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TECH Update: Blended Learning

The latest developments in hot areas of school technology.
By Calvin Hennick

During the 2011–12 school year, Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans tried a blended learning model for the first time. The Ashe students, compared with students at three other schools in the charter network, gained an extra four percent in math scores. In English language arts, no substantive impact was measured.

Does that four percent gain in math mean the initiative was a success, given that teachers were implementing a new program? Or is it much too small a return for a school to expect after investing in new technology and training?

Your answer to that question likely determines how you view the latest research on blended learning. (Blended learning is a model in which students learn at least in part through online delivery of instruction, with some level of control over pacing, in addition to receiving traditional, in-person instruction.)

“When you’re looking at something as new as blended learning, there is no established, agreed-upon, single metric for success,” says Cheryl Niehaus, program officer for U.S. Education at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “It’s a very early-stage innovation, and there are different expectations about how quickly any intervention should start to demonstrate results.”

The Dell Foundation funded a May 2014 study that analyzed the impact of blended learning on students at Ashe and several other schools. As at Ashe, the results at most of the other schools showed a slight increase in gains compared with students at peer schools. The findings may be modest, but they’re strong enough that the foundation has continued to make investments in blended learning.

The approach remains exciting, Niehaus says, because of its potential to differentiate and individualize instruction. “The promise of blended and other personalized learning models is to pinpoint where each student is and identify a learning experience that is directly responsive to their needs,” she explains.

Another study, from December 2014, examined results in schools that implemented the Teach to One: Math blended learning model. That study showed gains in math skills that were 15 percent higher than the national average in year one, and 47 percent above national norms in year two.

These results are “promising,” says Douglas Ready, associate professor of education and public policy at Columbia University and the author of the Teach to One study. But he acknowledges that it’s impossible to say whether the gains should be attributed to the new technology, the emphasis on differentiated instruction, or some other variable. A future study, Ready says, will help uncover “what’s inside the black box.”

Justin Reich, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, points out that these studies, like many others on blended learning, are quasi-experimental, meaning they don’t include a true randomized control group. The schools implementing blended learning are often extremely motivated to improve their performance, he says, which can skew the results. “In many cases, just about any intervention works a little bit if you have a group of people who are trying to get better at something,” he notes.

Reich says true experimental findings on blended learning can “charitably” be described as “mixed,” but he acknowledges that the idea of using technology to increase differentiation is compelling, and he thinks the model merits continued study.

The hope among blended learning advocates is that developers will use what they’ve learned from the existing research to improve programs—and that even better results will follow. “This is early days,” says Niehaus. “What is most important is leaders are looking at qualitative and quantitative data to understand what we know and what we need to focus on to keep getting better.”

Illustration: Viktor Koen

Comments

I'm glad to see the results of a research outlining the number of students per teacher ratio impact on some of the "hard to learn" subjects, like math. For some of the subjects where the student (no students) feel it is hard to learn, the ratio student/teacher should be significantly smaller than the average from most STates. I am glad the blended or on-line classes are addressing this misconceptions; who knows what other "miscalculations" exist out there in the classrooms full of struggling students!

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