in learning by making it easy for students to see how their efforts contribute to their learning success. At all five schools, technology is also a key tool for engaging students in learning while their peers received small-group instruction, thus making small-group instruction logistically feasible. Finally, many teachers noted anecdotally that online learning gives students daily differentiated instruction and immediate feedback that would be hard for teachers to provide through offline learning activities.

Blended learning at these schools provides real-world illustrations for one of the key themes from my recent paper, “Teaching in the Machine Age.” As online learning and blended-learning models improve, high-quality schools of the future will increasingly use technology to magnify the impact of teachers. Just as combustion engines are the key power source for both automobiles and airplanes, good teachers power high-quality instruction in both traditional and blended settings. But as we continue to seek innovative ways to improve learning for all students, blended learning will enable teachers to push their students’ learning to new heights, just as wings enable combustion-powered vehicles to lift into the sky.

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Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.