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Chapter 4: The Potential of Blended Learning

Most of the blended-learning programs described in the last chapter use some form of rotation model—what Heather Staker, co-author of the Innosight taxonomy, calls “a sustaining innovation” rather than a disruptive one. At least some of the normal classroom structure remains the same. So what about all the other models described by Innosight in the first pages of chapter 1? Do they exist anywhere in robust forms?

Some do. Two of Staker’s children attend Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, a private school that she’d classify as a “flex” model. Students use popular software such as DreamBox for math, Rosetta Stone for language, SpellingCity for spelling, and so forth. Students establish their own learning goals for this flex time with help from their teachers. “The thing I like about blended learning, and that made me want it for my kids, is that it’s so much more efficient if implemented correctly,” Staker says. “It frees up a lot of extra space for the great things schools can be doing”—like small-group discussions and project-based learning. Indeed, Staker moved from Honolulu to Austin mostly to enroll her children in Acton, a school she learned about while writing the Innosight white paper The Rise of K–12 Blended Learning. “It was really hard to be reading about all of these programs—I thought I had arrived upon a truth—and still be sending my own children to a traditional school,” she says.

Most states now have virtual schools. The Florida Virtual School, the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) and others enable the last two of the blended-learning models: the self-blend and the enhanced virtual models. In North Carolina, for instance, a student who does not have access to Mandarin Chinese or Arabic in her home school can enroll in these courses through NCVPS. Some students enroll in these schools full-time; the NCVPS website contains a testimonial from a mother whose child had broken her leg and was unable to attend school for several months. By keeping up with courses online, she graduated on time and with honors. These schools will have a growing role in any education mix, and could potentially be completely transformative, perhaps spawning an even bigger home-schooling revolution, or “one-room internet schoolhouses” where communities create co-ops to supervise small groups of children while the parents work and the kids all learn online.

Many foundations say they’d love to see and fund additional blended- learning schools, and particularly new and more innovative forms of schools. At present they tend to see proposals for more of the same: often three-station classroom rotational models. As grantees would point out, though, this is a circular problem; when educational entrepreneurs see existing models getting funded, they propose more of the same. “You can’t keep asking me for a track record,” says Ben Rayer, a veteran school leader who launched Merit Prep, a blended-learning charter school, in Newark in fall 2012, as part of an organization he intends to expand nationally. “If you want to see innovation and experimentation, you can’t get that from people who are doing what they’re doing today.”

Tom Vander Ark, author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World, says that this educational frontier “would really benefit from more successful models. For somebody who writes about this and talks about this, I sound like a broken record on Carpe Diem and Rocketship.” Vander Ark notes, “I love those guys,” but believes there are many additional possible variations between their respective examples. Educators working in blended schools themselves also think it’s important to push the field’s boundaries in new directions. Diego Arambula, the principal at Summit Rainier, says, “We’ve seen some hesitancy in people on the ground to truly do something wild and creative and different that could potentially be better for kids.” Part of the problem is that ethical educators are always properly worried about experimenting with children. Even if they learn a great deal from an experiment, trying something truly radical risks leaving kids worse off. While a school in crisis might be willing to try anything, what if a school is muddling along in a reasonable fashion? You can’t blame parents for being wary of a 48-to-1, or 75-to-1, pupil-to-teacher ratio, numbers that sound, to conventional ears not attuned to the new possibilities of digital learning, like they’d invite chaos. But timidity and stagnation isn’t inevitable. One approach is to ditch the idea of multi-year, rigid experiments. Diane Tavenner, the Summit schools head, suggests “there is a space where you can balance responsibly experimenting and moving things forward, allowing small failures so you really learn.”

In the software world, beta-testing involves releasing advanced but probably flawed programs to small numbers of early adopters to see what works and what doesn’t. This is a good mindset for education reformers, too. Blended-learning programs can be beta-tested, and if a certain class configuration or software package isn’t working—which you’ll be able to see fairly quickly from the results data—you can change it.

This is already happening today. At Merit Prep in Newark, Rayer started the school year in fall 2012 with a schedule that concentrated most of the teacher collaboration and planning time on Fridays. But he soon realized that this left teachers quite frazzled the rest of the week, with little time to grab a snack or even go to the bathroom. So “we had to change our entire schedule right after Thanksgiving,” he says. An early agreement to work with a partner who would build better data tools didn’t pan out. So teachers are now working on creating their own tools for visualizing how each student is doing. The goal is to come up with one or two metrics each week that can be gleaned from the software and are relevant to student performance. Two to three will survive each month, with the goal of going into the next school year with 10–15 measures that staff can then work to improve upon. “Hopefully we’re not going backwards,” says Rayer, but “we’re trying to flip school on its head,” and consequently, “there’s a lot of experimenting going on.” Educational technology software that can advance blended learning is also being beta-tested. Heather Gilchrist runs Socratic Labs, an ed-tech accelerator in New York City. Her company has close ties with the New York City schools, and with Columbia’s Teachers College, and so “before we build stuff . . . we’re first validating that there’s an actual problem.” Teachers partner with her to be matched up with a tech entrepreneur. They work together to “test a solution with a small group. Then we can scale it.”

