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Different faces of blended learning

Four models for personalization pay off in K12 districts
Students at Lewis and Clark High School in the Vancouver, Wash., work in small groups as part of their typical school day. 
Students at Lewis and Clark High School in the Vancouver, Wash., work in small groups as part of their typical school day. 

School administrators overwhelmed by the idea of blended learning need not fear: many districts have successfully implemented one of four models now widely accepted in K12 education. Even more encouraging, some of these schools are seeing increased achievement, lower dropout rates, and other positive results.

Blended learning involves a student learning partly through online instruction and partly with a teacher in a school building. Students may complete online instruction in a classroom, a computer lab, or at home, with varying degrees of control over time, place, path, and pace.

The time with a teacher is often less structured than in traditional classes, with teachers providing small group or one-on-one support rather than lecturing to the entire class.

The goal is to provide a personalized education for every student and increase academic success with self-pacing and extra support, according to Thomas Arnett, an education research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

The Clayton Christensen Institute, formerly the Innosight Institute, is a nonprofit dedicated in part to researching and promoting blended learning. The organization has established itself as a thought leader in the field. With feedback from about 100 education experts and 80 organizations, the institute developed four models of blended learning in 2012 that are now used in schools nationwide.

Two-thirds of the nation’s 14,000 districts offered some kind of blended learning option in 2012, according to the 2013 version of the Evergreen Education Group’s annual “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online & Blended Learning” report.

Blended learning is spreading quickly. The “Keeping Pace” report found that fully blended schools are operating in at least 24 states and Washington, D.C. Online and blended programs are now growing more rapidly in public schools than they are in charters, the report found. By 2019, about 50 percent of all high school courses will be online, the Clayton Christensen Institute estimates.

There is no comprehensive research on blended learning outcomes yet, but some early results are promising. A 2010 Department of Education analysis found that students in blended courses outperformed those in both fully online courses and face-to-face courses.

The following are success stories of the four models of blended learning. Administrators navigated the challenges and can now offer advice for others looking to enhance instruction.

Rotation model

The most common form of blended learning is the rotation model, in which students within one course rotate between online and face-to-face instruction. The face-to-face component may involve full-class or small-group instruction, group projects, or individual tutoring.

A common form of the rotation model is flipped classrooms. Another is lab rotation, in which students go back and forth between traditional classrooms and computer labs during a course.

The District of Columbia Public Schools created a rotation model in 2012, after hiring John Rice to manage blended learning and unify the district’s online efforts—which varied from classroom to classroom, with limited professional development or program evaluation. After piloting several programs in the 2012-13 school year, two elementary schools are now fully blended for math and literature.

The two schools have blocks of about 120 minutes each for math and literacy. After 10 minutes of whole group instruction, students rotate through three stations for 35 minutes each.

For literacy, the stations include small-group, guided reading with an aide; vocabulary with a teacher; and independent online coursework. Students use Lexia for foundational reading skills, and access digital books through myON Reader. They also use the software programs ST Math and First in Math, which feature game-based instruction.

Schools are seeing positive results. From 2012 to 2013, the average percentage of students considered proficient or advanced was over 17 percent for students using ST Math from the MIND Research Institute, compared to just 4.5 percent for those in traditional classes.

Another 33 Washington, D.C., elementary schools are piloting the ST Math program this year, and 40 are testing literacy programs. Implementing the software districtwide gives technology leaders larger sample sizes to see what is increasing achievement, Rice says. “You need a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish, and strong metrics to judge the effectiveness,” Rice says. “Be willing to shutter things that aren’t working, and pick up new ones.”

It’s been a challenge to get teachers to use the plethora of student data recorded by the online programs, as the teachers don’t always have the skills or time to analyze it, Rice says. Teachers can see which content students spend the most time on, and the questions and concepts that lead them to struggle. This can translate into more customized support and one-on-one classroom time with students.

The two D.C. blended elementary schools now share a technology instructional coach who models lessons in blended learning as professional development for teachers. The coach also creates weekly data reports, and meets with teachers to show them what the data means and how to use it to improve instruction.

Flex model

In the flex model, students still attend a brick-and-mortar school every day. But every class is divided into online instruction and face-to-face time with teachers rather than just one or two courses, as in the rotation model. These schools are often set up like offices, with students in their own workspaces and a number of teachers circulating to provide support while students complete online coursework.

Lewis and Clark High School, part of Vancouver Public Schools in Washington, is a former alternative school that reopened as a flex academy in September. The school of about 150 students has two large “flex” areas where students do online instruction at permanently assigned work stations that are similar to office cubicles. There are five classrooms of different sizes that teachers can use when needed for group lessons, and smaller spaces for projects or tutoring.

Students are in the building from 9:30 a.m. to 4:10 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and on Friday mornings. The typical day varies from student to student and week to week, but often about half the time is spent on the computer with Edgenuity courses in every subject. The other half is spent working with teachers in individual tutoring or small group instruction, or with other students on group projects.

One consistent element of each student’s day is meeting in a small advisory class. The advisory teacher acts as a mentor, and closely monitors student progress while teaching skills important to online learning, such as creating a schedule for class work.

“It’s one of the benefits we see of having a brick-and-mortar setting—if they need that assistance, they can get it right away,” says Kathy Everidge, executive director of Lewis and Clark High School.

