Time for state to take the lead in blended learning

The popularity of blended learning – and the use of the word, “blended learning” – has risen tremendously over the past five years, (though the term was coined some 15 years ago.) Today, blended learning holds the promise that teachers can reach every student with what he or she needs by extending that teacher’s reach through the use of technology.

Most have settled on a version of the following definition of blended learning:

“Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace, and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.”

That leaves a lot of flexibility in how a school or district or teachers approach blended learning, which is a good thing, but it also leaves a lot of room for flexibility, which can be a bad thing. Since there are no Blended Learning Police, lots of programs that merely provide computers are being called blended learning, but some educators haven’t really figured out how to integrate those computers into instruction.

That’s because high-quality blended learning posits a shift in teaching and learning from the traditional model of lectures, worksheets, occasional projects, a pop quiz, and more worksheets. That shift, done right, results in students starting to move at their own pace, starting to select what they learn, and seeing their progress through skills and competency and not just through course completion.

Making that shift, though, can be hard work, and it can take some time. Just ask Reynoldsburg City Schools, which has had consultants in several buildings (including blended learning experts Education Elements) over the past two-plus years helping teachers make that shift. This suburban Columbus school district has visionary leaders and the attention and resources of the national blended learning advocate, The Learning Accelerator.

But not all schools and districts in Ohio can get that kind of help right now. Even with the $250 million Straight A Fund in Ohio funding innovation over the past two years, only 21 of the 61 funded innovation projects incorporate some aspect of digital learning, and it remains to be seen whether these projects have the expertise that will result in high-quality blended learning leading to personalization.

Ohio has been, however, taking incremental steps to encourage blended learning. Senate Bill 316, passed in 2012, offered a new definition of blended learning, allowed for districts to operate all or part of a school using a blended learning model, required the State Board of Education to revise operating standards to allow blended learning classrooms exemptions from certain rules, like student-teacher ratios, and permitted schools to be classified as blended learning schools. (Disclosure: I was part of a team to put some of these elements of SB316 into place.)

The draft operating standards being considered by the State Board of Education hold great promise of spurring meaningful personalization on the ground. The draft standards would set the stage for student-centered learning through blended learning – if districts have the capacity to deliver it.

But the state seems largely passive right now in providing technical support to schools and districts as they clamor for more blended learning. High turnover at the Ohio Department of Education and a need to ramp up blended learning expertise leave the state not quite ready to take the lead in supporting the growing interest in blended learning.

But there is a path the state can take to provide that support in a just-in-time approach, and there are organizations that are laying out the steps the state can take to be the supporter that schools and districts need to do blended right.

The Learning Accelerator, a California-based non-profit, has made its mission to support high-quality blended learning demonstrations, and it just released its state framework to help guide the discussion around what states can and should do. Rhode Island, with support from TLA, is an early adopter state to make all its classrooms blended learning.

These steps call for setting out a comprehensive vision for blended and personalized learning, and assessing that vision against the policies and regulations governing the work of educators. They also call for demonstration projects on the ground to show how it can be done.

Others have called for creative solutions to the lack of state capacity around innovation. Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire in April 2014 released a report in which they advocate that state education agencies (SEAs) outsource the management of crucial reforms.

They write,

“SEAs were designed—and evolved over decades—to address a relatively narrow set of tasks: distributing state and federal dollars, monitoring the use of these funds, and overseeing the implementation of federal and state education programs. They were not created—nor have they developed the core competencies—to drive crucial reforms. Accordingly, we argue that despite the best efforts of talented, energetic leaders, SEAs will never be able to deliver the reform results we need.
“But there is an alternative. We should view the SEA through the lens of Reinventing Government (1993), the path-breaking book by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. In short, Osborne and Gaebler call for state agencies to “steer” more and “row” less. Here, we call for federal and state leaders to apply their thesis to SEAs, scaling back the tasks SEAs perform and empowering nongovernmental organizations to take up the slack.”

The notion of the state creating a public-private partnership to oversee the a shift in teaching and learning through blended learning, competency education, and other student-centered policies holds promise for Ohio going forward.

Ohio earned a “D” on the last report card from Digital Learning Now. But it has the pieces and tools to do much better for its students, if only it could stitch together those pieces into a comprehensive reform effort.

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