More Research Could Highlight Real Promise of Blended Learning

Today seemed like a good day to get out of the hot kitchen and look at a topic I haven’t addressed in awhile: blended learning. You know what I mean. According to the Clayton Christensen Institute, it’s:

a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; (3) and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Fittingly, then, a new piece by the Christensen Institute’s Michael Horn shares how his group is partnering up with Evergreen Education “to find more districts that are obtaining good results for students—concrete and objective—from blended learning.” This is just the kind of needed project to track the particulars of an emerging education program trend. What’s working, what’s not, etc.?

Horn highlights a number of successful anecdotes of blended learning implementation, mainly from schools and districts working with Ed Elements. They point to significantly more blended learning students meeting targets than their non-blended counterparts, and examples of blended learning students in high-poverty environments making significantly more than a year’s growth in math and reading. I don’t know rigorously tested the results are, but these sure are promising signs, definitely worthy of further investigation.

For one thing, the results would be worthwhile to compare with “the first hard evidence” on full-time online learning. Looking at multiple years of English I and Algebra I courses taken through the Florida Virtual School (FVS), researchers find that the online students “perform at least as well on state math and reading tests as do students taking the same courses in a traditional format.”

The analysis has limitations. Besides only being able to compare results from two (albeit important) courses, they had no data after the 2008-09 school year. So the effects of any of the newer programs or innovations at FVS, part of a rapidly-changing sector, can’t be tracked. But overall, it appears that the promise of these online courses is not in improving education outcomes but in increasing access and providing at least the same results for a lower price.

Some might even call that productivity. Still, if the goal is to get better academic results for kids, then the more promising avenue is blended learning. Sounds good, but how do schools put these models in place and make them effective?

Two relatively new studies offer some key lessons. First, my Education Policy Center friend Krista Kafer has offered some real on-the-ground insights of Colorado school district partnerships helping K-12 blended learning take flight. Second, the Christensen Institute (again!) shares insights from California superintendents about how to knock down regulatory and other barriers to blended learning.

So yes, let’s find out what’s working and make it easier for other schools to replicate successfully. Online education is far from a panacea, but it contains tools that if used wisely can improve access and results for students. Now that would be cool!