School & District Management

New Report Seeks to Clarify ‘Blended Learning’ Confusion

By Katie Ash — May 17, 2011 4 min read
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What exactly does “blended learning” mean?

Experts often concede that the term—which describes a mix of face-to-face and online learning—is defined numerous ways by different organizations and people.

A new report published by the Mountain View, Calif.-based Innosight Institute seeks to clear up the confusion and provide a working definition of blended learning, along with a framework for mapping and defining blended-learning models.

The report also profiles 40 different blended-learning organizations that are currently supporting 48 different models of blended-learning environments, and it describes six different models that such programs fit into.

Policy recommendations at the end of the report say that all programs, including online-only and blended models, should receive equivalent funding provided that students are successful, and that if a program yields cost savings, those should be reinvested in education savings accounts for students.

The report also draws on the policy guidelines from the Digital Learning Now! framework spearheaded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, which recommend, for example, eliminating caps on enrollments for online or blended-learning environments, lifting rules that dictate class-size and pupil-teacher ratios, and moving away from models based on “seat time” in favor of ones based on competency.

“This report really added a lot because people have struggled with what exactly blended learning means,” said Matthew Wicks, the vice president of strategy and organization development for the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. “Having those six specific models and types of blended learning are really helpful along with the definition.”

Blended learning, according to the report, is a model in which a student learns, at least in part, at a supervised physical location away from home and through online delivery where the student has control over the time, place, path, and/or the pace of the curriculum.

The report was written by Heather C. Staker, a senior research fellow for Education Practice at the Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank that aims to apply theories of “disruptive innovation” to various social challenges in the United States. The report received support from the Charter School Growth Fund, based in Broomfield, Colo., which invests in high-performing charter school operators to support their expansion in serving K-12 students.

The 40 profiles, which are based on data from the 2010-11 school year, survey blended-learning models in 21 states, but should not be read as a comprehensive list nor as an endorsement of the chosen programs, the report says.

The concept of disruptive innovation was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen and suggests that innovative shifts occur when simple, more affordable, and more convenient alternatives crop up in a sector with expensive, complicated, and inaccessible products and services.

This theory, argues the Innosight Institute, applies to online learning in K-12 education.

Prescriptions Questioned

Some education observers took issue with the report’s prescriptions.

“If the policy recommendations in [the report] were taken seriously, ... half a dozen large private companies like K12 Inc. would have a clear path toward hundreds of millions of dollars of public education funding,” said Gene V. Glass, a senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center, the University of Colorado at Boulder’s policy-research organization. “The ‘blend’ we see lobbied for here is a blend of public monies and private profit-seeking.”

If the policy recommendations in [the report] were taken seriously, ... half a dozen large private companies like K12 Inc. would have a clear path toward hundreds of millions of dollars of public education funding.”

Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a New York City-based nonprofit group aiming to gather information about class size in schools, echoed Mr. Glass’ concerns.

The push toward blended learning is motivated by two factors, said Ms. Haimson: “There’s a huge industry out there that’s dying to make money, and there’s the idea that in the long run this will save money on teachers”—a claim that so far does not have research to substantiate it, she said.

“There should be small-scale, careful pilots before foisting this on the school systems throughout the country,” said Ms. Haimson. “Otherwise, this is a very costly, large-scale experiment on our children.”

Online-learning experts, however, praised the report’s findings and information.

“The report provides an important overview of the emerging field of how online and blended learning are beginning to provide personalized learning experiences in a range of 40 different settings,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of iNACOL.

The profiles in the report include a chart of information that details how each organization is managed (through a charter or through the state education department, for example), where it is based, what grades it serves, how much it costs, what content providers it uses, and its enrollment, among other factors.

Next, the report goes into detail about the history and context of each organization, how exactly the program fits into the “blended” learning model, the results it has achieved so far, and where the program is likely to go in the future.

Propelled by budget concerns and the prospect of teacher shortages, blended learning has the potential to transform K-12 education, the report argues.

“Online learning has the potential to be a disruptive force that will transform the factory-like, monolithic structure that has dominated America’s schools into a new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive,” it says.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Report Seeks to Clarify ‘Blended Learning’ Confusion

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