Blended Learning: We Need Better Evidence About What Works

This post is the first in a seven-post series exploring the practices of leading blended learning practitioners across the country. (The 2012 Innosight Institute report Classifying K-12 Blended Learning defines blended learning as a "formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.")

The blog series comes in conjunction with the release of five detailed case studies on blended learning operators written by FSG with support from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. This particular post frames the potential of blended learning to improve education, and highlights the need for stronger evidence of what does and does not work in this emerging, exciting field.

by Cheryl Niehaus, Program Officer, U.S. Education, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

As a former teacher, I was inspired from the moment I understood blended learning’s potential benefit: Executed well, it could effectively support teachers in individualizing instruction for all students. And so I have watched over the last few years, as blended learning has generated undeniable excitement among multiple players in the K-12 space:

Entrepreneurial educators at schools like Rocketship EducationNew Classrooms and Carpe Diem are re-imagining traditional classrooms and/or schools. Funders like Charter School Growth Fund and Wave III of the Next Generation Learning Challenge (supported by the Gates Foundation) are willing to take the risk of supporting the development of additional early stage models. And philanthropic and private capital dollars (e.g. New Schools Venture Fund and Imagine K-12) are lining up behind new entrants into the broader educational technology market. But even with all this progress, much work remains before we truly understand how blended learning can be used to reliably improve children’s educational outcomes on a larger scale:

  • We need to create more varieties of blended models, improve digital content and integrate analytics capabilities in order to further push the boundaries of personalization.

  • We need to create space for innovation so that promising practices can be tested and scaled within both school districts and charter schools.

  • At the same time, we need more evidence about what works to open the classroom bottleneck and free teachers from the real constraints (e.g. time, materials) that make it difficult to effectively use data on a daily basis to address student needs.

Addressing the need for evidence

During the 2011-2012 school year, the foundation decided to fund a cohort of five organizations operating one or more blended learning schools. At that time, we also decided to take the opportunity to address this last point: The need for more and better evidence of what does and doesn’t work to help teachers and students. To that end, we asked SRI International to conduct a one-year, quasi-experimental evaluation of these schools’ impact on students' learning and commissioned FSG to write a series of case studies about each of their models.

Click to read the rest of this post on Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s website.

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