What Separates a Good Blended Learning Program From a Bad One?

Blended Learning

What Separates a Good Blended Learning Program From a Bad One?

By Rebecca Recco     Feb 20, 2018

What Separates a Good Blended Learning Program From a Bad One?

These days many schools tout blended learning programs when marketing their school to potential students. And in a way, this does make sense. Blended learning can combine the flexibility of online instruction with the benefits of in-person teaching. But much like nutritional claims, such as “all-natural” and “healthy,” the term “blended learning” can mean just about anything depending on how you define it.

Before we can discern what to look for in a good blended learning system, what common misconceptions to watch out for, and what to avoid we should first clarify the term. According to “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools,” by Michael Horn and Heather Staker, blended learning is a formal education program 1) delivered at least in part through digital learning, with some flexibility for students to choose the way they want to learn, 2) at least partly in combination with a physical classroom and teacher and 3) with opportunities for students to learn through activities that capitalize on different learning modalities.

While there are many ways to apply blended learning to a curriculum, some of the most popular examples include flipped classroom models, where students learn online at home, then spend in-class time practicing with a teacher available to assist them; or rotation models, where students move between learning stations, with at least one station being a digital space where students can access a variety of learning resources. Though there are many ways to implement a blended learning program, there are a few commonalities in what works, what doesn’t and what is destined for failure.

The Good

The best blended learning programs seem to have some common threads. One of the biggest indicators of a successful program is intentional technology use. Whether creating digital resources and activities or planning a large purchase of student devices, the technology should support the learning, not the other way around. Mindful pairing of digital resources to learning outcomes is an excellent way to ensure that any blended learning program will produce the desired learning outcomes. This also means being mindful of students with special needs, and students without access to digital resources at home. Even the best digital tool is useless if it is inaccessible to learners, so schools should create supports ahead of time for those who need them.

Another indicator of a great blended learning is a teacher who is well-trained and well-supported in applying both digital and non-digital teaching practices. Much of our teacher professional development focuses on use of programs or tools, but falls short when it comes to imparting best practices around teaching and learning methods, digital and in-person instruction, differentiated assessment and data analysis. The best programs feature teachers who are strong in all these areas.

Perhaps the “secret sauce” in ensuring that a blended learning program is the most effective is student engagement. But this component is also the most elusive. Since engagement is something students have to provide, and teachers can not just apply engagement to any lesson, it is important to create a learning experience that is engaging, both in the digital and the physical classroom.

One promising development in blended curriculum design that promotes student engagement is the new COVA model. The key to this, according to the newly-published e-book, “Choice, Ownership, and Voice through Authentic Learning,” is to create learning environments and activities that support COVA, which stands for choice, ownership, voice and authentic learning. While this concept sounds simple, applying it is actually quite complicated, because it involves veering away from the accepted model of drill-test-repeat of student skills.

In the COVA model, rote memorization, repetitive drills and standardized assessments are replaced by students choosing the path of their learning, creating and sharing products of their learning and retaining ownership of these products—all while learning through authentic experiences. Giving students COVA increases engagement by giving students agency in their learning and ownership of the products of it.

The Bad

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, “blended learning” may be one of the most misused terms in education. There are many so-called blended programs that do not meet the definition, but schools use them anyway. They regularly disappoint with low success rates, often because care was not taken in planning, designing, purchasing, training, supporting or engaging students.

One of the worst offenses of bad blended learning programs is simply not creating a strong blend between digital and non-digital learning. Some school systems think that providing students with a digital learning program to replace in-class instruction will eliminate the problems of poor teaching.

While this may sound tempting, especially as many school districts are experiencing a teacher shortage and the pressure to increase high-stakes test scores rules pretty much every decision made in schools, replacing the teacher with a computer program will not result in better student success, no matter how much the program claims to adapt to and engage diverse learners. The truth is that technology will never replace good teachers, who can create relationships with students and learn students’ strengths and challenges, curate a collection of resources with specific students’ needs in mind and work with students to create the best learning plan. For the amount of money schools spend on computer programs, they could provide teachers with better training and support in creating a blended learning program customized for and by their own student population.

Which brings us to the next problem with bad blended learning programs—lack of ongoing support. When teachers do not have appropriate and ongoing support to change their teaching style to a blended learning model, and/or support for keeping the network, devices, and programs current and in good repair, a system will not work. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of any blended learning program is the long-term support plan, for both human and digital resources.

Other programs fail to provide appropriate digital resources for students and learning goals. When designing a digital learning environment, it is crucial to provide resources that are accessible to all students, and to gear them toward specific goals. Because the digital learning environment is not constrained by the class schedule or space, it is easy to fill it up with resources and activities. But just as in a physical environment, cluttered digital spaces are confusing and hard to navigate. If students aren’t sure how to move through their digital learning, chances are they won’t get the most out of time spent there.

The Ugly

While bad blended learning design will result in low student success, and nobody wants that, some blended learning issues produce problems on such a large scale that they create a negative view of digital learning that ripples through the education world. Though these scenarios are the nightmares of digital educators today, we can learn from them to ensure they don’t happen again.

The most famous of blended learning fiascos is probably the failure of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad program. In 2013, the school district entered a contract with Apple (technology) and Pearson (curriculum programming) to provide students with devices for a blended learning program. This program failed quickly and very publicly because students learned how to disable the security profile on the devices and get around protections designed to prevent misuse and theft.

In Apple’s defense, LAUSD did not follow Apple’s specified deployment guidelines, nor did they fully consider the implications of such a large rollout for the type of technology they wanted to deploy. Also, because the school system bought the iPads in order to use a new curriculum by Pearson, the large investment ($6.4 million) for that software was lost because it could not be accessed without the proper devices. A major lawsuit ensued, the district suffered enormous negative press and those reluctant to bring technology into schools became even more reluctant to do so.

But this failure brings with it an important lesson for anyone hoping to implement a blended learning program, whether you’re planning a huge deployment like LAUSD, or starting small in your classroom, like I did. LAUSD failed in planning their rollout to fit the specific needs of their population and goals. If you fail to fully research your population and goals, then fail to find technology that is suitable for both, your blended learning program won’t just result in lackluster student results, it will be a waste of money and a black eye for your school district.

The Upshot

Now is the best time to start a blended learning program, because blended learning has been around long enough to provide us all with plenty of background information to make the best choices for our students (and our investments).

Your students will benefit from the best of both digital and in-person learning, while building digital citizenship and technological skills necessary to be successful adults! But it is crucial to have a strong vision that starts with a real understanding of the school you already have, the goals you want to achieve and the proper tools and resources that will take you from one to the other.

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