Special Report

Bringing Blended Models Home No Easy Task

By Amanda M. Fairbanks — January 27, 2014 9 min read
VOISE Academy Principal Todd Yarch and teachers in the Chicago school have taken a flexible approach in trying to create greater opportunities for students who lack Web access at home.
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When leaders of VOISE Academy High School couldn’t find a reliable way to bring technology to students in their homes, they came up with a workaround—they brought students to the technology.

Many students at the high school, located in a poor neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, lack reliable Internet in their residences, and sending devices home with them was not a realistic option. So officials at the school opened the facility to students on Saturdays, giving them access to a safe, Web-connected hub where they could work on lessons that required technology.

Blended learning is generally defined as the effort to integrate technology-based lessons alongside traditional, person-to-person instruction. But some schools and districts face daunting obstacles in trying to ensure that blended learning takes place at home, not just in the classroom. Those barriers include concerns that the devices will be lost or stolen, and worries that impoverished students do not have access to the Web at home, creating inequities.

The Chicago school’s strategy is just one example of the creative and unconventional efforts being tried around the country meant to extend the amount of time that students can spend on blended learning.

Giving individual devices to students has been “a huge safety concern,” explained Todd Yarch, VOISE Academy’s principal. So is unreliable Web access: “If they take the laptop home and there’s no Internet, what good is it?”

Today, districts’ efforts to bring blended learning home include not only giving students access to Internet-connected schools after hours, but also providing them with Wi-Fi connections on school buses and in other out-of-school locations, and asking educators to encourage students to engage in tech-based study away from school.

The Fairfield-Suisun Unified school system, a socioeconomically diverse district of about 22,000 students halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco, also weighed security concerns as it prepared to launch a 1-to-1 computing program last fall.

District officials pilot-tested the idea of distributing iPads in one of the school system’s most impoverished communities. Initially fearing that the iPads would be stolen, the district required that the devices be kept on school grounds.

But later, they decided to let students take them home—after concluding that worries about security were overblown.

Marcus Stallworth, 15, came to VOISE Academy for one of the school's Saturday study sessions earlier this year to prepare for his finals. The students who show up at the Chicago public school's weekend sessions include those who need to make up missed work or pull up low grades, and others, like Marcus, who want access to school resources.

The focus of districts should be making sure that blended learning can happen “all the time,” explained Tim Goree, the district’s director of technology support services.

“Every school in our district has its own unique needs,” he noted. “And even if you have a device and Internet for every student, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the blended part of home learning will happen.”

Limited research exists on the extent to which tech-based blended learning plays out in home environments to the same degree it does on school grounds.

But preliminary findings from a study underway by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based policy-research group run out of the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, suggests that many schools are struggling to solidify the home piece of the puzzle.

Lawrence J. Miller, a senior research fellow at the center, is working on the study, which will examine the effectiveness of blended learning programs. Though final results are not due to be released until this spring, among 17 schools using blended learning that were reviewed, 13 didn’t require students to devote any time to online, off-campus work.

Among the four other schools, the numbers varied widely—with students completing an average of 30 to 80 minutes of online study per night.

On the whole, Mr. Miller found that the majority of the 17 schools studied did not require students to complete technology-based lessons, and that on average, the students enrolled in those schools spent only 13 minutes on online homework a night, or a little more than an hour each week.

Racial, Income Gaps

While school officials’ worries about devices being damaged or stolen can undermine blended learning, Mr. Miller said, educators’ hesitancy is also shaped by their awareness that many students lack Internet access at home.

Strong Connectivity, For Some

Web access for children has risen dramatically over time, but not all populations have benefited equally. Children from minority households lag behind their peers in connecting to the Internet.


SOURCE: Child Trends

“Teachers are very concerned about equity of performance within the classroom among highfliers and lowfliers,” Mr. Miller explained. “They’re worried that kids who are already doing great will go home and knock it out of the park, while the kids who are not doing well will just fall farther and farther behind.”

Home Web access has increased steadily over time, and more than 80 percent of households are connected to the Internet today, according to research compiled by Child Trends, a nonprofit research center based in Bethesda, Md. But minority students are less likely to have connectivity at home than are their white peers, as are impoverished students.

Over the past few years, a number of private companies and nonprofit organizations have worked together to try to expand Internet access in poor communities, in some cases in partnership with the federal government.

In addition, many organizations are urging federal officials to overhaul the E-rate program, which was designed to improve technology access in schools and libraries in impoverished communities.

In some communities, the challenges involved in connecting students to the Internet are daunting.

Acacia Winters, 15, came to a Saturday session at VOISE Academy earlier this month to work on math lessons. One of the goals of the Saturday sessions is to create a safe environment where students without home Internet access can connect to the Web.

VOISE Academy High School, which stands for Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment, is in its sixth year of implementing a 1-to-1 computing program. Ninety-five percent of its 330 students are black, and nearly all qualify for either a free or reduced-price lunch.

The academy, part of the 404,000-student Chicago school system, has sought to extend blended learning time—with some trial and error.

