This week’s T509 reading theme on Blended Learning really got me thinking about how different strategies mentioned play out in real schools with real kids. I enjoyed exploring the case studies featured during the Khan Academy Blended Learning module and seeing good practices play out in some fairly innovative schools. However, I couldn’t help but notice that the featured schools were all charter schools. This means that a degree of their success with blended learning definitely needs to be partially attributed to the fact that public charter schools benefit from their ability to function mostly outside the current system of education in the US. Their school leaders have much more freedom than the typical public school when it comes to making decisions about how to allocate their funding and design their school day and calendar. As seen from the case study videos, these freedoms allow them to make thoughtful decisions about how to effectively implement blended learning practices to enhance education for students.
So what does this mean for public schools trying to implement blended learning systems? Let me give you a case study from my own teaching experience.
As mentioned in the Clayton Christensen Institute White Paper, one current use for blended learning is for credit recovery for high school students. The school I was teaching at was using a popular credit recovery system for a night school program. The purpose of night school was to allow students who could not attend regular day school for various reasons an opportunity to earn their class credits and graduate through this alternative program. Essentially, the students were given a list of courses they needed to complete and could work through an online module for each of those courses with the assistance of teachers hired to proctor during night school hours. Even though this model caught on quickly, there were a lot of problems with it.
First of all, night school became a dumping ground and a replacement for true interventions. If a kid keeps getting in trouble in normal classes, send him/her to night school. If a kid is failing all of his/her classes, send him/her to night school. If a kid is over age and under-creditted, send him/her to night school. The goal of night school moved away from being accommodating to students with exceptional life circumstances and became a place to send all of the “undesirable” students rather than actually attempt any personalized interventions.
Second, night school instruction was questionable. To be clear, I never taught a night school class and only heard from other teachers what the actual learning climate was like. That being said, I heard over and over again about students who never watched or read through any of the instruction material. They simply clicked through screens until they got to assessments and googled to find answers. Even in rooms where teachers did not allow that practice, instruction from the computer relied on basic “read this” followed by “now answer these questions” approach no different than many textbook-style education methods. Students never had the chance to engage in any activities, projects, or even class discussions to augment their learning. It was all basic regurgitation aided by a teacher who frequently did not even share a background with the content that a student was “learning.”
Third, many students in the night school program did not have the basic skills they needed to access the material. As mentioned before, the selection process for students was focused on getting “bad kids” out of the normal school day rather than the right kids into a blended learning environment. Many of the “bad kids” are the ones with the biggest learning challenges and are the most behind. One of my former students, let’s call him John, fit this situation. John was a giant pain in my butt in my 9th grade Algebra class and was constantly getting in trouble everywhere he went. It did not take long for all of his teachers to realize that 15-year-old John was completely illiterate. He couldn’t read or write anything at all. His attitude and behavior problems were clearly steaming from his inability to function academically. We communicated our finding to all of the appropriate levels, but then John turned 16 and he was eligible for night school. Rather then take any steps to help join and intervene, the school simply sent him on to this blended learning environment that mostly required him to read to learn content independently. He stopped attending night school in less than a month and dropped out of high school by the start of the next school year.
Finally, even the kids who excelled in night school and earned their diploma encountered a rude wake-up call upon graduation. The vast majority of public universities would not accept the credits they earned from the online learning platform. Instead of broadening horizons for these students, the night school program in fact significantly limited students’ choices when it came to furthering their education. Their only options now were to attend community college or try to find a private school that would accept their credits but was financially beyond their means. The worst part of this was that NOBODY told the students in night school that this would happen until it was too late.
My point here is not that blended learning is awful and leads to kids dropping out and not getting into college, but that implementation models matter. When talking about blended learning models, it’s easy to tell the success stories when things work well. What we tend to forget is to tell the stories of when things go wrong and what that means for kids and their potential futures. I can only speak for my experience in my public school system, but I am sure there are similar stories out there of thoughtless implementation of blended learning to try and solve a problem.
If we are to accept that blended learning models are “disruptive” and will ultimately take over traditional education models, then we need to start thinking about how we can build capacity in public school systems to thoughtfully implement these models to benefit kids and improve outcomes. Part of that thoughtfulness needs to be focused what blended learning needs to look like in public schools to account for the many limitations in our current system. Rather than working quickly to try and keep up with the hype, schools and teachers need to take their time and be thoughtful about their adaptation of blended learning. In some cases, this solution may not even be an appropriate match for their problems.