One of the biggest complaints about blended learning is that educators don’t know if it really has a positive impact on student achievement, and if so, under what circumstances.
But in the last few years, a handful of studies have come out concluding that some programs show at least modest gains using blended learning techniques and tools. In a new Education Week report “Blended Learning: Breaking Down Barriers,” released today, my colleague Sarah Sparks takes a look at the current state of research on blended learning.
Sarah notes that meaningful studies of blended learning are only slowly beginning to accumulate, after years in which educators felt they were operating in the dark in terms of what instructional techniques and software show signs of working.
Efforts to interpret the research on blended learning are complicated by a number of factors. Blended learning programs are often implemented in very different ways, under different conditions; many studies don’t use a standard definition of what blended learning encompasses; and technology evolves so quickly that research can focus on a digital tool or system that is outmoded within a few years.
If studies find no impact or only modest gains for students using blended learning programs, that doesn’t “really compel dramatic reconsideration of our practices,” noted Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the author of the EdTech Researcher blog.
What Works in Education?
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 one of the biggest limitations in the research on “what works in education” is that it focuses on average students.
The whole power of blended learning, by contrast, lies in its ability to personalize education to meet individual students’ needs. “When we rely on research for a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, we don’t actually research what educators and administrators really need to know,” she said. “We don’t need more studies that say, ‘On average we see modest gains.’ That doesn’t help me as a teacher see whether those modest gains could occur for my students.”
Despite all the barriers standing in the way, educators will find a number of studies of individual blended learning program and strategies that can help guide their work. A few highlights from that body of research:
- “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” conducted by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education in 2010. This is the granddaddy of blended learning studies and the one most commonly cited when it comes to such programs. This analysis looks at studies of blended learning from 1996 through 2006 and ultimately finds that students in blended learning classes outperformed those in fully online or fully in-person classes. However, most of the studies examined involve college students or adult professional students, not K-12 learners.
- “Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended and Competency Education,” from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, in 2013. This study provides an overview of the literature on blended learning for the previous few years, looking at definitions of the term, models and strategies, tools for personalization, designs of blended learning systems, and standards for competency education.
- “Blended Learning Report,” from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, conducted by SRI International and released in 2014. The report looks at 13 low-income charter schools using a rotation model of blended learning. Researchers found consistency among how the schools implemented the model. The report examined teacher satisfaction, student productivity, and the use of data to inform instruction.
- “Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, limited results and the need for a new direction for computer-mediated learning,” from the National Education Policy Center, released in 2013. This critical look at various studies declares personalized instruction to yield modest educational improvements at best, and in some cases none at all. It includes strategies for effective personalized learning and says a combination of tech-based and person-to-person instruction shows the greatest potential academic benefits.
- “Does an Algebra Course with Tutoring Software Improve Student Learning?” by the RAND Corp., funded by the U.S. Department of Education and released in 2013. Researchers looked at whether popular algebra blended-learning program Cognitive Tutor Algebra I improved math performance. The two-year study found no significant results in the first year, but in the second year high school students using the program improved their performance by 8 percentile points, which researchers equated to a doubling of the amount of math learning a student achieves during a year of high school.
- “Evaluation of the MIND Research Institute’s Spatial-Temporal Math (ST Math) Program in California,” done by WestEd in 2014. The report looked at the game-based, blended learning math instruction program being used in California elementary schools and concluded that it improved students’ math scores significantly—when fully implemented—on state tests, compared with students not using the program.
- “Supporting Student Success Through Time and Technology,” from the National Center on Time & Learning, released in earlier this year. This guide for educators and districts highlights six schools pairing blended learning and extended learning, meaning a longer school day for students. Case studies highlight the technology used in the schools, the instructional models in place, and the software that’s been effective.
Sarah’s story on blended learning research is just one of many articles in the special report. Other stories focus on creative ways districts are bringing Internet connectivity to students outside of school, and how school spaces are being redesigned to encourage and take advantage of technology. Another story looks at how school librarians in some districts are becoming digital mentors.
There’s a piece profiling an Ohio school district’s creation of a laboratory to study teachers’ experimentation with technology. And Digital Education blogger Ben Herold looks at the debate over whether centralized district purchasing, or school autonomy, works best when it comes to buying blended learning software.
Photo: Adult observers, behind a two-way mirror, watch teachers working with students using technology in the Catalyst laboratory in Mentor, Ohio. The district uses the laboratory to allow teachers to experiment with blended learning strategies, under the observation of peers, with the goal of refining educators’ instructional strategies.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.