Sometimes all this trial and error is frustrating. Diane Tavenner notes that she gets tour groups coming through Summit schools two or three times per week. “They’re expecting to walk into something magical,” she says, “something that’s kind of mind-blowing.” But “there are days when it looks terrible because you’re trying something that doesn’t work.”

Small failures are part of the scientific process. Indeed, many entrepreneurs embrace the idea of failing fast and often. Matt Candler’s 4.0 Schools design lab opened in New Orleans in 2010, and encourages education entrepreneurs to start small and develop solid ideas before even getting to the stage of starting a capital-intensive school or launching a company to sell things to the broader world. He draws parallels to entrepreneurs in the food industry. Rather than having the mindset of opening a restaurant, “food trucks are an interesting concept to apply to education,” he says. A food truck is low-cost and flexible. Likewise, education ideas can be tested in after-school programs, in summer programs, or in pop-up schools serving working parents faced with the problem of what to do with your kids during spring break if you can’t get those days off. “You can learn a lot about blended learning without me asking you for $5 million to launch my blended-learning charter operation,” Candler says.

The other mindset change is to keep repeating “Web 1.0.” As the internet became a major reality in modern life by the late 1990s, people were still unsure how best to use it. Companies created webpages that simply regurgitated the same content from their brochures. There was little of the interactivity and the constant updates that we now know works best online.

Likewise, Blended Learning 1.0 schools are just hinting at what can happen when technology is diligently applied to improve instruction and learning. Ever more innovative models just now being dreamed up may place the fulcrum of technology in a different place and improve performance dramatically. A decade from now, many of these innovations are likely to seem obvious, but they aren’t at present. “We assume learning takes place in a classroom, with one teacher, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day,” says Caprice Young, vice president for education at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. “With blended learning, we need to actively identify preconceived notions that constrain—and knock them down.” One role philanthropy can play is to support educational entrepreneurs as they tinker with fresh techniques, structures, and content. The Next Generation Learning Challenges competition funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation will fund (with grants up to $1 million) 20 new schools with blended models, all committed to students spending at least 25 percent of their time online while pursuing aggressive goals like a year and a half of math or reading progress in a single school year, while being studied by experts keen on repeating what works. “I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity and level of innovation of the applicants,” says Gates’ Scott Benson.

Even before more innovative experiments are launched in the real world, we can examine the potential power of blended learning and understand why it excites creative educators, and encourages them to think it may have power to transform thousands of schools for the better. There are four major theoretical benefits that experts see in blended learning: individualization, improved feedback, teacher effectiveness and satisfaction, and cost control. New-style schools that harness even one of these could reap crisp payoffs. Models that successfully deploy several or all of these advantages could create dramatic improvement over traditional schools.

Lever 1: Individualization

The technology at the heart of blended-learning programs offers unprecedented opportunities for personalized instruction, at one’s own pace and style, in the way that an individual tutor might direct a child. This has all sorts of implications for students—particularly those on the far ends of the performance spectrum. With good computerized lessons, students who are struggling to master concepts can be offered almost unlimited opportunities to repeat and reinterpret new material, all without standing out or feeling embarrassed about sidetracking the rest of the class. Likewise, students who have command of a particular subject are able to move onto something fresh without delay or unnecessary repetition. One problem with the No Child Left Behind ethic, which grades schools by how well they do at pulling up their weakest students, is that schools and teachers ignore kids capable of zooming ahead. High-potential students have performed much less well than other students over the last decade or so, and are particularly underserved in schools where many students struggle to meet grade-level standards. With schools judged mostly on whether kids meet minimum standards, what incentive is there to spend time on a child capable of exceeding the minimum without any assistance? Teachers often feel guilty about wasted potential and bored students. Indeed, that word “guilt” comes up frequently in conversations with educators. But teachers only have so much time.

“All my students are learning at different rates. . . . A huge misconception is that everybody needs to be at exactly the same spot,” notes teacher Wendy Chaves.

Blended learning promises to start solving this problem without grouping the top-performing students in their own schools or classes—a practice that advocates see as best, but that schools often resist for philosophical and logistical reasons. As educators at Summit discovered, making mixed-ability classes work in practice isn’t a walk in the park, but it is theoretically possible. Adaptive software of the sort that Knewton, DreamBox, and other ed-tech start-ups are rolling out should be able to meet a child right where he is.

Just because you’re physically sitting in a fifth-grade math class doesn’t mean you need to be doing fifth-grade math. If you need to work on second-grade skills, that’s fine, and if you can zoom ahead to trigonometry, that’s great too. As you move forward showing mastery, teachers can keep challenging you. Within a regular classroom, differentiating like this is extremely hard, even for the best of teachers.

Adaptive software can do that sort of differentiating automatically. Much as Netflix or Amazon or Pandora are able to learn from each user’s actions to predict what that person will next need or desire, so adaptive educational software can pick up how a given student learns, and what he or she is missing. That allows the instruction to become more effective as time passes. The lessons presented to students begin to differ, and teachers get suggestions on which resources they might try to get through problems with that pupil, based on his particular learning history. There will be multiple paths for students to learn and demonstrate mastery of the same concept. Wendy Chaves, who teaches at ATAMS in Los Angeles, says she was “like two different people”—the Wendy who taught using traditional tools, and the Wendy who intelligently exploited technology. “I was a pretty good teacher,” she says. “Then I came here and realized how much I was doing a disservice to my students. I thought I was good and I realized I wasn’t. I was only reaching 35 percent of my class. That’s not the way I should have been teaching.”

