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Published in Print: February 4, 2015, as Schools Test Impact of Blended Learning, Extended School Days

Schools Test Impact of Blending Technology, Longer School Days

Combining the two practices seen as key

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Students at Grant Beacon Middle School in Denver spend much of the school day in a blended learning scenario, using Chromebooks to access digital curricula and working face to face with their teachers. Students also have a longer school day—an extra hour that allows for more enrichment and electives.

A new guide for educators says the pairing of blended learning and an expanded school day—much like what is happening at Grant Beacon—hits the educational sweet spot, providing opportunities for better teacher collaboration, personalization of education, and student engagement.

The guide, "Supporting Student Success Through Time and Technology"—released last month by the National Center on Time & Learning, a research and advocacy organization based in Boston—aims to give policymakers ideas for how to combine extra learning time and better use of digital tools in smart, effective ways.

"We want schools to read this and realize this is something that is manageable, and to see how to avoid some of the pitfalls," said Roy Chan, the director of effective practices for the center and the author of the guide. "We also want schools to see that to do this well, it's not about how much technology you have or how big your technology budget is."

Pairing More Instructional Time With Blended Study


Benefits for Students

  • Providing more opportunities for personalized learning
  • Raising student engagement with high-quality core academic classes and enrichment
  • Increasing preparation for college and careers

Benefits for Teachers

  • Improving the quality of instruction with more time and tools to plan and deliver lessons
  • Expanding opportunities for differentiation
  • Boosting teacher efficacy and satisfaction

It's not always politically or financially easy, though, to extend school days. And despite the growing popularity of blended learning, studies have not definitively concluded that this method of combining online and face-to-face learning has a significant impact on student success.

Even so, Principal Alexander Magaña said the combined strategies of blended learning and extra time in class have resulted in improved student achievement at Grant Beacon.

"Everyone is always looking for the silver bullet," he said. "This ended up working for us."

Assessing Impact

The NCTL report highlights six schools—three charter schools and three regular public schools—that pair blended learning and extended learning, which was defined as 300 extra hours a year of school time. The case studies describe the technology used in the schools, the instructional models in place, and the software that's been effective.

Mr. Chan acknowledged that adding time to a school day—particularly in a regular public school—can be complicated "and a hard sell." A report also released last month, by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, found that despite encouragement from the federal government to extend learning time, the policy was expensive, it caused fatigue for some students, and it was unclear whether the strategy had a positive impact on student outcomes.

Mr. Magaña said his longer school day came about as part of a pilot project that the 87,400-student Denver school district was trying out at a few schools. Some districts, such as the Boston and Chicago systems, have also implemented longer school days.

But a review by The Boston Globe earlier this year found that a pilot project to extend school hours in 38 of the Boston district's 128 schools yielded mixed results. Still, the 57,000-student school system is moving forward to increase the number of schools extending learning time to more than 50, at a cost of more than $12 million over the next three years.

Discipline Referrals Down

Educators at the 610-student Morton Middle School in Fall River, Mass., are in their second year of an initiative that combines extended time and blended learning. The school day is 90 minutes longer than the traditional day, with students in school from 7:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., and teachers are paid a stipend for their extra time, said Elizabeth Lewis, the instructional-technology facilitator at the school.

The school uses a "station rotation" model, in which students work in small groups—with a teacher, independently, and using technology—and then rotate to the next type of group. Morton has a moderate amount of technology—eight laptops per class, plus a school computer lab, Ms. Lewis said.

Since the initiative was launched, discipline referrals have gone down and more students are meeting district benchmarks, Ms. Lewis said. She said hard data, though, still do not show the techniques are having a significant impact on student learning.

Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the author of the EdTech Researcher blog on edweek.org, said he's glad to see "pockets of people experimenting with these ideas."

There's little evidence that either strategy is effective, Mr. Reich said, though there appears to be more indication that extended learning time may hold promise. Often, blended learning and extended learning time are implemented along with other measures, and it's difficult to tease out what may have had the most impact, he said.

Julia F. Freeland, a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a San Mateo, Calif.-based think tank that studies blended learning, said the NCTL report does a good job highlighting schools that are actually doing the work of combining blended learning and extra time in school.

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But she hopes the guide's emphasis on extending instructional time for all students doesn't get in the way of personalized learning approaches. She sees a future in which schools will offer extended learning time to all students as a choice rather than a requirement, but only the ones who need it the most will be likely to use it.

"We think schools are going to look a lot more like learning centers," Ms. Freeland said. "Some students won't need as high-touch of an experience as others, but the goal would be to have that center or school staffed for longer so students who need it are provided with that access. I don't want that potential vision to get lost."

Vol. 34, Issue 20, Page 7

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