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Evaluating what works in blended learning

Since blended learning exploded onto the K-12 scene with promises of personalized and student-centered learning, it has proliferated into dozens of different models, with educators continually tweaking and changing those methods to find the perfect balance of face-to-face and online instruction to meet the needs of their students.

Students work on computers at Florence High School in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Interest in blended education remains high, spurred partly by research offering support for advocates’ claims that blended learning is more effective than either online or face-to-face instruction on its own.

But more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of the evolving blended learning models, including best practices and which models work best for which types of students, said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, an advocacy and research group based in Vienna, Va.

SPECIAL REPORT
  • Blended learning — the mix of virtual education and face-to-face instruction — is evolving quickly in schools across the country, generating a variety of different models. This Education Week special report, the second in an ongoing series on virtual education, examines several of those approaches and aims to identify what is working and where improvements are needed.

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“The more we know about the variety of blended learning models in K-12 education, the more we know we don’t know everything that’s out there,” she said.

Michael B. Horn, a co-founder of the San Mateo, Calif.-based Innosight Institute, which conducts research on both education and health care, defines blended learning as the delivery of content and instruction partly through an online portal and partly in a brick-and-mortar location, in addition to individualization in time, pace, path, or place of learning.

Mr. Horn and his team published a white paper in May that provided updated definitions of the classifications of different types of blended learning, a follow-up to a paper written about blended learning in 2011. The new paper whittles six categories of blended learning down to four: the rotation model, the flex model, the self-blend model, and the enriched-virtual model.

However, educators are coming up with blended learning models that may not be easily classified into those four categories, said Ms. Patrick.

“There’s such a diversity of different types of programs and models that are using content in different ways,” she said. “It parallels the range of student needs that are out there.”

More research is needed, Ms. Patrick said, on the different models and which types are most effective with different students.

Keys to Success

Still, some common themes and best practices have emerged among the diverse blended models.

“The ability to pinpoint needs and the ability for teachers to use data at a very high level for individualized instruction—that’s probably the biggest change that we’ve seen over the last six years,” Ms. Patrick said.

Blended learning models
  • Rotation — Within a given course or subject, students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion between learning modalities, at least one of which is online learning.
  • Flex — Content and instruction are delivered primarily by the Internet, students move on an individually customized, fluid schedule among learning modalities, and the teacher of record is on site.
  • Self-blend — Students choose to take one or more courses entirely online to supplement their traditional courses; the teacher of record is the online teacher.
  • Enriched virtual — A whole-school experience in which, within each course, students divide their time between attending a brick-and-mortar campus and learning remotely using online delivery of content and instruction.

Delivering instructional content online opens the door for a wealth of data to be collected about each student, proponents of blended learning say, which provides real-time feedback for teachers, students, and parents.

But making sure the data are being tracked properly can also be a challenge, said Ms. Patrick.

“Both districts and schools need to look at an enterprise architecture so that their systems can generate the types of data that teachers need to know to be able to provide that direct instruction,” she said.

Judy Burton is the president and CEO of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit charter organization that operates 21 middle and high schools. The organization began piloting blended learning models last year and now operates three blended middle schools and four blended high schools.

Like Ms. Patrick, Ms. Burton believes that finding the right learning-management system, and using programs that will work with that system so that students and teachers don’t have to log in and out of multiple systems, is critical.

Through the blended learning pilots that Alliance College-Ready Public Schools has conducted, Ms. Burton said she has also learned to bring a “much keener eye” to selecting vendor programs.

“They’re not all equal in terms of rigor and the degree to which they engage students,” she said.

Ms. Burton’s organization is experimenting with a blended rotational model, in which groups of 45 students rotate between group work, online course work, and face-to-face instruction.

“I see our kids so much more interested in and excited about coming to school and about their learning because they’re no longer receptacles,” she said. “They’re playing a major role in driving their own learning.”

One area of need, Ms. Burton said, is for more classes that prepare future teachers to teach in an online or blended classroom. “We’re not seeing teachers coming out of universities prepared to work in a blended classroom,” she said.

And it’s not just teachers who need more education about blended and online learning environments, Ms. Patrick of iNACOL said.

“Administrators are not being trained to manage or implement or plan and manage blended learning programs,” she said. Providing that training in colleges of education for both administrators and teachers is critical to the success of such programs, she said.

Vision With Flexibility

Another common thread between successful blended learning programs is a clear and targeted instructional strategy, said Cheryl Niehaus, a program officer for the Austin, Texas-based Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which aims to improve the health and education of children.

The foundation recently released case studies of five different blended learning programs.

“[Each of the five programs] were very clear as to what the instructional aspiration was and the way that technology plays a supporting role in achieving that vision,” Ms. Niehaus said.

On the other hand, while having a clear vision is important, being willing to change or adjust that vision during implementation is key, she said. “The need for upfront planning is critical, but at the same time, there’s also a need to learn along the way and have the flexibility to make changes,” she said.

Diane Tavenner is the founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a Redwood City, Calif.-based charter school organization that operates four high schools in California. It piloted blended learning in math for 9th graders at its San Jose, Calif., location last year and now wants to take it further.

“What we discovered as an organization is that [blended learning] completely opened our thinking to the possibility and power of what this could look like if you really took it from blended to optimized classrooms,” said Ms. Tavenner.

“Blended learning itself is an important piece, but it’s not going to fundamentally change our schools or learning or education the way we want them to change,” she said.

Reinventing the Classroom

To create a truly 21st-century education model, or what Ms. Tavenner refers to as “optimized schools,” blended learning is combined with competency-based learning — in which students progress not on the basis of time spent on each subject but rather on their mastery of the curriculum — and personalization of learning, which she describes as “the behaviors and dispositions of people who really can drive their own learning.”

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In such a model, teachers work in teams rather than as individuals, and the classroom itself looks much different, she said.

For Summit Public School students participating in the pilot, the approach means that instead of individual classrooms, students gather in an open, 4,000-square-foot room lined with breakout rooms with long tables in the center. Students receive their own laptops and individual workspaces, and for two hours, 200 students, accompanied by four teachers and two instructional assistants, fill the room.

Students work through “playlists” of resources, including online curriculum and videos from Khan Academy. Teachers hold seminars in the breakout rooms on various topics the students are learning.

Students create their own schedules; they attend the seminars that are helpful to them and work through their playlists of curricula. When they are ready to take an assessment and move on to the next topic, a teacher unlocks the quiz for them. If they pass, they move on. If they don’t, the assessment tells them exactly what topics they need to focus on to improve.

“It totally empowers the kid because they get immediate feedback, and they know exactly what they need to do,” Ms. Tavenner said.

For now, students are still getting used to being in control of their own learning, she said.

“It’s a lot of hard work, and it’s uncomfortable, and it looks messy,” she said. “But we believe that unless school organizations are set up [in new ways], they aren’t really going to move forward.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede