While the rise of blended learning has long been on the radar of leaders in virtual education, last week’s Virtual School Symposium may have been its unofficial coming-out party.
From beginning to end, blended learning—briefly defined as any of a variety of approaches that combine features of both face-to-face and online instruction—took headline status in keynote speeches, panel discussions, and report releases throughout the three-day conference hosted here by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL.
For example, the “Keeping Pace” report from the Evergreen Education Group, a document released every year at the symposium by the Durango, Colo.-based online learning research and consulting firm, for the first time included blended learning in its subtitle as a nod to the continual blurring occurring between fully online and blended programs.
It also found that, while hard to quantify, blended learning programs are growing much more rapidly than fully online programs, and that many traditional providers of online learning are trying to explore ways to open blended learning schools, convinced there may be more room still for growth in the latter sector.
“If online learning is in puberty, then there’s just so many different flavors of blended learning that I see it a couple years [younger than online learning],” said Andy Frost, the vice president of product management for Plato Learning Inc., an online and blended learning provider based in Bloomington, Minn., during a discussion of the “Keeping Pace” findings.
Perhaps sensitive to the emerging nature of blended learning, the Vienna, Va.-based iNACOL not only included more sessions and speeches about blended learning in the event program, but also gave those sessions top billing.
The conference began with keynote remarks from Stacey Childress, who as deputy director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has helped oversee the awarding of grants for blended learning programs—part of the third wave of the foundation’s $30 million-to-date Next Generation Learning Challenges competitive-grant program. (Education Week receives support from the Gates Foundation for coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation.)
It ended with a conversation moderated by Michael B. Horn, the education executive director for the Innosight Institute, a think tank in San Mateo, Calif., who is widely regarded as a leader on the theories of blended learning.
The overwhelming focus on blended learning at the Oct. 21-24 symposium was so evident, said Mr. Horn, that he jokingly suggested changing the name of the event all together.
In a presentation on the Innosight Institute’s work categorizing models of blended learning, Mr. Horn suggested that the biggest benefit of blended learning models may be that they often don’t require substantial changes to the structure of schooling.
For example, in a self-blend model—in which students select online courses to supplement classroom work—the ability to select an online course during an open class period requires little or no schedule reorganization for a high school student or a guidance counselor. Likewise, models in which students rotate from a face-to-face learning station to an online learning station—called a rotation model—are a very small step for many elementary educators.
The 2012 “Keeping Pace” report determined, based on programs, policies, and funding, the level of availability of online learning options for high school, middle school, and elementary school students in each state. Here is a breakdown of how many states offer supplemental online opportunities.
All students: 2
Most students but not all: 17
Some students but not most: 29
No students: 2
SOURCE: Evergreen Education Group
“Station rotation has been alive and well in those classrooms forever,” Mr. Horn said. “It’s just that one of the rotations was not online learning.”
That easier transition is also reflected in a report released by iNACOL at the symposium that aims to give lawmakers and advocates guidance on how to create accurate measures of online learning programs’ performance.
The report highlights six areas that educators and policymakers need to consider carefully when creating such measures for full-time virtual education, but it includes only two of those—defining proficiency and creating measurements for individual student growth—in its recommendations for measuring the outcomes of online courses that are woven into a self-blend model.
The expectation, said iNACOL President Susan D. Patrick, is that the same thinking can also flow from metrics for fully online study to other blended learning models, and eventually into the brick-and-mortar world.
“We do expect this to broaden, and toadd blended education and even traditional models of education,” Ms. Patrick said. “Because, if they are the right metrics for learning, they are the right metrics for all kinds of learning.”
John Watson, the founder of the Evergreen Education Group, praised the work of iNACOL in trying to reshape the discussion around how to gauge which online and blended programs are successful. But he cautioned that just because full-time virtual education appears to be nearing a ceiling and blended learning appears to be exploding, it doesn’t mean all students have those opportunities.
In particular, the 2012 edition of “Keeping Pace” found that a majority of states still don’t provide access to online courses as a supplement to traditional courses for a majority of their public school students, and that Florida stands alone as the only state to allow, in theory, access to online supplemental courses to all its public school students in grades K-5.
“I worry sometimes that with all the media attention received by online and blended learning, that people are thinking, ‘This is ubiquitous, this is happening all over,’ ” Mr. Watson said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012 edition of Education Week as E-School Conference Highlights Blended Ed.