The blended learning models that can help schools reopen

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May 27, 2020

As educators start considering their options for the fall, the future is full of uncertainty. If schools remain closed, they’ll need to prepare for more remote learning. On the other hand, there’s a chance schools might be able to open back up, in which case they’ll likely need to have students come in shifts in order to maintain social distancing.

Fortunately, if bringing students to school part-time is an option, schools don’t have to invent new approaches from scratch. Two of the blended-learning models we’ve documented are well suited to these circumstances: the Enriched Virtual model and the Flipped Classroom model. There is a caveat: They all hinge on internet connectivity, a challenge that both public and private efforts are moving quickly to try to solve. 

In an Enriched Virtual arrangement, students complete the majority of coursework online at home or outside of school, but attend school for required face-to-face learning sessions with a teacher a few times a week. In Flipped Classroom setups, students learn at home via online coursework and video-recorded lectures, and teachers use class time for teacher-guided practice or projects. 

Normally, the Flipped Classroom model is used by teachers whose students come to class every day, whereas the Enriched Virtual model is generally deployed to increase support for students in virtual schooling who normally wouldn’t attend a brick-and-mortar school at all. In COVID-19 circumstances requiring a reduction of the number of students in school buildings on any given day, however, the distinctions between these models become a bit blurry. Here are some examples of what these types of models look like.

Combining independent online learning with face-to-face instruction

Scott Nolt, a high school history teacher in North Carolina, has been using blended learning for years as a way to teach his students without daily direct instruction. At the school where he first developed his approach to blended learning, roughly half of his students met in class with him on any given day while the other half learned independently, often at home. At his current school, students were in class with him every day until COVID-19 closed their campus, but spent most of their time working independently on course activities while Nolt worked with small groups in a study-hall-type arrangement. This approach allowed him and his students to transition seamlessly to distance learning once schools closed.

During their online learning time students dive into new content by studying texts, watching online videos, and taking assessments that help them develop their basic understanding of course content. They then turn to individual assignments and group discussions that help them develop their analytical, critical thinking skills. While working online, students communicate with Nolt through an online messaging system and through the comment features built into online assignments and discussions that allow him to give feedback on their work.

The blended-learning approach allows students to explore concepts at different depths of understanding, based on their interests. All students are expected to learn the “big idea” for each lesson or unit, but can then choose activities for going deeper on topics that interest them. They then demonstrate their mastery of course concepts through essays, PowerPoint presentations, or other types of assignments. 

Using blended learning to strengthen relationships

Stacey Roshan, a high school math teacher in the Washington, DC, area, became a teacher because she wanted to share her love of math with students and help combat the notion of “I’m not a math person.” She wanted her class to be a place where exploring math was fun and where students knew she cared about them as individuals. But for many of her AP Calculus students, it was hard to love math given their nightly struggle through homework assignments with unanswered questions and the enormous pressure to get straight A’s. Meanwhile, back in the classroom, Roshan found there was little time to focus on students’ needs when she was busy trying to ensure that she delivered all the content they needed to tackle their nightly assignments.

To address these challenges, Roshan turned to blended learning. She “flipped” her lessons into online videos for students to watch at home. She then shifted class time toward addressing students’ questions and misunderstandings as they worked through problems, discussing and exploring math concepts conceptually, and engaging with students in a more personal way. 

As Roshan explains in her book, Tech with Heart, “It’s important to understand that my flipped classroom is not about videos at home and textbook work in class. It is about easing students’ anxiety by giving them time to work through problems with their peers and with me. It is about personalizing the learning space, building relationships with students and gaining their trust, and being there to support them when they need me the most.”

Making these models work for the fall

Most of the flipped classroom and enriched virtual models that we’ve studied come from the high school level because elementary students are normally at school every day and have relatively little homework. But considering that COVID-19 will likely require all students to learn at least part-time at home, these models are worth consideration for elementary schools as well. Both models offer a blueprint for how teachers can design instruction to meet the constraints—and even opportunities—of students coming to school in shifts to meet distancing requirements.

To learn more about blended-learning models similar to those described above, I recommend exploring the content on the Blended Learning Universe and browsing the blended learning mini-course available at Khan Academy. For those interested in learning the ins and outs of setting up models like these, the Modern Classrooms Project offers some great professional development resources as a starting point.

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.