It was a “really harsh realization,” she says. “There definitely needs to be a lot of training with blended learning. I was not prepared for the model whatsoever.” Yet when she started teaching with the benefit of data, she found that her classes were collectively doing much better, “even though all my students are learning at different rates. They’re not all going to be at the same spot. That’s a huge misconception—that everybody needs to be exactly at the same spot.” Blended-learning teachers must make their peace with this heterogeneity—which has always existed, but often been hidden in mass-taught classes. Under blended learning, students only move on when they’ve demonstrated mastery. “They’re learning at their own speed,” notes Chaves. “You kind of have to relinquish control.”

This individualization is the breakthrough that, at Khan Academy, “we’re most interested in—really personalizing the education for the student,” says Shantanu Sinha, the academy’s president and chief operating officer. Much of the original media attention on Sal Khan focused on his videos and the concept of “flipping” the classroom: the idea that students would watch video lectures at home, and then do traditional “homework”—problem sets and assignments—in class. In Sinha’s vision of education, teachers become “great mentors for each student individually. A lot of people misunderstand. It’s not so much about watching videos at home and doing exercises in the classroom. That could be one component of what happens. But it’s more about personalizing education and making classrooms as interactive as possible.” Customizing lessons to each learner, he says, as the increasingly adaptive Khan problem sets make possible, is “the core of why we’re working with schools. It’s the whole thing. We didn’t go in just to use our videos instead of teachers lecturing. There’s nothing truly innovative about that.”

All children deserve to be challenged—to work at a pace that introduces them to the joys of working hard to understand something.

Teachers will need to rethink their approach in order to capture the potential of blended learning. Sinha notes that some teachers first use Khan Academy materials to “augment exactly what a student was going to do anyway.” Students still go through the same concept matter in the same calendar week, just as the teacher has always proceeded. “The teacher is still setting the pace for the student.” When that happens, we’re “seeing improvements, and it’s still helpful—it’s better than the model of worksheets. But it’s not as great as it can be.”

Technology is a great equalizer. The best programs will soon be available to urban, suburban, and rural schools alike.

The real magic happens when teachers decide that “I will let my students run with it,” says Sinha. “I’m not going to hold you back.” Then, students enter the driver’s seat on the pace and form of what they’re learning. Not only is the instruction better tailored to their personal strengths and weaknesses, but because they have more control, student motivation and engagement tends to rise. That philosophy is slowly spreading to many schools that use Khan Academy to supplement their traditional instruction. As Jesse Roe at Summit says, “our hope is to individualize to the point where we really don’t know what grade the student is in.” With Khan math sequences running uninterruptedly from the concept of 1+1 all the way to calculus, there are no obvious stopping points associated with grades. And so, teachers tell of kids doing advanced work at remarkably early ages. Teacher Rekha Pardeshi, on the Khan Academy website, describes her fourth-grade class at Stratford School in California where “all students have completed the arithmetic challenge, 10 have completed the pre-algebra challenge, six have completed the trigonometry challenge, three have completed the algebra challenge” and one even earned the calculus badge.

Very few schools could offer a fourth grader the time and opportunity to experiment with calculus, or would even imagine that she’d be capable of comprehending it. But if the child wants to learn, why shouldn’t she? Technology can provide quality control in a way you don’t really get by sticking an advanced child in the back of the room with a special textbook.

All children deserve to be challenged. All children deserve to work at a pace that introduces them to the joys of working hard to understand something. Perhaps the biggest way schools fail bright children is by letting them think education should be easy. When they finally do encounter challenging work, perhaps at college or in the workforce, they become risk averse and don’t know what to make of it. They don’t know how to toil harder and try different approaches until they finally master something that seemed outside their reach.

Just as emphatically, many education reformers are excited about blended learning for its potential to raise the test scores of kids who have fallen behind their peers, and are really struggling with average-level material. As Sal Khan says, “I think this problem—the one-pace-fits-all lecture or curriculum—is even more damaging for remedial classes. People’s gaps are all over the place. With an advanced class, you’re more confident the foundation material is in place.” Remedial students need to have the holes in their knowledge carefully probed and then backfilled, something computerized instruction excels at, particular when matched with in-person tutoring informed by up-to-the-minute data reports.

And so, paradoxically, blended learning offers opportunities to eliminate one of the oldest tensions in teaching: Should the instructor teach to the lowest common denominator, address the average level, or reach for peak performance? With blended learning there is the potential to serve all students well at the same time.

Finally, technology is a great equalizer. As the educational software market develops, the best programs will be available to urban, suburban, and rural schools alike. Expense is no barrier to having a good blended-learning program; the best ones can actually be substantially cheaper than traditional teaching. And so blended learning can make personalization of the sort that well-to-do families have always been able to access through tutoring available to children from all backgrounds. That’s one reason donors who are passionate about a broad distribution of education resources are particularly excited about what technology can do here.

Lever 2: Improved Feedback

Schools are supposed to help children get better at certain skills or areas of knowledge. But how, exactly, do people improve at things? The old saying is that practice makes perfect, but this can’t be just any kind of practice. Schools that mass-assign worksheets every night often fail to see measurable results from such labors other than unhappy kids and parents. Simple repetition isn’t enough. Author Geoff Colvin notes that “extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.”

