Across Indianapolis, hundreds of students are getting help navigating remote learning while school campuses remain closed.
Innovation in Progress: Proceed with Caution
A new study released last week provides first glimpses at how blended learning is affecting student performance. The report, published by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and SRI International, is rich with information about blended-learning programs and implementation details, but the study’s new contribution to the field is that it presents an impact analysis of K–12 blended-learning programs. Overall, the researchers found encouraging outcomes in the 12 blended-learning CMO schools studied, especially when compared to schools outside of their CMO. FirstLine, Rocketship, KIPP Empower, and Summit generally produced results that were stronger than their comparison group, while Alliance College-Ready High Schools’ results looked slightly weaker.
But the study headlines findings about implementation, not impacts. Student achievement findings are qualified and scattered throughout the body of the report. That’s frustrating, but it’s also a fair reflection of where the field currently stands.
Blended learning is an innovation in progress. It takes many forms and is constantly evolving. In SRI’s study, blended-learning programs vary dramatically, as do results by subject, grade level, subgroup, and school. So seeking answers to whether it—whatever “it” is—works or not is far less helpful at this point than understanding how, when, and why it works best. And we are starting to amass enough research to get some preliminary answers to these questions.
The Dell/SRI report adds to a growing consensus about the keys to successful blended-learning implementation, from a body of work that also includes SRI and the Rogers Family Foundation’s evaluation of Oakland pilots; Public Impact’s work on technology in schools; FSG’s case studies; Michael Horn, Brian Greenberg, and Robert Schwartz’s helpful Coursera course; and CRPE’s new report on the cost structures of charter schools using blended learning. Here is my running list of lessons learned:
- Plan for unforeseen expenses. Underenrollment and unrealistic planning budgets have led some blended-learning schools to revert to more traditional structures during implementation.
- Ensure that Internet connections and bandwidth are sufficient to support the proposed system. Insufficient technological infrastructure has been a recurring challenge.
- Explore various software options, use short-term contracts, and work with developers to ensure that blended-learning tools meet schools’ needs. Schools have struggled to find software that is aligned to their curriculum and allows teachers to assign lessons to students (as opposed to relinquishing all control to the computer).
- Have a plan and provide supports for data use. Educators need easily navigable data interfaces and sufficient training and time to make good use of the massive amounts of data that blended-learning systems produce, and they find it useful to have on-site blended-learning coordinators and IT support.
- Plan to amend your model. Schools should be ready and able to make quick changes as they learn what works, and what doesn’t, during implementation.
- Technology is just a tool. Blended learning can’t succeed without other well-known elements of high-quality schools, such as strong leadership, great teaching, and a culture of high expectations.
What the Dell/SRI report added to the picture were initial findings on the actual impact of blended learning. But with a small sample, varying blended-learning systems, and mixed outcomes, the impact findings must be interpreted with caution. What was made clear is this: blended learning cannot simply be parachuted into a school. Even with the freedoms and philanthropic supports that the charter schools in the study enjoy, they have faced substantial obstacles and continue to dramatically adjust their models. Schools and districts looking to blended learning must plan carefully, with sincere attention to the critical lessons learned by pioneers.
Students in the highest-poverty school systems can’t afford to wait for instruction to go back to “normal.”
Twenty-three states plus the District of Columbia provide no clear public health criteria to guide reopening decisions.