Blended Learning | Viewpoint

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Blended Learning Policies

In the fifth installment of their monthly column, blended learning experts Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker discuss the policies prohibiting and fostering the growth of blended learning.

When online learning was in its infancy, most states were on relatively equal playing fields in terms of allowing for blended learning, meaning education programs that combine online learning with learning in brick-and-mortar schools. No state expressly forbade blended learning, and that left space for schools and students to begin experimenting.

But as online learning has matured, a wider variance is emerging among policy environments. Some states are downright prohibitive of the main policies that are optimal for the development of blended learning, others have proactively carved out friendly policies, and most are somewhere in the middle.

Policies Hindering Blended Learning
The worst states for potential blended learners are those with a double whammy of negatives. First, they do not provide any route for students to earn credits online if the students' districts say no. This policy omission deters students from engaging in the most common form of blended learning, the self-blend, which is when students choose to take one or more online courses on their own while also attending a brick-and-mortar school.

Second, some states prohibit chartering or other mechanisms that provide relief from the standard swath of education statutes that impede the operation of blended schools. Nebraska is one state that lacks both a statewide online program (except a small pilot) and a charter law. South Dakota is another. It has a small statewide consortium of approved supplemental course providers, but districts can refuse student requests to participate, and it has no charter law.

Schools in these states can certainly set up a blended-learning operation, as it is rare for policies to exist that restrict schools or districts from setting up some form of blended learning. With that said, students are not guaranteed to have this access, and regulations often restrict how student-centric the new models can be.

Policies Fostering Student-Centric Blended Learning Models
On the other end of the continuum, some states are creating policies that not only support self-blending, but also the development of transformational--that is, student-centric--whole-school blended models. Ohio stands out with Governor Kasich's signing of Senate Bill 316 in June.

The cutting-edge bill defines blended learning as "the delivery of instruction in a combination of time in a supervised physical location away from home and online delivery whereby the student has some element of control over time, place, path, or pace of learning."

The definition is broad enough to maximize the opportunity for innovation. It makes explicit the ability of local education agencies to create or convert traditional schools, all or in part, to blended schools. It charges the state board of education to revise operating standards for blended schools, liberating them from student-teacher ratios and seat-time requirements.

The bill directs the state board to create other "adequate provisions" for blended-learning schools. In the ideal, the board will resist the temptation to impose input-based provisions and will instead focus on desired outcomes.

Outdated Policies Impede Blended Learning Growth
The majority of states fall somewhere in between. They offer enough regulatory leeway that blended learning is making an entrance, but they have not yet undone a slew of archaic policies that impede the growth of transformational blended models. At the end of our report "The rise of K-12 blended learning: Profiles of emerging models," we list policies that prevailing blended-learning leaders find most inhibitive to their efforts. They include "highly qualified teacher" designations, student-teacher ratios, seat-time requirements, and geographic enrollment restrictions.

Bob Sommers, an adviser to Governor Kasich and a contributor to our report, summed it up when he said, "Any policy about procedure, rather than performance, undermines the creation of a child-centered system."

The worst thing states can do going forward is start to confine blended learning in a tight, prescribed box. Instead, they should look for ways to release blended schools from ill-suited, 20th century statutes that limit the innovation's upside potential.

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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