Blended Learning | News

Circumventing Institutional Barriers to Blended Learning

A new report from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation examines barriers to the implementation of blended learning and solutions districts have found to work around them. Although the report focuses on California public schools, the findings should prove helpful to administrators in other parts of the country as well.

For the report, Knocking Down Barriers: How California Superintendents Are Implementing Blended Learning, researchers from the institute asked a group of California superintendents two questions:

  • "What are the barriers, real or perceived, to implementing blended learning in your district?"
  • "Have you found solutions to or ways around these barriers?"

"Our hypothesis, borne out of the discussion," wrote the report's authors, "was that for each barrier one superintendent identified, another superintendent in the room would have a solution."

Evolving Teacher Roles
Many of the barriers cited by superintendents revolved around the changing roles of teachers in blended environments and state laws and teacher's union contract provisions crafted with traditional classrooms in mind.

At the elementary-school level, most teachers are certified to teach multiple subjects, but prohibited from teaching just one. "This creates a barrier for elementary schools wanting to implement a blended-learning model that shifts the role of the teacher from teaching multiple subjects to teaching just one," according to the report.

To get around the certification barrier, one district with a large portion of English language learners had each teacher include an English language development block along with their specialized subject each day.

Conversely, at the secondary level, most teachers are only credentialed in a specific subject, thus barred from teaching others. "This regulation," according to the report, "creates a barrier for secondary schools wanting to implement a blended-learning model that shifts the role of the teacher from teaching a single subject in a traditional classroom setting to overseeing independent online work across multiple subjects."

One workaround for this situation is to move from smaller, single-teacher classrooms to larger spaces with more students and multiple teachers credentialed in different subject areas.

One possible circumvention of California's immediate supervision rules works similarly.

The state requires that students spend a certain amount of time under the direct supervision of certified teachers in order for a district to receive full funding, but blended models often use unlicensed paraprofessionals to supervise students working independently.

To get around the supervision requirement, one district installed glass walls and larger classrooms so that one certified teacher could maintain lines of site with a greater number of students and paraprofessionals provided extra support.

Technology Management and Infrastructure
Purchasing and managing technology for blended learning programs requires districts to be nimble and capable of iterating quickly, but state policies can make that difficult.

For example, California requires that districts issue a request for proposal (RFP) and accept bids for any purchases, including technology, furniture or other classroom items, of more than $50,000.

To shortcut the time consuming RFP-writing process and avoid making mistakes, the report's authors suggest looking to other districts that have launched similar programs under consideration and use their RFP, then tailor it for specific needs.

One way to defray technology costs for blended programs is to implement a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program. Owing to the California Constitution's guarantee of a free school, however, public school districts in the state cannot require students to make any purchases to access their education.

To get around that, schools can allow students to bring their own devices, and make the policy known. From there, a district can then provide devices to students who do not have them.

A similar measure can be used to meet the state requirement that technology-based materials be accessible at home to be deemed "sufficient instructional materials."

For resources stored locally on devices, the previously mentioned BYOD workaround should be sufficient. If resources require an Internet connection for access, schools may need to provide connections for students who do not already have one.

According to the report, "a few districts reported solving this problem not by issuing a bond measure, but by raising money from foundations or innovation grants. The funds allowed them to both purchase more devices and build more open classroom spaces conducive to blended learning. Many superintendents have noted that the ultimate key is to treat devices as a line item in the operating budget, not as a capital expense."

"The study's findings show that, for determined superintendents, very few regulatory measures constitute ironclad obstacles when moving toward a blended learning environment," according to a news release about the report. "Of course, even with the resourceful workarounds, the road to implementing blended learning requires commitment, innovation and a community dedicated to student-centered learning."

"Rather than forcing superintendents to work around regulations in bizarre ways, we really want to see policies in place that focus on positive outcomes for the students," said Michael Horn, one of the report's authors and co-founder and executive director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, in a prepared statment. "This study provides a stepping stone to prevent education from being stymied by archaic processes that put our students at a disadvantage."

To see the full report, which includes additional obstacles and solutions, as well as tips for implementing blended learning, visit

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].