Blended learning: innovating the teaching process

Innovation: It’s an education reform cliché. But what is innovation, really?

Ask most people about innovation and they’ll probably talk about products—airplanes, laptops, smartphones. But innovation also refers to process. That’s what blended learning is for education. It turns the process of teaching upside down.

Today, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in partnership with Knowledge Works and Reynoldsburg School District, welcomed Anthony Kim, founder and CEO of Education Elements, to Ohio. Founded in 2010, Education Elements is a California-based company that advises schools on how to adopt and implement blended learning models. Education Elements has assisted charters (KIPP Los Angeles), traditional public school districts (Houston Independent School District), and parochial schools (Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco).

Anthony Kim, founder and CEO of Education Elements

Kim began the conversation with an audience that included superintendents, teachers, lawmakers, and state board members by describing his blended learning model. According to Kim, blended learning has three goals:

  • To differentiate teaching by breaking the classroom into smaller groups
  • To increase the collection and use of student achievement data to improve teaching
  • To create more efficient schools

How does blended learning achieve these goals?

First, blended learning can address some of the challenges of teaching students who read, write, and do math at different levels. Blended learning deploys a classroom rotation model: students are first broken into groups and then these groups rotate through different work stations throughout the school day.

Kim presented a three-station model, in which station one is where teacher instruction happens (e.g., lecture), station two is where students work on team projects, and station three is where self-paced digital learning occurs. In a blended learning environment, students would be working at all three stations simultaneously. This hybrid approach enables teachers to cluster their students by ability and to create a more balanced approach to student learning—not all lecture, not all team-project, and not all computer-based learning.

Second, blended learning can increase the collection and application of student achievement data. Because up to a third of a student’s learning is done digitally, teachers can immediately look at results from informal, online student assessments. Thus, the student-teacher “feedback loop” is reduced.

Third, blended learning can handle larger class sizes, which improves school efficiency. Because the blended learning model divides classes into smaller groups—some students here, others there—larger classes can be taught with potentially fewer instructors.

Blended learning is a completely different process of teaching. It’s clearly not your parents’ education: gone is the teacher as omniscient lecturer, with students quietly sitting—or sleeping—at their desks.

But does it work? It’s still very much an open question, since blended learning is so new. (The first blended learning schools came online around 2008.) Certainly, the fact that some of this country's best charters use blended learning attests to its effectiveness– but these are also schools with an ingrained culture of innovation and tech-savvy teachers.

For blended learning to work on a larger scale, traditional school cultures would need to change radically (something Kim acknowledges). And this type of change would require visionary school leaders who can secure the buy-in from teachers who would use this model. Will any of Ohio’s educational leaders be daring enough to deploy this cutting-edge model in their schools? Only time will tell.

Correction (7/30/12): A previous edition of this post reported that Education Elements had partnered with Rocketship. That is not the case and the mention has been removed.

Anthony Kim's PowerPoint presentation

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