Real improvement requires something called “deliberate practice.” This form of intense training has long been used by virtuoso musicians and athletes to improve, but is remarkably absent from how most of us tackle new skills and ideas at school. It involves figuring out exactly what you know, and what you don’t.

Perhaps your left-handed arpeggios are weak, or you choke up on short putts. You practice these skills over and over again with someone or something right there giving you constant and, ideally, instant feedback. Professional athletes, for instance, have coaches on top of them if any attempt was better or worse than the last one. They spend many hours watching recordings of their performances so they can learn from each attempt. Skiers work in wind-tunnels to hone their form and get instant feedback on what boosts speed. A stand-up comedian gets feedback trying out his material in small clubs before doing a major show. “Deliberate practice is hard,” Colvin writes. “It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.”

Needless to say, this kind of deliberate practice is rare in most schools, at least on the academic side. Students do problem sets, but they only see days later if the approach they used was right or wrong. And if it was wrong, they have to wait for time with the teacher to grasp why.

Feedback requires a lot of work from teachers. Picture a middle-school instructor assigning a grammar worksheet to the 96 students who come through her four English classes each day. If she puts a mere two minutes into each worksheet, that’s more than three hours (192 minutes) of work for her. Unless the school has put money in the budget for grading help, she simply can’t assign more than a few such assessments per week. And the students probably won’t all get feedback from her the next day, let alone instantaneously, on where their grammar is right or wrong. Alex Hernandez of the Charter School Growth Fund points out that “a teacher could stay up 24 hours a day grading papers and not give the feedback that kids get in 10 minutes playing a video game.” In a conventional classroom, the feedback loop is sluggish, if not broken. Intensive time in a computer lab, though, has much in common with those video games. In many blended schools, students are getting up to two hours per day of what looks pretty similar to deliberate practice: work that is right at the student’s level, software that points out exactly what the child is getting wrong, and then the opportunity to practice those skills again until she understands and shows mastery. When musicians get two hours per day of deliberate practice, they start improving dramatically. Is it any wonder that children who get two hours per day of deliberate practice at computer stations also improve?

A teacher could stay up 24 hours a day grading papers and not give the feedback on what each child has mastered and where he’s failing that 10 minutes playing a video game provides.

Any academic outcome that involves skills can benefit from practice of this sort. Math is an obvious application, but writing involves grammar skills—and these can be practiced too; a new software program called NoRedInk, launched from the Imagine K–12 business incubator, takes this instant-feedback concept to the matter of subject-verb agreement. Foreign languages benefit from practice in speaking and writing. Basic science skills, which often involve math, or lab procedures, can be practiced in the same way that basketball players can do sprinting and jumping drills.

To be sure, not all of this involves higher-order thinking. But the promise of blended learning is that by having computers take over basic skills practice, doing it quickly and efficiently so students can reap the benefits of a higher volume of practice, teacher time can be preserved for nurturing critical thinking. A teacher who doesn’t have to assign and grade grammar worksheets can spend her time prodding students to think about what makes an appealing essay topic, and why certain opening sentences are more effective than others. She will operate more like a tutor or leadership coach, less like a drill sergeant. This is a very big shift in educational practice, and one with profound possibilities for improving both the quality and the rewards of teaching.

Lever 3: Teacher Effectiveness and Satisfaction

This changing allocation of teacher time gets at the third major benefit of blended learning: a far more satisfying teaching experience, at least for teachers who embrace the idea of using technology to be more productive. The definition of a tool is something that makes it easier to accomplish a given task. In a blended-learning regime, technology makes teaching easier and more efficient. If someone went into the teaching profession to make a difference in children’s lives, which presumably most teachers did, having effective tools can make all the difference in the world.

Think of it this way: 150 years ago, the best doctor in the world could be compassionate and hard working, and spend hours honing his skills, and he would still be radically less effective than an average doctor today. Access to basic diagnostic tools and medicines we now take for granted have dramatically improved outcomes. If our 1860s doctor had expected to regularly help people live long and healthy lives, he would become jaded and burnt out over time, as even his best efforts could produce only marginal improvements.

Much literature exists on the importance of teacher quality. Parents instinctively know that it matters; KIPP co-founder Dave Levin polled audience members at a Philanthropy Roundtable event on blended learning about whether they’d prefer a smaller class with a mediocre teacher or a larger one with an excellent teacher, and the results were overwhelming for the latter. But when judging teachers we should remember the analogy between the best Civil War doctors and today’s average doctors. Updated tools can make a teacher better in a way he or she might not at first even be able to comprehend. When teachers first discover all the data they can get from blended learning, says Peter Watts, the principal of Thurgood Marshall School, they “are afraid of it.” Teachers discover that their pupils have all sorts of gaps in their knowledge. “They believe it says something about who you are as a teacher.”

