Blended Learning

I’m trying to wrap my head around the potential as well as downside of blended learning. This afternoon I spent some time reading two articles and provide some reflections on the topic here.

Hybrid schools for the iGeneration – Harvard Education Letter, March/April 2011 – By Brigid Schulte

Middle school and high school students in Arizona devote chunks of their day to online instruction, in the brick-and-mortar building. The computer work consists of programs that are “interactive and multimodal – comprised of audio, video, video vignettes, Flash animation, quizzes, and games.” Does this reinforce an “instructionist” model of learning, similar to what Sylvia Martinez suggests of the Khan Academy? Or are learners engaging in questioning, problem solving and knowledge construction during the dedicated computer time?

“The online curriculum for each course is adaptive, meaning it can gauge from the students’ answers when they have mastered something and are ready to move ahead and when they may need extra practice before moving on. A bar on the upper right corner of the screen tracks students’ progress in every course and becomes part of a report automatically e-mailed to parents at the end of every week.” What do the assessments look like? Simple drill and kill? Or something deeper, focused on generating knowledge or solving open-ended problems? Assessment data is used by teachers to determine which students receive further face-to-face instruction. Again, what does that instruction look like?

After five years operating in this disruptively different way, the results are impressive. For two consecutive years, Carpe Diem, which is a majority minority school (more than half of all students also qualify for free or reduced-price lunches), led the state in the amount of growth students showed on test scores.” While it is commendable that a blended learning environment contributes to higher test scores, isn’t this like building a house on quicksand? Standardized tests are an indicator of performance on a very narrow skill set. What about the areas not tested? What about communication and collaboration skills? It doesn’t seem, at least from the description that their learning during “computer time” is very social.

Learning environments need to be created where learners learn WITH technology. We don’t need any more schools that focus on learning FROM technology.

Future Schools: Blending Face-to-face and Online Learning – Education Next – Summer 2011 – Jonathan Schorr and Deborah McGriff

This article focuses on a similar model, the Rocketship model in California. In this model “the computers are not actually “blended” with face-to-face instruction in the same classroom.” Computers are used as a kind of teacher-substitute – a more efficient one for certain direct instruction tasks. The problem with this vision is that technology is an isolated learning tool – a tool that we learn from, not necessarily with. How can we create a learning environment that provides meaningful learning with technology whether learners are online or face-to-face? How would a truly blended model of meaningful learning be more powerful than a 100% online or 100% face-to-face environment? Do any exist?

The article describes in more detail the schools they believe are models for a blended learning environment: School of One, Denver School of Science and Technology, Carpe Diem Collegiate High School, and High Tech High.

Customized learning, reimagined work spaces. Importance of data generated by computer-based assessments, but little evidence of actually learning to think with technology, socializing during the learning process, or creating products that represent understanding. High Tech High may be the only example cited in this article that uses the learning FROM technology model to gather data on student understanding while learning WITH technology – “Students use the same computer-aided design systems that they would find in a professional design firm as they model real-life, design-forward chairs.”

The most interesting paragraph in the article comes near the end. “California’s budget situation today is nothing short of disastrous. Yet High Tech High recently rejected a much more aggressive move into the blended field, a “flex” plan that would have brought students to campus only once a week, with the other four days spent online, typically from home. The plan would have created enormous cost savings by allowing five different cohorts of students to use one building each week. Yet teachers, students, and parents rejected the idea of giving up the daily campus experience, and teachers were not enthusiastic about doing a large proportion of their teaching online. “We’re not drinking the Kool-Aid,” said founder and CEO Larry Rosenstock.” How does a model like this work? Is anyone doing it? Does it benefit learning while addressing fiscal challenges?

The article concludes with a statement about the current state of blended learning. “Indeed, it seems likely that, just as happened with charter management organizations, rapid growth will take place only when the pioneers can demonstrate proof points of excellence in student performance.Ultimately any innovation will be judged on how it improves “student performance.” How will we approach our definition of “student performance”? Will we be open to new models and ways of assessing student performance. If we see blended learning as a changing model of education, we will also need to change the mindset through which we examine assessment. If we do not, we are sure to conclude that blended learning is not the innovative model some think it to be. As Michael Horn and Heather Staker caution, “the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed model.”
Next on my list is the Horn/Staker document: The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning.


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