Blended Learning | Viewpoint

Forget About Blended Learning Best Practices

In the first installment in our new monthly column, blended learning experts Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker advise schools to skip the "best practices" and instead seek innovations that work in their unique circumstances.

Blended learning is increasingly dominating education conversations, and it's no wonder why. Online learning's growth remains rapid, with Ambient Insight predicting an annual increase of nearly 10 percent over the next five years, and much of that growth is in blended-learning environments, where students engage in online learning in supervised brick-and-mortar schools instead of from a distance.

As public schools move to this new reality, they are clamoring for templates to follow and for "best practices." Over the course of the year we will be writing a series of articles on blended learning offering our tips and insights, but with one caveat.

Simply following the guidance of best practices won't help schools get the best results for their students. The reason is simple.

Best practices take the attributes of what good organizations do and assume that they are the causal reason for their success. But what works well in one circumstance might not work in another. For example, centuries ago, would-be aviators observed that most animals that flew well had wings and feathers. But when humans made wings with feathers for themselves, the results were dire.

Perhaps the best advice for educators is to take best practices with a grain of salt. Keep innovating to serve students, and do what works best for your specific circumstance.

The blended-learning field needs more research that can help educators take predictably successful actions that are appropriate for their specific situations. But in the mean time, for educators looking to get started with blended learning, there are a few easy ways to dive in that appear to raise the chances of success.

Which Blended Learning Model is Right for Your School?
The simplest way for elementary schools to embark on blended learning is by setting up a rotation model, which involves students rotating on a fixed schedule within a given subject between online- and offline-learning stations. At Rocketship Education, for example, students alternate between traditional face-to-face learning in their classrooms and online learning in a lab. At KIPP LA's (Knowledge is Power Program Los Angeles) Empower Academy, students do a classroom rotation, cycling through various stations in the room.

The rotation model appears simple for elementary schools to implement because a large number already employ activity-center classroom models that lend themselves to adding an online-learning station. And it probably works well because the activity-center model is inherently more conducive to individualizing learning than are the more monolithic models commonly used in middle and high schools. Taking full advantage of this model is perhaps the hardest part today, as many online-learning programs don't easily help educators individualize what students do throughout the rest of their day.

At the middle and high school level, the simplest way to let students engage in blended learning is by offering the self-blend model, where students take individual online courses on their own while also attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school. Thousands of districts facilitate the self-blend model today.

Launching credit- and dropout-recovery programs that employ the flex model--where an online program delivers most of the curriculum and adults provide face-to-face support on a flexible, adaptive, as-needed basis--is also an easy way to get started in a lower risk way. Early evidence suggests that teachers must remain active in this model. They cannot assume that just because software is delivering the lesson, they can sit back. Their involvement, sometimes in team-teaching environments, based on the student-learning data--through individual and small-group sessions and the occasional full-class experience--is critical.

More information on these models can be found in our white paper, "The rise of K-12 blended learning: Profiles of emerging models." Keep an eye out for our next column on the costs of blended learning.

About the Authors

Michael Horn is co-founder of Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on education and innovation.

Heather Staker is a senior education research fellow at Innosight Institute.

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