Special Report

Harvard Business School Examines K-12 Blended Learning

By Michelle R. Davis — June 06, 2016 4 min read
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In the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia, the affluent Downingtown, Pa., school system has high test scores, plenty of digital resources, and features one of the best high schools in the country.

Even so, Superintendent Lawrence J. Mussoline decided to shake things up. The 13,000-student district already offered students online courses from a vendor, but Mussoline wanted a blended-learning program taught entirely by Downingtown teachers with Downingtown-created courses.

He hired a coordinator of blended and cyber learning to oversee the new Ivy Academy. She spent a year training teachers on blended instruction for classes that only meet face to face half the time, while students work independently the other half, but cover the same ground as traditional courses. Ivy Academy is now finishing its second academic year.

Lawrence J. Mussoline Superintendent of the Downingtown Area School System since 2009, he created the renowned STEM Academy magnet high school in 2011.

The model captured the interest of John Jong-Hyun Kim, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. Kim used Ivy Academy as a case study in his Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovations in Education class at Harvard, in part because of the district’s efforts to measure effectiveness and initiate a change in district culture. Education Week spoke to both of them.

Why disrupt things in Downingtown when 95 percent of students already go to college?

Mussoline: If we’re investing a lot of money in 1-to-1 technology, we better be using the technology in productive ways. We’re trying to get to the golden egg, which is individualized instruction.

Some teachers haven’t been enthusiastic about the blended-learning courses. How have you handled that?

Mussoline: Where there’s a lot of the pushback is from teachers who say it’s not for every student. I still have a math department that has not bought into this. We have teachers who will tell students, “You won’t learn it unless I’m in front of you every day.” It’s going to take a while to break that. But we’re breaking it.

Do blended courses work for all students?

Mussoline: We have common midterms, common finals, and we’re comparing those in blended classes and traditional classes. We’re seeing gains in the blended classes. Not everywhere, but even when there aren’t gains, they’re about the same. This year, from the midterm data collected, it’s more like two-thirds in the blended classes are doing better and a third are doing equal or not as well as traditional classes.

What’s the feedback from the students?

Mussoline: The first year we had about 300 students taking blended courses, this year we have about 750, and next year we’ll have over 1,100 students taking these courses in just about every subject area. The students are telling us the teachers are more productive—they’re more on point, they’re not wasting any time.

Where will you take this in the future?

Mussoline: We started in high school; now, we want to move the blended program to the middle level. Then we want to take it to full cyber at the high school. My vision is to have Mrs. Smith teach a traditional class Period 1, Period 3 she teaches a blended class, and Period 4 is a full cyber class.

What was interesting about this program to you?

Kim: I was seeking an example of a district that had implemented a new approach coupled with real results. There are a lot of districts investing in technology, but many fewer districts are actually looking at results and trying to learn from that.

John Jong-Hyun Kim A senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, Kim heard about Ivy Academy through Downingtown’s work with the District Management Council, a Boston-based education firm where Kim is executive director.

What was significant about the approach in Downingtown for your business school students?

Kim: We often think about change in districts that are very urban, or where there’s a performance gap. When you think about incorporating technology in a place like Downingtown, some of the resistance you’ll get is from people who are actually very good in the current system.

What measurements would signal success for Ivy Academy?

Kim: The true test will be whether this prepares students better for the way college is set up, which is one of the motivations behind it. We have traditional high schools with a pretty strict period-and-days rotation, and then you go into the world of college, and it’s very different. I hope to follow these students and see how well they do over time.

What are your business school students going to do with the knowledge they get from your class?

Kim: Of my class, about a third will go directly into some education-related enterprise, whether it’s a charter school, an ed-tech startup, or a traditional school district. They care deeply about improving public education and education overall, but they’re looking for entrepreneurial opportunities to do so. Another third will end up doing it at some point in their careers, but it might be later. The third group will probably never work directly in the sector but may end up sitting on boards or volunteering their time or donating money. I want to make sure they know how to support the organization that has the greatest impact.

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Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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