At a Tipping Point: Policies to Enable Blended Learning

At a Tipping Point: Policies to Enable Blended Learning


Change and disruption is taking place within schools as students and teachers explore the intersection between instruction and technology. Educators around the country are leveraging digital models to customize instruction to a student’s skill level and learning style.

But products and tools are just one piece of the puzzle. State and local policies also play a critical role in either inhibiting or supporting the ability of schools to utilize technology and customize learning.

At Bellwether Education, we recently set out to analyze policies that enable high-quality blended learning. Through this work, we found there are a number of ways that policy can support new learning models. To highlight the role policy can play, we’ve released a playbook of policy ideas that fall into three categories: removing barriers, cultivating supply, and developing smart standards. Here’s a preview highlighting a few of the possible approaches (with one policy example from each category):

1. Remove Existing Barriers to Personalized Learning.

Create flexibility around seat time requirements

Most schools and states still assign students credit based on seat time requirements, the amount of time students physically sit in a classroom. This approach assumes that all students take the same amount of time to learn a subject—one year for bio and one year for algebra. Maybe this system made sense 100 years ago when the delivery of instruction was largely the same across classrooms, but today’s technology enables educators to customize learning experiences to the needs of an individual child.

Personalized learning models can vary the amount of time a student remains in a course or grade. They can also vary the place of learning by encouraging students to receive instruction digitally or in community-based environments.

For schools to utilize new personalized learning models, states must provide flexibility around seat time requirements. States could waive these requirements or allow districts to create multiple pathways for students to receive credit.

For example, in California’s Central Valley, one high-poverty school district has adopted a 100% proficiency model. Students within each grade at Lindsay Unified School District are grouped into 13 content levels and progress from one level to the next after showing proficiency. This model shifts the focus from age and time spent in the classroom to student performance and mastery of content.

2. Cultivate The Supply of Personalized Learning Models.

Establish a statewide innovation fund

Removing existing policy barriers is only the first step toward expanding access to blended learning. Schools also need resources to cover the design and infrastructure costs associated with adopting new models. A statewide innovation competition could act as a powerful incentive for schools to develop and implement new models, and build momentum across the state around personalized learning. This type of program could be modeled after the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program. When creating an innovation fund, the state should think about its education priorities and establish applicant criteria (e.g. teacher capacity, technology readiness) accordingly.

Ohio offers one potential model. In 2013 Ohio’s Department of Education created the Straight A Fund, a $250 million pool that provides seed money to fund education innovation. Two dozen grantees received funding for the program’s first year.

The biggest winner was the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, a network of Appalachian school districts that received $15 million to implement a blended learning, dual enrollment system. By building partnerships with local colleges and establishing a blended learning infrastructure, these districts are working to address the rural opportunity gap in Ohio and increase students’ post-secondary readiness.

3. Create Smart Standards for Digital Providers.

Protect student privacy while also allowing vendors to leverage data

As the supply of learning models increases, policymakers also need to think about how to create “smart” standards that hold providers accountable without limiting innovation. Recent controversies around InBloom and Google Apps for Education have increased public scrutiny around student data privacy. Providers need comprehensive student data to build effective learning experiences; at the same time, the idea of third-party vendors having access to kids’ information makes families nervous.

To assuage these concerns, states should require districts to develop clear privacy policies around student data. Recently updated guidelines from the federal government can act as a reference to districts trying to navigate FERPA and its 30-year old archaic language. The guidelines recommend that districts build written legal contracts with providers that discuss type of data used, purpose of data collection, and conditions for disclosing student information. Providers should use data only for the original purposes stated in these contracts so that parents don’t have to worry about their kids becoming commercial guinea pigs.

It’s pretty simple: Rather than creating a regulatory quagmire, policies can be designed to support the use of edtech in creating effective and accountable learning tools for all students.

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