Students have had to learn to prioritize their work, says Principal Rob Duncan. “Most students are used to having a very scheduled school day, but they are moving to a school where they have the freedom to make some decisions about what they are doing each day. It’s very much like what we do in our adult lives.”

Teachers work daily with students on time management, and the school recently incorporated mail accounts where students can set reminders for appointments and assignments. “We’re finding that throughout our 1-to-1 implementation, we give a lot of credit to young people for being digital natives, but that does not necessarily translate to their understanding of how to work and be productive in a digital environment,” says Mark Ray, director of instructional technology and library services at Vancouver Public Schools. “They may know how to use the devices, but need to develop work habits and organizational skills.”

A la carte model

In schools using an a la carte model, students take one or more courses entirely online, while continuing to take traditional classes at a school. Students may take the online courses on or off campus.

The a la carte model has grown in popularity as Alabama, Florida, Michigan and Virginia now require students to take at least one online course before high school graduation, These states want to get students acquainted with virtual learning, which they will likely see in college and the workplace. Similar legislation is pending in other states.

In 2009, the rural Quakertown Community School District in Pennsylvania had a budget deficit that was worsening as more students choose to go to online charter schools. The district rolled out blended courses that September, in hopes of drawing them back. Today, more than half of the district’s high school students are taking at least one online course, which is strongly recommended in the school’s graduation policy.

About 90 percent of Quakertown’s blended courses are developed by district teachers with their own curriculum. It took about 40 hours of professional development for teachers to learn to create their courses, including how to embed videos, link to outside sites, and set up exams, says Superintendent Lisa Andrejko. It took hundreds of hours more to actually develop the courses.

More than 80 courses taught by district teachers are available online or face-to-face. The district contracts with Apex Learning, K12, Inc., and other providers to offer Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and some AP courses to fill teaching gaps in those areas.

A student may have traditional face-to-face classes for the first two periods of the day, then take a Chinese course in the school’s cyber-lounge, and then go back to regular classes for the rest of the day. “The No. 1 advantage to blended learning is the flexibility, and all of the choices we can offer for a school in a small town,” Andrejko says.

The results have been highly positive, according to Andrejko. From 2011 to 2012, the graduation rate increased from 88 percent to 95 percent. More students are taking AP courses, and the SAT and ACT scores are at the highest they have ever been in the district. Mean critical reading and mathematics SAT scores rose by 20 points from 2008 to 2012, and the average ACT scores exceeded the standard readiness scores in English, algebra, and social sciences.

Working online also has helped teachers create better tests for digital and face-to-face courses. Because the assessments are given online, teachers have to think of more in-depth questions that can’t be answered quickly with a Google search, Andrejko says.

After the first year, 73 percent of teachers feel the initiative has increased student engagement, and 60 percent said they believe it has increased academic success, according to a district survey. “It’s not cheaper to educate kids online,” Andrejko says, “but you’re going to keep them in your schools, and offer them flexibility in a competitive market with cyberschools and other opportunities.”

Enriched virtual model

In the enriched virtual model, all students in the school divide time for every course between school and home. It differs from the flex model because students do not attend the physical school every day.

Rio Rancho Cyber Academy, part of Rio Rancho Public Schools in New Mexico, opened in 2005 and enrolls about 180 students in grades six through 12. Students in grades six through eight come to school Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, while grades nine through 11 come in Tuesday and Thursday. Seniors come in only on Tuesdays. Students spend the other days at home working on online courses developed by Edgenuity.

The school is essentially a large, one-room computer lab, with some offices and conference spaces. When students are in the school, instruction is focused on the concepts with which they are struggling. The school’s eight teachers can work with students individually or in small groups. Teachers also focus on skills, like writing and note-taking, that are necessary across all subjects with online curriculum.

The academy’s ACT scores exceed state and national averages, says Heidi Parnell, Rio Rancho Cyber Academy program manager and the district’s virtual enriched learning coordinator. The average composite score for the class of 2013 was 22 out of 36, compared to about 20 statewide. The students also outperform state averages on the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment. Most notably, in 2012, 95 percent of seventh grade Cyber Academy students passed the state’s standardized math test, compared to 42 percent statewide.

Some excel, some return to class

Blended learning also requires the willingness of teachers to be flexible and patient as students are learning to develop time management skills and how to use online curriculum, Parnell says. Rio Rancho Cyber Academy interviews students and parents before they enroll, to ensure they realize the responsibility of managing their time.

“There are students who excel, and there are students who thought learning with and off of computers would be fun and easy, but who end up failing and beg to return to the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom,” Parnell says.

Each online lesson generally includes a warm-up, video instruction from a virtual teacher, an assignment, more instruction, and a quiz. At Rio Rancho, students must earn a 70 or above on the quiz to continue on to the next lesson. Those who score below 70 work with a teacher in-person to go over the concepts again.

Courses range from about 30 to 50 lessons each, and students must complete them by the end of the semester. It’s rare that a student does not complete a course in the proper time, Parnell says.

“Students learn to advocate for themselves, and can’t blame a teacher for not learning,” Parnell concludes. “So many students blossom when they realize they’re in charge."

Alison DeNisco is staff writer.