Distance Learning

Report: Blended Fits Nicely To Re-Engage Dropouts

Each year about 485,000 people leave high school before they get a diploma. Students drop out for myriad reasons: They struggle in classes, have personal or family obligations, don't see the connection between school and their lives or, quite simply, the school environment has become unsupportive. A new report examines the use of blended learning as a strategy for pulling these students, aged 16 to 24, back into high school for completion or an equivalent credential. As the report explained, the blended model of education combines in-person and online or virtual instruction and supports.

The analysis was written by America's Promise Alliance, a non-profit organization begun as a multi-president initiative in 1997 that runs a program focused on raising national graduation rates. Financial support for the report was provided by Penn Foster, a for-profit company that runs online schools, including an online high school.

"Blended Learning Offers Promise as a Strategy for Re-Engaging Students" examined current research and interviewed program developers, practitioners and policymakers. Researchers found that the two "defining characteristics" of blended learning — some measure of student control "over time, place path [and] pace" and the use of a physical classroom site for "supervised learning and instruction" — can be combined to create learning environments well suited for the academic and non-academic needs of the students being served.

As the report noted, about two-thirds of people who leave high school before they graduate eventually acquire a diploma or GED. Many others "attempt to re-engage." The problems of re-engagement are twofold, according to the America's Promise Alliance. First, demand for programs that reconnect young adults with education and career training is higher than capacity. Second, a one-size-fits-all approach won't necessarily work with these students. They need options, the report noted, "from which to select a program that best suits their lives in the present and goals for the future." That's where blended steps in.

The researchers interviewed some 13 executives and administrators from a sampling of schools and community-based organizations that operate some form of blended learning for former dropouts. While the people interviewed referenced online components available to students anywhere and anytime, they also pointed out that they have an expectation that most of the academic work will be done on-site because their students may lack access to hardware and sufficient Internet bandwidth.

The duration of the eight education programs examined range from three months to four years, reflecting the reality that some students enter with few or no prior credits; others just need a handful of courses to finish diploma requirements. Likewise, some students progress through their learning at a faster pace than others.

The largest program profiled was Job Corps, a congressionally-funded program with 125 centers around the country delivering education to about 60,000 young adults. Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of the participants enter the program without a high school diploma. Roughly six or seven in 10 obtain their diplomas within two years. Job Corps uses a variety of technology offerings, including courses and software from Penn Foster and New Learning Resources, as well as Aztec Learning and Achieve3000. Each education site aims for a student-to-teacher ratio of between 12-to-1 and 15-to-1, with a certified teacher in every classroom covering math or reading or the combination. Students also gain instruction on life- and soft-skills and vocational options.

Polk County Public Schools in Florida was the smallest program profiled with an average enrollment of 250 students. That program uses Penn Foster Dropout Retrieval Solution, a self-paced blended learning program for high school. It runs a student-teacher ratio of 25-to-1, has two certified district teachers for each subject and uses mentors and coaches to support the students. There, the average completion rate is about 80 percent. In the 2014-2015 school year 270 students graduated.

Based on the research and interviews, the report's authors offered five findings related to developing blended learning practices that hold "promise for supporting re-engaged youths":

  • Blended works best when it aligns with the needs of the young people targeted for instruction, specifically addressing different "learning styles, motivations and life schedules";
  • Program components need to align with the "specific challenges" faced by the targeted student populations and the education organizations involved in serving them. Those components frequently wrap around the educational services and may consist of counseling, food, housing assistance, access to healthcare, transportation, career development and other forms of outreach;
  • Teachers and other staff are definitely "essential," with technology bolstering their effectiveness. Online instruction and other tools used to deliver content allow the teachers and others "to prioritize individual student needs and target their efforts"; but staff is vital to the process for helping students by clarifying and reinforcing content, providing instruction to one or more students, helping to facilitate projects and other applied learning opportunities and assisting with college planning;
  • Careful program planning and implementation as well as "fidelity" to the blended model go a long way in ensuring student success. Much that is known about effective blended learning programs tend to be anecdotal, the report observed, and "there is no consistent metric against which to measure program performance." The report cited a number of variations among programs, which makes comparison of true success factors difficult. "To gain traction as a viable educational strategy, increased effort must be made to understand which blended-learning practices — and under what conditions — produce the best outcomes for program participants"; and
  • Education policies at the state and federal levels need revision to better support the use of blended learning. For example, the report stated, "a handful of states fund schools based on average daily attendance (ADA), which becomes incredibly complex within the context of flexible schedules and unconventional attendance expectations." Likewise, some local policies don't address the need for school systems to re-enroll students who are older than the compulsory school attendance age, who make up a large portion of the students who need re-engagement. As a result there's no state or district funding to support their instruction or training.

The report recommended that additional research be done to "better understand blended learning's efficacy" in helping high school graduates transition to post-secondary education, training or work.

The report is freely available for download on the America's Promise Alliance GradNation website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.