Blended Learning Tour: Insights & Takeaways
A group of school operators and funders from across the country gathered in the Bay Area last week to tour several pilots and blended learning schools including Rocketship, Downtown College Prep, Aspire ERES, and KIPP Bridge. We also met with leaders from Junyo and Education Elements. Terry Ryan of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute offered a great set of take aways and learnings:
The blended learning sector is still very much in its infancy, or as Anthony Kim said when we met “you all wouldn’t have flown out here from all over the country to meet with us and a handful of charters if this wasn’t new stuff.”
There are myriad new products coming on-line almost daily. This sector is primed with investment capital. Or, as one person told us, “product development is speeding up. More and more tools for students and teachers alike, including instructional games.”
The ongoing economic crisis facing school districts and charter school operators are boons to blended learning providers. Forward thinking schools and school districts are trying to figure out how to elevate their performance while saving money. Technology offers the best hope for preserving, or even making, gains while maintain or reducing costs.
The Common Core offers the hope of scaling out rapidly and across many jurisdictions new products and blended learning models. Innovators and entrepreneurs are excited about the Common Core because it facilitates focused and scalable efforts across multiple states. School and instructional designs don’t need to be customized to 50 standards and accountability systems. They can now be targeted to one set of standards and an aligned assessment system. This encourages large scale investments and hopefully a race to quality.
The teachers we heard from were self-selected and sought out these innovative schools. They are innovators who want to teach in a blended learning environment. Or as one school leader described her team, “these are eager skeptics” wanting to push the envelope and show what’s possible.
Blended learning changes the nature of teaching. Or as one teacher said, “I wouldn’t say I’m doing less work; I’d say I’m doing better work. It’s about being more efficient and effective. I’ve seen kids grow a lot this year, mostly a result of small grouping, and that makes me want to stay.”
“Teaching is moving towards tutoring here. Increasingly there is almost no direct instruction in this building. Our motto is ‘only teach the kids if there is something you can’t find elsewhere,” is what we heard in one school.
School leaders and teachers worry most about “tech dramas and nightmares.” A dysfunctional IT system can sabotage the efforts quickly. Technology wizards at the building level will increasingly be in high-demand for schools as they grow evermore dependent on their technology and IT systems for delivery of instruction and assessment.
A well-defined school culture is key to schools successfully transitioning to blended learning. School leaders and teachers made it clear to us that their blended learning models work because they have integrated the technology into strong and well-defined school culture. The technology facilitates and encourages more efficiency and effectiveness in instruction and learning, but the culture of the building is the precondition for success or failure.
The kids like the freedom and flexibility of blended learning. Done well, they own their learning. We saw some kids who weren’t engaged in their learning and seemed to be staring at the screen. Most, however, were engaged and even excited about what they were doing. The data shared with us by the students themselves showed some phenomenal growth in math and reading (two or three years of growth in nine months.) When I asked one student why he was doing so much better in his work this year than last he said that his teaching was driving him hard and that he knew he had the tools to succeed.
Management is harder in a blended learning model. This type of innovation is high stakes. It is largely uncharted territory and everyone understands that done poorly this will be a serious waste of time and money. School management has to provide substantial support to teachers and staff during the start-up phase. We heard several teachers and school leaders say that what they were doing by the end of the year was radically different than what they were doing at the start. To implement blending learning models well demands flexibility, constant learning and smart adjustments along the way.
Blended learning can be a teacher-driven reform. Some schools and CMOs are rolling out blended programs by redesigning their whole school model. But other schools, like KIPP Bridge, are following the lead of one entrepreneurial teacher who learn about Khan Academy or another tech program and start a pilot within the school.
I’m struck by how profoundly members of the delegation were affected by the 48 hours of glimpsing the future of what school can be. Has me thinking about setting up more such tours on a regular standing basis. For folks coming from across the country or within the Bay Area, what would make a 1 or 2 day tour incredibly valuable to you?