This is the third and final post of Mass Insight Research Fellow Danielle Allen’s blog series about exploring educational innovations and making good policy choices, such as aligning 6-12 instruction, and using blending learning in the classroom. For previous posts: There are Better Options; and Seamless Transitions.
For schools and districts with few resources, the potential of blended learning doesn’t feel especially promising. Compared to the adoption of blended learning in higher education, adoption in the K-12 space has been slow and disjointed. Some point to shrinking school budgets as an explanation. Schools are notorious for hunkering down on more of the same when facing difficult financial decisions and, admittedly, it’s politically hard to justify large technology purchases in the midst of continual threats to teachers’ jobs. We don’t believe that because something is hard to do that it shouldn’t be done, especially if it’s in the interest of student learning. But we also recognize that budget challenges are only part of the explanation.
Across the charter school sector, we’ve witnessed a surge in schools finding ways to combine teacher-led and technology-based instruction. Public Impact recently profiled Touchstone Education’s work at Merit Preparatory Charter School of Newark. Between August and March 2013, a group of sixth grade students, 90 percent of whom are low-income and most of whom entered Merit Prep several years behind academically, demonstrated two years of growth in reading and 1.25 years of growth in science through use of a blended learning model.
Some would claim charters like Merit Prep, Rocketship, and Summit, who all utilize blended learning strategies, are somehow special – different in ways that allow them to do what traditional public schools simply cannot. This is a false dichotomy. It’s true that traditional public schools are often constrained by CBAs and other policy decisions in ways that charter schools are not. But we all know a story of an urban high school where every classroom has a Blackboard and yet no one seems to know how to turn one on. The challenge is not one of access to technology. A growing number of high quality online resources like Khan Academy and LearnZillion are free and most schools have enough computers and bandwidth to serve a full class of students on a rotating basis.
The real challenge is all of us adults. Teachers and school leadership often lack training and support in using technology in the classroom. Rather than risk a failed lesson, we stick to the tools we know. But, in doing so, we’re not being fair to students. Early evidence from schools using blended learning demonstrates its power as means of differentiation and increasing student engagement – two areas where our efforts in the classroom have been most lacking. We absolutely have a responsibility to support teachers in incorporating technology-based instruction in the classroom, but let us fear not blended learning. It is a powerful tool at meeting our students where they are and ensuring they are prepared for college and beyond.
Danielle Allen is a Research Fellow at Mass Insight Education and a joint degree candidate at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Stanford Graduate School of Business.