Distance Learning

Designing a Blended Learning Program

Simply implementing blended learning or following the "best practices" in doing so will not guarantee great results for students. Authors Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker explain how educators can capture the promise of blended learning while avoiding the pitfalls.

Across the world, educators are implementing blended learning — online learning in schools — to personalize learning for students, increase access and equity to a high-quality education regardless of where a student lives, and control costs.

But simply implementing blended learning or following the "best practices" in doing so will not guarantee great results for students, as we wrote about in a monthly column for THE Journal. All too often schools cram computers into their classrooms — to the tune of $100 billion over the last several decades in the United States — with little to show for it in the way of student results.

So how can educators capture the promise of blended learning while avoiding the pitfalls?

In our new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, we offer a design guide for educators to walk through a process to custom create the right blended-learning model for their circumstances.

The first step in that design process is to pick a rallying cry by identifying a problem to solve or a goal to achieve. Some problems relate to serving mainstream students in core subjects, whereas others arise in areas of what we call nonconsumption, where schools cannot offer a particular course or educational experience. Both areas are worthy of innovation. In either case though, the problem or goal must not be about technology — such as trying to solve a "lack of devices" — and lead to a deployment of technology for technology's sake.

With the problem or goal identified, it is important to state it in a smart way — specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related — such that an organization will unambiguously know what success is and if it has been realized.

One of the things we have observed is that all too often schools forget to form the right team to lead the effort. The result is that teachers are stuck either with tasks beyond their reach or with too much bureaucratic oversight. Schools must match the right type of team and the right people to the scope of the problem. Milpitas School District in California, for example, uses lightweight teams to support teachers innovating within their classrooms but brought together heavyweight school-wide design teams to rethink the very structure of some of their schools.

With the rallying cry in place and the right team organized, it is time to design. The starting point is to look at school from the eyes of their students to understand what they are trying to accomplish in their lives and thus what motivates them. When schools get the design right from the students' perspective, such that students feel that school aligns with the things that matter to them, they show up to school eager to learn. This means not only understanding what students are trying to accomplish, but also understanding the experiences they need to get those jobs done, and then assembling the right resources and integrating them together in the right way to deliver those experiences.

We know that teachers are a crucial part of the learning experience. But to gain teachers' buy in, schools must work for teachers as well, which is why designing the teacher experience is the next step. Teachers have personal jobs to do in their lives, and the magic happens when schools offer experiences that are fulfilling for both students and teachers. Ensuring that teachers have opportunities to achieve, receive recognition, exercise responsibility and advance and grow in their careers is critical. To provide teachers these motivators, blended-learning schools are experimenting with extending the reach of great teachers, assigning teachers specialized responsibilities, employing team teaching, awarding micro-credentials for achievement and granting teachers increased authority.

The next step is the one where technology and devices finally enter the equation. The objective is to design the virtual and physical setup to align with the desired student and teacher experiences.

Some of the important questions that schools should ask when selecting content and software are should we build our own? Should we use one or multiple outside providers? Or should we adopt a facilitated-network solution — a platform that integrates modular content from a variety of sources?

Considering devices — what type and how many — to match the software and student and teacher experiences is equally important. Many successful blended-learning schools do not have one device for every student, for example.

Finally, teams should think through the physical environment in which students learn. Will the traditional egg-crate factory-model school design enable students and teachers to be successful? Or is a more modular physical environment that enables increased customization the way to go? More and more schools are embracing the benefits of the latter.

From here it's time to operationalize the vision. That means taking the choices from these different steps and piecing together a coherent instructional model.

After a team finishes designing, its work is still not done. Execution matters.

Schools must create the right culture. Blended learning accelerates a good culture and makes it great, but it will also accelerate a bad culture and make it terrible. Schools should also implement their designs with humility and acknowledge that it is unlikely that they will get the design right on the first try. Taking a discovery-driven approach to help school leaders identify and mitigate risks as they kick off a blended-learning program — and iterate accordingly — will help avoid costly mistakes both for students and a school's limited budget.

Blended learning is not foolproof, but at this point, it is the only strategy to transform our factory-model schools into student-centered designs at scale. For it to work, school leaders must not start with blended learning or technology for its own sake, but instead undertake a careful design process to unlock its potential.

About the Authors

Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions throughout Your Life.

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