Watts says he has had teachers fretting with him that “the data say I’m doing horribly.” He found himself assuring his staff: “You may need some professional development, but you’re not a horrible teacher. We’ll provide the training and support you need to be the best teacher possible.” Then it’s the teacher’s responsibility to figure out what instructional strategies work best to help each child fill in the holes in his or her understanding. Teachers who adapt to this growth mindset and see the possibilities of blended learning often love the result. They’re busy people, and appreciate anything that takes mounds of low-value work off their plates. Juan Nuñez, one of Watts’ teachers at Thurgood Marshall, recalls that “when I got my first exposure to these types of resources, a light went on. ‘I don’t need to grade stuff?’”

The technology also allows teachers to see concrete evidence of progress. Wendy Chaves, the math teacher at ATAMS, notes that watching her students getting better at the skills she’s teaching has “been amazing. Being able to track the data has been a great thing, not only for us, but the students can see, and their parents can see, their progress. They’re always improving, every single day.”

The new visibility of information may be starker for parents than any other participant in the education process. They can get regular emails showing exact details of their child’s performance. No more guessing as to whether Johnny is keeping up.

And Chaves notes that “the beauty about it is, we know it’s going to get better” as the technology improves and teachers become more skilled at using it. To be sure, this involves growing pains. One has to teach in some new ways.

On the first day of a pilot blended-learning math program in a fourth-grade classroom at Visitation Catholic school in North Philadelphia, teacher Mary Anne Corcoran is working hard to figure this out. With 16 kids in the class, half are supposed to be working on DreamBox, and half with her. But with only five machines up and running, she has the class in three groups: computer, teacher, and individual work.

The DreamBox kids have headsets; the group doing problem sets in their workbooks does not. Corcoran starts out in usual teacher mode, up at the chalkboard using her teacher voice to instruct her small group. Naturally, the individual-work group finds their teacher far more interesting than their pencils and workbooks, and they start watching her instead. Seeing this, she swiftly abandons the chalkboard, and moves closer to her instructional group, speaking much more softly.

You also have to “change students’ mindset about what learning looks like,” says Summit math teacher Jesse Roe. Students must be taught to take control of their own learning. That is by no means automatic. Skeptics have sometimes walked into new blended-learning classrooms and noted students clicking listlessly through multiple-choice questions. If the skeptic is a reporter wishing to write a negative story on charter schools or new educational technology, such scenes provide plenty of fodder.

Students must be taught to take control of their own learning.

But when teachers flip the motivation switch, the transformation is pretty exhilarating, says Roe. “You’re shifting the flow of information and content away from teachers giving, to students finding. They’re looking it up online, asking friends, asking the teacher.”

Thanks to the oceans of data a good blended-learning program produces, “we know right away if they’re understanding something,” says Roe. If the child isn’t catching on, the teacher has a conversation with her about other strategies for finding the answer, and about persisting until success is achieved. As Roe puts it, the teacher says, “I know this was really difficult for you, but look at what progress we’ve made. The frustration turns more into a natural feeling—this is what it feels like to learn something new.” At Summit, “we felt that kind of mindset was how the best critical thinkers and learners think as adults. We wanted to foster that in our kids.” This struggle toward mastery gives teachers the chance to experience what many went into teaching for: producing “aha!” moments in children, moments that often occur during the tightly focused individual interactions that blended learning allows teachers to have with students. In normal classes, there is little time for individual interaction, as the teacher tries to keep everyone focused on the same material. Keeping a group of children’s attention requires heroic efforts, or at least a magician’s bag of tricks. Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion provides a fascinating taxonomy of the traditional tools experienced teachers pick up for keeping children on task. You cold call on students. You do call and response lessons. You move around the classroom to show you command it, breaking the invisible barrier between the first row of desks and the space in front of the board. But why should running a classroom be limited by the demands of crowd control? Teaching is about pedagogy, not herding cattle.

Meanwhile, parents know that it’s nearly impossible to break a kid away from a screen that has something interesting on it. As John Danner from Rocketship puts it, “If programs are engaging, kids actually seem to have very long attention spans.” Indeed, kids sometimes have long attention spans even when programs aren’t so interesting. Kids love looking at computers. Even classes with 48 children—16 on computers, 16 doing projects together, 16 getting teacher instruction—can be quieter and better managed than attempting to direct the attention of 24 children to the same thing at the same time.

Does that mean that blended learning relies on electronic babysitting? Sure, but if you don’t think schools are already doing this with films and TV and uncoordinated computer use, think again. And in this case, the babysitter is also practicing phonics and multiplication with the kids, instructing while keeping them quiet so the teacher can do her highest-value work of getting quality time with each student in turn. The electronic babysitter augments what the teacher can do—and hence makes the teacher more effective. As Danner told the Christian Science Monitor: “Kindergarten teachers didn’t sign up to be kindergarten teachers because they wanted to teach short ‘a’ and long ‘a’ sounds for 80 hours. They signed up because they like working with children. They like to teach social emotional skills, to stretch their thinking.” It is true that, over time, widespread adoption of blended learning may require fewer teachers, with these teachers being assisted by instructional aides. In a hospital, much of the basic work of checking temperatures and blood pressure is done by nursing assistants. People understand that it makes little sense to send a surgeon around every few hours to do this. Yet teachers with masters degrees are grading spelling tests. Education should experience the same specialization that other sectors of the economy have, with skills properly matched to the task to make the most efficient use of scarce resources.

Increased teacher satisfaction may be the catalyst that truly spreads blended learning in schools.

