IT Infrastructure & Management

District Officials Eye Blended Learning, With Cautionary Lessons in Mind

By Sean Cavanagh — November 05, 2013 6 min read
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Backers of blended and online learning arrived here to exchange ideas and learn about practices they can take back to their districts and offices—even as major problems playing out in school districts that have launched outsized technology projects offered reminders of potential consequences when the most ambitious plans go awry.

The annual symposium of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning bills itself as the premier gathering of supporters of blended and online models, and it drew administrators and teachers from school systems large and small. Their needs vary enormously, depending on the technological mix of computer-based and in-person instruction they envision.

The meeting had an estimated 2,400 registered attendees, who also included company officials, philanthropists, researchers, and others—many of whom emphasized that their plans to implement or expand online or blended learning are playing out at a much smaller scale than the ambitious 1-to-1 computing efforts attempted by the Guilford County, N.C., and Los Angeles school systems, where major problems have been reported. But those gathered also spoke of what they see as flaws in approaches used in Los Angeles and other districts, and said they are confident that with enough planning, they can avoid similar mishaps.

“There is just that sense of ‘Wow, how do we make sure that doesn’t happen to our kids?' " said Don Andrews, the assistant superintendent for secondary instruction in the Lee’s Summit R-7 school district, an 18,000-student system in Missouri.

Challenges for Districts

K-12's Blended and Online Learning Landscape

The market is changing and growing:

310,000 students are enrolled in fully online schools serving students from multiple districts, an increase of over 13 percent from last year.

740,000 students are enrolled in state virtual schools in 26 states.

Enrollment grew in some state virtual schools (such as Alabama, Georgia, and Montana) by at least 17 percent, and fell by at least 13 percent in others (including Colorado Connecticut, and Iowa).

Eight states explicitly allow private and home-schooled students to take part in state-backed, supplemental online courses; 21 states do not offer that option; the remaining ones typically have options for private or home-schooled students to pay for online courses, through mechanisms based on specific schools or programs, not state policy.

SOURCE: Evergreen Education Group

While Mr. Andrews said his school district doesn’t have a true blended-learning model, it is steadily increasing its online instruction. One of its major goals for the next few years is to increase the “density” of its online connectivity, so that students have reliable connections in every classroom, even while the demand increases as students and teachers are using myriad mobile devices at the same time. The district is gradually shifting toward a “bring-your-own-device” approach to technology, he said.

Meeting those goals will mean increasing the number of wireless access points throughout the district, Mr. Andrews said. “Kids don’t care how many access points you have,” he said. “They care about having [wireless technology] that works just as well as it does at the local McDonald’s.”

The 664,000-student Los Angeles school district’s rollout of an effort to provide iPads to every student over several years, at a cost that could reach $500 million, has been dogged by a series of problems. There have been questions about the exact cost of individual devices, students’ demonstrated ability to circumvent security filters on the tools—and, as reported recently by Education Week, questions about the readiness of curriculum developed by Pearson that is designed to be embedded in the devices.

Meanwhile, technical troubles with 1-to-1 computing initiatives have emerged in smaller districts. In the 73,000-student Guilford County, N.C., school system, which is planning a 1-to-1 effort, district officials suspended the deployment of tablets and other equipment provided by the company Amplify after reports of equipment problems. And in Fort Bend, Texas, district officials abandoned a plan that had been in the works for a year and a half to provide science curriculum with iPads, after a consultant cited a litany of problems with the project’s standards, management, and integration with the district’s existing curriculum.

While a number of school administrators at the conference cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from those districts’ experiences, they also said the high-profile troubles are instructive in some ways—though not in the ways one might expect.

A number of conference attendees, for instance, said they thought the concerns about Los Angeles students’ security breaches, and the district’s response to it, were overblown. Overly restrictive policies risk thwarting students’ creativity, and don’t offer schools the opportunity to reinforce lessons on responsible technology use, they argued.

Simply taking devices away or putting overly aggressive restrictions on them risk “punishing the masses for the mistakes of the few,” said John David Son, the director of instrutional technology for the Naperville, Ill., Community Unit School District 203. “We like to use [those incidents] as teachable moments.”

Mr. Son’s 17,000-student district is partnering with nearby school systems in trying to improve its technology. It is also expanding its wireless access, considering options for moving ahead with a bring-your-own device model, and trying to integrate technology with improved teaching practices, he said.

“We have to know there are going to be bumps along the way,” Mr. Son said.

Beyond the Devices

Many district officials at the conference said while they hoped to glean some cautionary lessons from the experiences of Los Angeles, Guilford County, and other districts, they also noted their district technology plans are typically smaller scale, and have much different goals—a view echoed by Susan D. Patrick, the president and CEO of the online learning association, known as iNACOL, hosting the event.

A core message Ms. Patrick said was being driven home at the event is that districts need to focus first on their instructional needs, and how they can personalize learning to meet the specific needs of students of different ability levels—and only then seek technology to help them get there. “This is not about 1-to-1 and giving kids tablets and all that—that’s been said a hundred times here,” Ms. Patrick said.

Questions about buying this or that technology “should be the last thing you ask,” she said. “It should be about, what is the educational goal you want to reach, what is the instructional practice, and what is the content” you need?

Finding the right content is particularly difficult for districts, because that content needs to match their educational demands, Ms. Patrick added. Districts also need to be focused on how they’re going to collect data that offers precise, transparent information on student learning, and ensure “multiple pathways for learning.”

“That’s a very different conversation than, ‘What are the apps on my tablet?' " she said. Ms. Patrick said districts have much more information on how to use blended and online learning than they did a few years ago, in terms of making sure technology is aligned with academic goals and individual student needs.

One resource meant to provide districts with direction was released at the conference, “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online and Blended Learning,” an annual report about virtual education produced by the Evergreen Education Group. The document includes a section on “planning for quality,” meant to help guide district leaders through various challenges while moving into blended learning, from training teachers to choosing technology to setting realistic deadlines.

While disheartening, the technology difficulties in Los Angeles and other districts should prod school leaders to set clear objectives for what they want to accomplish educationally, and how technology can help, said John Watson, the founder of Evergreen, a consulting organization based in Colorado.

The temptation in districts is to “layer on technology, buy a bunch of devices,” Mr. Watson said. “That story is happening in countless districts around the country.” The difference in Los Angeles, he said, “is the order of magnitude.”

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as District Setbacks Shape Virtual-Ed. Discussion


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