Blended Learning is a Marathon. So Keep Sprinting!

Blended Learning is a Marathon. So Keep Sprinting!


In terms of buzz amongst educators, blended learning ranks right up there with the adoption of Common Core and Jon Stewart stepping down from the Daily Show. But with so much buzz, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. In our role at the Silicon Schools Fund, we have a front row seat to some of the best efforts to personalize learning, and we think it’s real.

Yet, we don’t think it is as easy as some might have you believe. Over the last three years, we’ve helped launch or flip sixteen schools in the Bay Area towards more personalized learning (see map below).

But here’s the thing: these schools are not perfect, and we have not truly reinvented education. At least not yet. So, how can we hold optimism and excitement about the progress to date--while also acknowledging how far we still have to travel? How do we make sure that we’re pacing ourselves for the longer marathon, but still pursuing personalized learning with the fervor and vivacity of a sprinter?

I was reminded recently of Jim Collins’ Stockdale Paradox. A prisoner of war in Vietnam, Admiral Stockdale developed a philosophy that he credited with his survival: unwaivering faith combined with brutally confronting the reality of his situation. Other prisoners who lost hope fell into deep despair. And those who kept telling themselves, “We’ll be home by Christmas,” died of broken hearts.

So how does this apply to blended learning? Although many claim that education is about to be transformed, sadly, we think the inflection point may still be far off. Mindless technology boosterism creates a false sense of a coming tsunami of change, and disruption zealots run the risk of continual disappointment, as schools prove immune to change. My guess is that schools in general look quite similar for the next 10-20 years.

Pretty depressing, I know.

But I also believe massive change is coming, and that promising Next Generation models are starting to emerge. This year, we received some promising data from innovative schools showing what is already possible. In a recent WestEd study, schools in which students completed at least 50% of the suggested annual curriculum on ST Math (a high quality piece of software) had a .42 effect size compared to control schools with similar demographics. For context, this is an effect size larger than 95% of all studies are able to demonstrate.

The recent RAND study of Next Generation Learning Challenge Schools provided an even better glimpse of what might be coming. These schools, some of which are Silicon Schools portfolio members, are more innovative and closer to the models we espouse, where students move at their own right pace, experience more thoughtful integration of technology, and have increased ownership over the path and goals of their learning. Using very rigorous methodology, RAND calculated that these Next Generation schools created a learning effect size in math of .41 across all the schools studied, in the very first year of study. Again for context this is a larger effect size than 95% of all education interventions studied.

Pretty exciting, I know.

So should we be excited or depressed? I think Stockdale has it right--excited by the potential and realistic about how long and hard the road is ahead.

We see tremendous promise in the schools doing this cutting edge work. Caliber Schools in Richmond, CA opened this fall with over 300 students (quite unusual) in cramped portables on one of the most historically underperforming schools in California. Yet when you visit the campus, you see young scholars excitedly coding using Scratch, teachers experimenting with different kinds of student groupings, and each child pursuing personalized goals. The work is brutally hard, but you cannot help but be optimistic based on the progress of Caliber’s first year and their plans for the future.

We are similarly optimistic about early experiments to “flip” high performing traditional schools to blended learning. Cornerstone Academy Preparatory School, has been transforming over the past year from a high performing traditional charter school in San Jose to a more technology rich model that dramatically increases the small group time between students and teachers. With thoughtful pilots, they tried new approaches, fixed what was not working, and doubled down where they saw success.

So with successes like these, should we simply add fuel to this movement and go for scale across the country? Tempting as this is, we think it may be premature. Here’s how we see the world right now.

On one hand: There is a clear need for radical innovators who are redesigning school and developing demonstrably new models. No one is doing a better job at this than Summit Public Schools, and we love how they are working to bring others into their vision for personalized learning. The partnership with Teach for America Bay Area to jointly train new corps members this summer is one such promising partnership, as is their Basecamp initiative to bring together twenty innovative schools across the country to pilot more personalized learning.

On the other hand: These radical innovators can feel a little bit scary. The work they are doing is so far out there that they can seem unapproachable to many schools today. We have become big believers in the role of the “early adopters” to blended learning, who figure out how to best implement and refine the innovations emerging from the radical innovators. Schools that are perfecting the station rotation model for example, are documenting their learning and figuring out how to train teachers for this new approach. The Aspire Blended Learning Handbook is an example of the kind of rigorous experimenting and documentation that needs to happen to help others be able to replicate this work.

Preparing for scale: Our hope is that the radical innovators continue to push the limits while early adopters continue to grow. Then,once we as a sector have a better playbook of how to do this work, as the quality of software tools improves, and as better support providers emerge it may be easier to tackle school change at scale. But we think it is a mistake to skip the steps of preparing for scale (learning and codifying how to do this work best, building the support mechanisms, etc.). Let’s not under estimate the change required of teachers learning new ways to do their jobs, students truly owning their own learning process, and parents signing-off on very different school models than what they experienced. Simply put, education is not one algorithm away from total transformation.

It’s going to be a long road, and we have to prepare ourselves to sustain the effort.

Remember, it is a marathon. Keep sprinting.

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