Ideally, blended learning will allow a smaller number of truly wonderful teachers to preside over more students. Bryan Hassel of Public Impact calls these teachers “3X” teachers for their ability to have three times the impact of low-performing teachers. This isn’t an exaggeration; studies have found that repeated exposure to excellent teachers can help students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds close the achievement gap. The problem is that if you insist on having only 20 or 25 students in a class, there just aren’t enough 3X teachers to go around. Ideally, with blended learning, the field won’t have to rely on so many mediocre teachers, because less-complicated (if sometimes onerous) work will be outsourced to assistants. These teacher-aide positions, freed of the heavy credentialing demands of traditional teaching, will appeal to a different group, drawn in by aspects like the part-time work week, which may appeal to parents of young children.

While a somewhat smaller teacher corps might be problematic for those collecting union dues from teachers, it’s less clear that it would be a problem for schools or teachers themselves. Every year, principals and school systems struggle to replace the teachers who burn out and leave. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reports that one-third of new teachers leave after three years, and almost half are gone within five. Rather than dipping deeper into the barrel of potential hires than a principal might wish, and foisting these teachers onto impressionable children, principals and school systems could maintain their teams at a smaller size, and focus more resources on the high performers who remain. With good tools, these remaining teachers are likely to be more satisfied.

Some smart philanthropy is betting that this increased teacher satisfaction will be the catalyst that truly spreads blended learning in schools. Already, it is teacher interest that has driven the mass adoption of ed-tech programs such as Class Dojo and EdModo. Money spent introducing teachers to blended learning will thus be money well spent. Over time, the teaching corps will be made up of more and more digital natives who can’t imagine teaching without the technology that’s ubiquitous in their personal lives.

Roe, who taught for many years using technology, but not in a blended model, says that “it’s a new thing to learn how to teach this way. But that makes it interesting. For me, the results prove this is the way to go.” In its first year, Summit’s new blended-learning model was certainly “a lot more stressful and a lot more work.” On the other hand, “it was more enjoyable,” says this math teacher. And “we feel it’s better for our kids.”

Lever 4: Cost Control

Most education money comes from state and local governments. Many states and cities find themselves in dire fiscal straits today, and the public mood is turning toward austerity. One of the major attractions of blended learning is the possibility of eventually getting better results without extra spending, and perhaps even getting better results while spending less than states and cities are now.

Cost control is not easy to achieve in education. While many goods have gotten cheaper over time, education has seen very few productivity gains, and over the last generation has mostly become a lot more expensive per unit of output. The basic structure of education—a teacher standing in front of a group of students—hasn’t changed much since the days of Socrates. Meanwhile, many extra expectations have been piled onto schools that require staff, machinery, large physical spaces, and money—everything from busing, to athletic teams, to hot meals, to custodial care for working parents. There is, however, no reason that education needs to cost as much as Americans are now paying. We pay more per pupil than South Korea, Finland, and other high-performing countries that also provide lots of teachers, modern buildings, and ample books and amenities. Decades of studies by scholars like Stanford economist Eric Hanushek have shown that Americans have gotten very little from the gush of money that has been directed into K–12 education over the last generation.

Digital learning doesn’t eliminate the need for high-quality teaching.

With many states and the federal government now in fiscal crisis amid record spending, K–12 spending in the U.S. will have to become more productive. The tantalizing prospect of blended learning is that it could help states and districts do just that. Ethan Gray, director of the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust), a network of city-focused foundations and mayors’ offices that support education reform, says, “I don’t frame it as lower cost. I frame it as a different business model. . . . The easiest way to put it is it makes good teaching less expensive.” Summit schools head Diane Tavenner identifies the obvious starting point. “If a computer can replace a teacher, it should. We need to identify every single place where a computer can legitimately replace a teacher and replace them there.”

“Digital learning doesn’t eliminate the need for high-quality teaching,” notes Rick Ogston of Carpe Diem. “It emphasizes the need for more, because technology can’t do the higher-order instruction.”

Technology does eliminate lower-order teaching, though. As a result, “schools can be a lot more selective,” suggests Bryan Hassel, “so every student has better teachers on average.” And the financial savings “can flow back to teachers in part, so they can earn more. That’ll recruit more good teachers in and keep better teachers longer.” One place the substitution of digital learning for low-grade teaching is already starting to happen is in the higher education market. As with K–12 schools, many state universities are suffering from today’s government fiscal crisis. But since families pay a portion of higher education costs directly, there is added pressure to cut costs. So some universities are rethinking how college courses should be taught.

Virginia Tech, for instance, now teaches freshman math in a giant computer lab called the “Math Emporium.” It is housed in a space that used to be a discount department store. Picture hundreds of students, each sitting at an Apple computer with a red plastic cup next to it.

As described in a Washington Post investigation, students work through the freshman math curriculum online. If they get stuck and require help from a human being, they place the red cup on top of their monitor. Circulating teachers (who are not professors) descend to answer questions and help students stay on track.

In many ways, the computers provide a more sure product than you’d get from a grad student who’s teaching freshman math as part of his stipend. Traditional lectures give students little chance to actually do math. And lecture classes don’t help if a student has a crucial gap in his background knowledge. The result, according to the Post, is that Virginia Tech students now pass math classes at a higher rate than they did previously, at a third less cost.

