Since blended learning exploded onto the K-12 scene with promises of personalized and student-centered learning, it has proliferated into dozens of different models, with educators continually tweaking and changing those methods to find the perfect balance of face-to-face and online instruction to meet the needs of their students.
Interest in blended education remains high, spurred partly by research offering support for advocates’ claims that blended learning is more effective than either online or face-to-face instruction on its own.
But more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of the evolving blended learning models, including best practices and which models work best for which types of students, said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, an advocacy and research group based in Vienna, Va.
“The more we know about the variety of blended learning models in K-12 education, the more we know we don’t know everything that’s out there,” she said.
Michael B. Horn, a co-founder of the San Mateo, Calif.-based Innosight Institute, which conducts research on both education and health care, defines blended learning as the delivery of content and instruction partly through an online portal and partly in a brick-and-mortar location, in addition to individualization in time, pace, path, or place of learning.
Mr. Horn and his team published a white paper in May that provided updated definitions of the classifications of different types of blended learning, a follow-up to a paper written about blended learning in 2011. The new paper whittles six categories of blended learning down to four: the rotation model, the flex model, the self-blend model, and the enriched-virtual model.
However, educators are coming up with blended learning models that may not be easily classified into those four categories, said Ms. Patrick.
“There’s such a diversity of different types of programs and models that are using content in different ways,” she said. “It parallels the range of student needs that are out there.”
More research is needed, Ms. Patrick said, on the different models and which types are most effective with different students.
Keys to Success
Still, some common themes and best practices have emerged among the diverse blended models.
“The ability to pinpoint needs and the ability for teachers to use data at a very high level for individualized instruction—that’s probably the biggest change that we’ve seen over the last six years,” Ms. Patrick said.
ROTATION—Within a given course or subject, students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion between learning modalities, at least one of which is online learning.
FLEX—Content and instruction are delivered primarily by the Internet, students move on an individually customized, fluid schedule among learning modalities, and the teacher of record is on site.
SELF-BLEND—Students choose to take one or more courses entirely online to supplement their traditional courses; the teacher of record is the online teacher.
ENRICHED VIRTUAL—A whole-school experience in which, within each course, students divide their time between attending a brick-and-mortar campus and learning remotely using online delivery of content and instruction.
SOURCE: Innosight Institute
Delivering instructional content online opens the door for a wealth of data to be collected about each student, proponents of blended learning say, which provides real-time feedback for teachers, students, and parents.
But making sure the data are being tracked properly can also be a challenge, said Ms. Patrick.
“Both districts and schools need to look at an enterprise architecture so that their systems can generate the types of data that teachers need to know to be able to provide that direct instruction,” she said.
Judy Burton is the president and CEO of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit charter organization that operates 21 middle and high schools. The organization began piloting blended learning models last year and now operates three blended middle schools and four blended high schools.
Like Ms. Patrick, Ms. Burton believes that finding the right learning-management system, and using programs that will work with that system so that students and teachers don’t have to log in and out of multiple systems, is critical.
Through the blended learning pilots that Alliance College-Ready Public Schools has conducted, Ms. Burton said she has also learned to bring a “much keener eye” to selecting vendor programs.
“They’re not all equal in terms of rigor and the degree to which they engage students,” she said.
Ms. Burton’s organization is experimenting with a blended rotational model, in which groups of 45 students rotate between group work, online course work, and face-to-face instruction.
“I see our kids so much more interested in and excited about coming to school and about their learning because they’re no longer receptacles,” she said. “They’re playing a major role in driving their own learning.”
One area of need, Ms. Burton said, is for more classes that prepare future teachers to teach in an online or blended classroom. “We’re not seeing teachers coming out of universities prepared to work in a blended classroom,” she said.
And it’s not just teachers who need more education about blended and online learning environments, Ms. Patrick of iNACOL said.
“Administrators are not being trained to manage or implement or plan and manage blended learning programs,” she said. Providing that training in colleges of education for both administrators and teachers is critical to the success of such programs, she said.
Vision With Flexibility
Another common thread between successful blended learning programs is a clear and targeted instructional strategy, said Cheryl Niehaus, a program officer for the Austin, Texas-based Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which aims to improve the health and education of children.
The foundation recently released case studies of five different blended learning programs.
"[Each of the five programs] were very clear as to what the instructional aspiration was and the way that technology plays a supporting role in achieving that vision,” Ms. Niehaus said.
On the other hand, while having a clear vision is important, being willing to change or adjust that vision during implementation is key, she said. “The need for upfront planning is critical, but at the same time, there’s also a need to learn along the way and have the flexibility to make changes,” she said.
Diane Tavenner is the founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a Redwood City, Calif.-based charter school organization that operates four high schools in California. It piloted blended learning in math for 9th graders at its San Jose, Calif., location last year and now wants to take it further.
“What we discovered as an organization is that [blended learning] completely opened our thinking to the possibility and power of what this could look like if you really took it from blended to optimized classrooms,” said Ms. Tavenner.
“Blended learning itself is an important piece, but it’s not going to fundamentally change our schools or learning or education the way we want them to change,” she said.
Reinventing the Classroom
To create a truly 21st-century education model, or what Ms. Tavenner refers to as “optimized schools,” blended learning is combined with competency-based learning—in which students progress not on the basis of time spent on each subject but rather on their mastery of the curriculum—and personalization of learning, which she describes as “the behaviors and dispositions of people who really can drive their own learning.”
In such a model, teachers work in teams rather than as individuals, and the classroom itself looks much different, she said.
For Summit Public School students participating in the pilot, the approach means that instead of individual classrooms, students gather in an open, 4,000-square-foot room lined with breakout rooms with long tables in the center. Students receive their own laptops and individual workspaces, and for two hours, 200 students, accompanied by four teachers and two instructional assistants, fill the room.
Students work through “playlists” of resources, including online curriculum and videos from Khan Academy. Teachers hold seminars in the breakout rooms on various topics the students are learning.
Students create their own schedules; they attend the seminars that are helpful to them and work through their playlists of curricula. When they are ready to take an assessment and move on to the next topic, a teacher unlocks the quiz for them. If they pass, they move on. If they don’t, the assessment tells them exactly what topics they need to focus on to improve.
“It totally empowers the kid because they get immediate feedback, and they know exactly what they need to do,” Ms. Tavenner said.
For now, students are still getting used to being in control of their own learning, she said.
“It’s a lot of hard work, and it’s uncomfortable, and it looks messy,” she said. “But we believe that unless school organizations are set up [in new ways], they aren’t really going to move forward.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Blended Learning Choices