First, school leaders began refurbishing desktop computers and installing them in the homes of students that lacked computers. But because so many students lacked reliable Internet access, those devices were quickly rendered useless.

“As Internet prices come down, the problem will eventually solve itself, but in neighborhoods like ours, it’s not going to solve itself in the next couple of years,” said Mr. Yarch, the principal.

On-Site Strategies

As a solution, shortly after the school’s founding in 2008, VOISE Academy started experimenting with opening its doors on Saturdays. Initially, those weekend sessions had been designed as a punishment for students facing disciplinary infractions. But Mr. Yarch allowed students who showed up to use their school-issued laptops to complete missed assignments—only to find that many of them asked to be allowed to come back.

VOISE Academy is now a frequent hub of weekend learning, used by students trying to boost their grades, Advanced Placement students working on group projects, and others completing assignments that require Web connectivity. In addition, some students elect to stay during after-school hours to log in more learning time.

Even with that policy, assigning homework presents a formidable challenge for the school’s teachers, who find that they can’t require digital lessons without putting some students at an overwhelming disadvantage.

Most teachers either convert online assignments into paper-based ones or ask that students plug in data and responses before class begins.

“It’s an imperfect system,” conceded Mr. Yarch, who added that he is continually searching for better ways to bridge the digital divide.

Around the country, some districts have instituted a patchwork approach to ensure that students’ use of technology doesn’t end when the school day ends.

Jasmine Hunter, 15, worked on math lessons during a Saturday school session at VOISE Academy earlier this month. The academy gave students access to the Internet-connected school on Saturday as an alternative to having them bring computing devices home, which school officials said raised safety concerns.

Mary E. Fluharty is the coordinator of online learning for the Alexandria public schools, a Virginia district of around 13,000 students that first went 1-to-1 a decade ago. Each night, 3,000 of its high school students take their devices home. For about a quarter of Alexandria’s students, the district-owned laptops represent the only computer in their household, and many of them lack Internet connectivity.

To help increase access, the district used grant money to install a number of hot spots throughout the city, where students can log in to the district’s filtered network. And with more teachers utilizing flipped-classrooms—typically those in which children watch video lessons at home, and receive more one-on-one instruction in school—many are also relying on cloud-based computing, or Google docs, so students can move from machine to machine and still access their assignments.

“This is not a school problem but a community problem,” said Maribeth Luftglass, the chief technology officer in the nearby Fairfax County district. “It’s in all of our best interests to make sure that our kids and our families have access.”

Citing an annual survey, Ms. Luftglass said that 93 percent of the Fairfax district’s 184,000 students have Web access once at home. To help increase home-based digital learning, the district, which is one of the nation’s most affluent, has established partnerships with local government, businesses, and churches to allow students to use their Wi-Fi networks.

In addition, the Fairfax school system promotes an program, run by Comcast, the Internet, cable, and phone provider, to provide local families whose children receive free or reduced-price meals with discounted Web service, at a cost of $9.95 per month.

Teacher Jason Gondek, left, assists student Isaias Candelario, 17, during a Saturday session at VOISE Academy.

The district adopted a “bring your own device” program three years ago, allowing students to use smartphones, laptops, or tablets at school. It lends devices to students in need of them—for short periods such as a weekend, or in some cases for up to the whole school year.

“Our approach is definitely a multifaceted one,” said Ms. Luftglass. “It’s not 100 percent there, but we’re working on it.”

Mike Evans, the director of information and instructional support systems for the Forsyth County district, in Georgia, said that the ability to encourage blended learning at home depends not only on the availability of technology but also the willingness of educators to encourage digital-based study in the classroom.

Mobile Links

There’s some evidence that many teachers in the 41,000-student district are already doing that: Evening is the district’s peak time for Internet use, typically two or three times higher than the norm, he noted.

“The home piece really starts with teachers,” said Mr. Evans. “If teachers aren’t using the learning platform, the students have no reason to get into the system.”

The Huntsville, Ala., district is one of the school systems using a cloud-based learning management system, which allows students to connect from school or home and complete academic assignments whenever they log in, as long as they have a Web connection.

The 23,000-student district, which adopted a 1-to-1 program last year, gives all students in grades 3-12 their own laptops. Each day, 16,000 computing devices accompany students home.

What’s more, the 250-square-mile district has tried to ensure reliable connectivity by putting Wi-Fi hotspots on about a quarter of its 126 school buses so that students can complete assignments on what are often lengthy rides.

“If we were waiting for everyone to have 100 percent access at home before deciding to go digital, we would never do it,” said Casey Wardynski, Huntsville’s superintendent. “Demand builds supply.”

Mr. Wardynski says too many districts are fixated on security, rather than on figuring out creative ways to bring technology-based learning to students wherever they need it.

“The home piece is the payoff,” he said. “Folks are too worried about the device and not enough about the kids. You lose 75 percent of the benefit if [the devices] don’t go home.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Home Disconnect Inequities Hurt Blended Models


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