Virginia Tech’s experience is not unusual. Recently, education think tank Ithaka S+R assigned over 600 undergraduates to two groups: one that took a traditional introductory statistics course that met in person three hours per week, and one that took a blended-learning course that used an online curriculum from Carnegie Mellon supplemented by meetings once per week. Both groups did the same on the final exam. What was different? Students in the blended learning course spent about 25 percent less time on the class, even as they achieved the same results.

Blended learning can lower costs, reducing the fundamental mismatch between the expenses of good education and the resources available in, for instance, inner-city Catholic schools.

Once the start-up costs were accounted for, the Ithaka S+R researchers estimated operating costs of the blended-learning course at about half that of the traditional class—mostly because of lower personnel costs. The downside was that students in the blended-learning version of the statistics class were less satisfied—a downside worth careful consideration in these early years of blended learning when proponents are trying to marshal broad support for the idea. The software didn’t have a whole lot of entertaining features, and the right professor can be fun to listen to. Students also appreciate the human element of education, and having ready access to a teacher. With careful design, though, some of those disadvantages can be eliminated or compensated for. Schools can arrange more face-to-face meetings, and choose software that’s more witty and humane.

And, of course, it’s important to remember that the status quo isn’t perfect either. While the traditional class members in this particular case may have enjoyed themselves, listening to a different professor might have been torture. And even if the students found the blended-learning program less enjoyable, it gave them a lot of extra free hours to have fun in other ways, thanks to that 25 percent time saving. Consuming less time and less money for the same results may justify some trade-offs in a world where the cost of tuition, room, and board at a four-year public college has risen 42 percent after inflation in just the last decade.

Top universities like Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT are developing detailed online courses covering many of the basic subjects college students take. Since class size isn’t limited to the fire-code capacity of a lecture hall, thousands of students can enroll in what are starting to be called “MOOCs”—massive open online courses. One possibility is that other colleges will outsource the basic presentation of material to these online courses, and deploy their own educators to focus on small-group instruction. If some of these educators needn’t be tenured professors, the cost savings could be large. This change would involve separating the teaching and research functions at universities, but in many cases that has already happened, with full professors spending relatively little time on the teaching of undergraduates.

Some K–12 blended schools are also starting to see productivity gains. Rocketship schools, as we saw earlier, have up to now been able to generate 15 percent margins on standard per-pupil allotments—which they then plow into opening new schools, training teachers, and other priorities. Carpe Diem is likewise financially sustainable because of its 75-to-1 pupil-to-teacher ratio. Educators at KIPP Empower Academy in Los Angeles adopted a blended model to make the most of the increased class sizes that California’s student funding cuts necessitated. Purchasing computers and software to start a blended-learning school is expensive. Many foundations have paid for planning grants and for consultants to help schools select software and design their programs. This start-up capital has been extremely helpful for these schools, though it raises concerns about scalability. Philanthropists won’t be able to give start-up funds to all schools serving 50 million American children.

The good news is that planning becomes less complicated with each passing year. One of the projects of the Learning Accelerator, the philanthropy-seeded organization that aims to ease the set-up of blended-learning operations in school districts, will be to create a partially standardized package for launching a blended-learning school. “We’ll have arrived at some basic standards, some basic protocols on what a good implementation looks like,” says investor Joe Wolf, who is one of the project’s backers. That way, consulting work can be “a $30,000 project rather than a $300,000 project.” On the hardware front, some schools might have a “BYOD” policy: bring your own device. College students bring laptops to class; in some places K–12 students are also expected to acquire a computer, sometimes with help from revolving loan funds or group-discount options. Philanthropists could make more targeted investments for families who can’t afford technology, versus the majority who (given the market penetration of smartphones and laptops) clearly can.

Another bit of good news on costs is that even students who live close to the poverty line have more access to technology than people assume. When Harsh Patel decided to experiment with Khan Academy in his Chicago classroom, he rounded up as many computers as possible from donations and arranged ways for kids to use the computers after hours. But he soon learned that about 80 percent of his students had access to the internet in some form at home. Meanwhile, tablet and laptop prices are falling rapidly; at $200, purchasing a new machine for each student can be cost-competitive with the usual budget for textbooks and photocopying.

There are still reasons why blended-learning schools might not see immediate productivity gains. Software costs money, as does teacher time as educators figure out new ways of working. If schools need to employ a technology specialist, this eats up some of the savings gained by bigger class sizes. And if you don’t adopt bigger class sizes, you won’t see any cost savings at all.

There is, however, good reason to expect that blended learning could eventually help schools function well even on reduced per-pupil allocations. If they can produce good results on less than existing funding allotments, they’ll be able to use leftover funds for the extras that attract parents and students: art, music, field trips, even nicer school buildings to match all their brand-new technology.

Can Blended Learning Rescue Catholic Schools?

One important branch of American schooling that is extremely interested in the question of financial sustainability is religious schools—particularly Catholic ones. In the U.S. today, there are more than two million students enrolled in Catholic schools, including many living in inner-city neighborhoods whose options, and life course, would be extremely bleak if their Catholic schools were to close. Yet Catholic schools are closing, at alarming rates, for simple economic reasons. Back in the 1960s there were more than five million American children in Catholic schools. Few organizations can survive a 50 percent loss of market share.

