Driving Blended Learning at the State Level

By 08/11/2014

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As blended learning continues to grow, one of the challenges education leaders are facing is the fact that knowledge of the concept spreads faster than expertise on how to foster and support it. Given this problem, it was exciting to see a new resource released yesterday by The Learning Accelerator (TLA) titled, A Framework for Cultivating High-Quality Blended Learning at the State Level. The framework provides a comprehensive overview of levers that state leaders can use for “catalyzing and accelerating blended learning.” Below are a few highlights from the framework.

Eliminate policy barriers. One of the major challenges to implementing blended learning is that many state policies were created for a factory-model education system and are ill suited to blended learning. For example, policies that require that funding and academic credits be awarded based on seat-time often conflict with blended-learning schools’ efforts to personalize the time and pace of learning. Recognizing these challenges, the TLA framework encourages state policymakers to “Identify, analyze and eliminate myths, disincentives, or disablers of blended learning from the system,” and to “[l]everage enabling policies that foster development and support for high-quality blended models.”

Look beyond policy. It is often tempting to think that once legislators get the right policies in place we can declare victory and just watch as changes unfold. But as we’ve seen many times—such as with Texas’ implementation of course access policy—a good policy can fall terribly short if it is not followed by good implementation. To this point, the TLA framework draws attention to the fact that “policy alone is insufficient to change attitudes, beliefs, and practices on the ground” and “while policy is an important driver of change, state actors can act as catalysts in a number of ways to spur the implementation of high-quality learning.”

Start with goals, metrics, and teams. A common mistake made by leaders that are interested in blended learning is to focus first on selecting devices and software. In contrast, the most successful blended- learning programs typically start by setting goals regarding the student outcomes they want to achieve and then determining the metrics they will use to gauge progress toward those goals. With goals and metrics in place, they can then organize a team to design and execute a blended-learning model that will meet their goals. In the TLA framework, the Leadership section provides valuable guidance on these important aspects of the planning process.

Focus on outcomes over inputs. Historically, resource allocation decisions in education have focused on ensuring adequate inputs, such as sufficient instructional hours and small class sizes. Unfortunately, one of the tragic shortcomings of this approach is that ensuring certain inputs does not always lead to desired outcomes. As TLA’s framework points out, education leaders can help drive the performance of blended learning by funding and rewarding blended-learning programs based on their outcomes rather than their inputs.

Foster both sustaining and disruptive forms of blended learning. Many education leaders see the role that blended learning can play in helping them meet their top priorities, such as improving student achievement in core academic subjects like reading and math. They sometimes, however, do not consider how blended learning can also help them offer their students new learning experiences, such as advanced or elective courses that many schools do not have the capacity to offer. This distinction is important because different blended-learning models are best suited to these different types of challenges. Sustaining blended-learning models, such as the Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, and Flipped Classroom, are the most reliable models for addressing core challenges where the stakes are high. But when it comes to addressing problems of nonconsumption, schools have an opportunity to experiment with models that will ultimately prove to be most transformative in personalizing learning, such as the Flex, A La Carte, and Individual Rotation models. TLA’s framework emphasizes that state-level leaders need to prioritize disruptive blended-learning innovations in order to drive the long-term transformation of our education system.

These are just a few examples of the valuable insights found in the TLA framework. Taken as a whole, the framework gives a comprehensive guide for understanding the various types of initiatives needed for supporting high-quality blended learning at the state-level. State leaders would do well to use the framework as a key reference as they embark on this important work.

-Thomas Arnett

Thomas Arnett is a research fellow in education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This article first appeared on the blog of the Christensen Institute.

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