There are many reasons for that decline, including the disappearance of nuns who provided low-cost teaching, and the seismic residential and demographic shifts that reshaped city neighborhoods over the last generation. The net result is that many students enrolled in Catholic schools—particularly urban Catholic schools—are poor children who can’t pay full tuition. And the urban Catholic parishes that subsidize these schools are having difficulty keeping up with costs.

Between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 Catholic schools closed down or consolidated, resulting in a contraction of 24 percent of all available spots. These numbers matter even for Americans who don’t use Catholic schools, because those children don’t disappear when a school closes. They tend to come into the local public school system, where taxpayers pay for their education. If a school system spends $10,000 per child, then 100 students who transfer out of a closing Catholic school cost the state and local taxpayers a million dollars. And the subsequent trajectory of many of those students may be less positive even with this large spending. Many Catholic schools produce stellar academic outcomes, and some more modest ones, but all tend to be safe places with good discipline and character training, who send higher percentages of their students to college than comparable public schools, and whose students and families tend to be much happier.

A few innovative models have helped Catholic schools with their financial dilemma. The Cristo Rey network began in Chicago and now operates dozens of Catholic schools across the country, with as many more in development (with strong philanthropic support from the likes of the Walton Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation). It employs a very distinctive curriculum that includes placing all students in clerical jobs with local companies. Students work one or two days per week, and companies pay temp wages, which subsidize tuition. As a bonus, children learn about the working world, and what careers await them should they graduate and go to college.

Helpful as that strategy has proven to be, it does not moderate the costs of Catholic education; it merely shifts them to businesses. Blended learning, on the other hand, has the potential to actually lower costs, reducing the fundamental mismatch between the expenses of good Catholic education and the resources that inner-city families and local parishes have available to meet those expenses.

Starting a blended-learning Catholic school is expensive, says Richard Riordan, whose foundation has made technology grants to Catholic schools. “But once they get going, probably in the second or third year, it will save about 30 percent of the costs of operating a school. So that’s a good reason for anybody to use it, not just Catholic schools.”

Done right, blended-learning programs could also improve academic rigor, even on limited resources. That double win could have crucial effects in making Catholic education, or any religious education, sustainable for a new generation. “If you have a better way of educating kids today, why wouldn’t believers want to do it too?” asks Scott Hamilton, co-founder and managing partner of Seton Education Partners, a nonprofit devoted to improving Catholic education.

Consequently, a few Catholic schools are leading the way in testing new models—in part because their financial situation is even more dire than the public schools, and in part because they are not beholden to districts, and so can be nimble and experiment. Seton Education Partners’ Phaedrus Initiative brings blended models to Catholic schools. The first pilot school, Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco, was quite an undertaking. Not only was there no wireless in the building at first, but of the $500,000 Seton invested, a full $12,000 first had to be used to build a working phone system.

Some software worked well for children below grade level, but did a lousy job for those at par, or vice versa. Then there was human variability. “At Mission Dolores we had some grades that did really well academically, and made huge gains in those first few months, and other grades didn’t have good gains at all. That requires some analysis,” says Hamilton—and some nudging of one teacher to go visit another’s classroom and see exactly what she was doing differently.

Over time, though, Mission Dolores was able to lower operating costs while simultaneously boosting achievement. After seeing those results, the Phaedrus Initiative funded a second pilot at St. Therese in Seattle, a K–8 school that opened as a blended-learning institution in fall 2012. In doing so, St. Therese increased its enrollment by more than 50 children while the fixed costs stayed the same, “so economically, it’s a win,” says Hamilton. “There’s so much potential here if we do it right.” Seton Education Partners and the Phaedrus Initiative will open five more blended Catholic schools in 2013–2014.

Across the country in North Philadelphia, Visitation School has recently instituted, in addition to its fourth-grade blended pilot described earlier, a blended program for children of all ages who need extra assistance in math. On the first floor of a stately building constructed in the 19th century, Sr. Margaret Duffy shuffles groups of children through her resource room. While she works intensely with two fifth-grade girls on rounding, a young boy adds two- and three-digit numbers on DreamBox.

The children enrolled in these special math intervention classes are “extremely different” in their abilities, notes Sr. Jane Field, the assistant principal. Getting good data on what they know allows you to “get into the brain of the kid,” she says. And with the DreamBox software offering the kids practice time and instruction, “this gives Margaret the chance to deal with what they really need”—in a world where there simply aren’t resources to hire additional Sr. Margarets.

What Catholic schools are discovering about blended learning is that it’s perfectly compatible with any specialty or academic focus a school might have. It’s completely ecumenical, which is why other religious schools competing for students with the free public schools may also give it a look. The Avi Chai Foundation, for instance, has funded blended learning in Jewish day schools. A Cristo Rey school, built on the idea of real-world professional experience, could still offer blended learning during academic time.

For that matter, a school with an arts hook, or a health-careers specialty, could also be blended. Blended learning is simply another way of delivering academic content in a more focused and effective fashion. While the Andovers and Exeters of the world might not need to control costs, the promise of efficiency gains is appealing for any private school that needs to serve average-income families. That could be a private school serving middle-class families who feel their children are lost in the shuffle at the local public school, or it could be private schools operating in the developing world. So in a great many places where cost-control is important, blended learning could be a blessing.

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