A field guide for implementing blended learning

A new book offers tips on unlocking potential while mitigating risk
By: and | Issue: January, 2015
December 16, 2014

Blended learning is poised to transform education as we know it. We know the what and the why, but it’s not often we learn how.

In their book,Blended, Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (Jossey-Bass 2014), Michael Horn and Heather Staker lay out the components of successful blended learning programs, and challenge readers to create a culture that can make these innovations succeed.

“The power of culture is that as members of an organization reach a shared paradigm about how to work together to be successful, ultimately they don’t have to stop to ask each other what to do,” says Staker. “They just assume that they should keep doing what they’re doing because it works.”

Horn is co-founder and executive director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Staker is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute and recognized expert on blended learning.

Let’s start with a definition of an often misused term that is central to your bookÑ”disruptive innovation.”

Horn: Disruption is used in popular lexicon today to mean a wide variety of things. But we mean something very specific. It’s the process that transforms sectors that are characterized by things that are complicated, expensive, deeply centralized and can only be accessed by a limited few, into things that are far more affordable, convenient, accessible and customizable, so that they can serve many more people with their benefits.

They typically start as simple innovations in areas where the alternative is nothing. And then they improve over time, which is how they have that transformational effect.

Staker: It seems that anything that’s innovation is called a disruptive innovation. In fact, that’s not the case.

One thing we attack in the book is the idea that all use of online learning in classrooms or in schools is disruptive innovation. Instead, what we find is that, in some cases, schools are blending online learning to sustain the traditional classroomsÑand in ways that are actually very exciting, and that can improve the traditional classroom.

But in other cases we are seeing districts that are using online learning in schools to replace classrooms with a really different way of thinking about educating children, and those are the more disruptive examples of online learning blending into the schools.

You studied more than 150 blended programs while researching the book. Did any stand out as best examples of what you are talking about?

Horn: Early on, before we even decided there was a book here, Heather came across Acton Academy in Austin, Texas. It’s one of the biggest breaths of fresh air we’ve ever experienced in education.

Staker: That’s true. I became so immersed in the research and so dazzled by some of the examples that I literally moved my family to Texas so they could attend one of these blended schools.

But blended learning is a big category. You see special education students at places like the Carpe Diem charter school in Yuma, Ariz., who need more of an individualized playlist and customized pacing. And then you see another student who is a professional surfer in Hawaii who needed to be able take online courses to fit his schedule. And you see students in the KIPP program who needed more individual time with their teachers. So this is making a big difference for them.

Because of the variety and the creativity with which educators are using the new tools, we’re unlocking a breadth of solutions that weren’t available in the past.

Horn: The other exciting thing is the continued pace of innovation in the field. We’ll revisit a school we first visited two years ago, and it looks quite different. They are learning what works, the software is improving, and the way that teachers use those tools and analyze the data is improving.

We see a flowering of many different models to meet many different circumstances. But we’re still really early. It’s kind of scary to imagine what this could look like in 10 years, because I’m sure we’ll be wrong in predicting how exciting this could get.

The book is a call to action. You tell readers, “You are the change driver.”

Staker: That was intentional for a couple of reasons. One is that we think the country is ready for it.

We have enough examples of schools that are finding release and opportunity by using technology strategically that we no longer can afford to sit back and wait. The second reason is that Michael’s earlier book,Disrupting Class (McGraw Hill, 2008), was the 50,000-foot view of how online learning is emerging as a disruptive innovation that will change the world.

And it felt like people were hungry for the more practical design book to help them take those high-level concepts and apply them at the 5,000-foot level. So this book was intended to ground blended learning now in actual practical step-by-step recommendations for how to move forward.

Throughout the book, QR codes launch illustrative video clips. One of them says: “Technology has revolutionized our world. Nothing in our modern lives remains untouched by this powerful transformation, except education.” That may come as a shock to people who say, “Well, we already have computers in school.”

Staker: Literally every other industry in the world is embracing the digital era, and schools have yet to truly transform. We have seen computers in classroomsÑin fact, we spent over $100 billion on technology over the past few decadesÑyet they seemed to be crammed on top of the current system as opposed to truly transforming it. We showcase schools that are changing that and shining a path forward that others can follow.

Horn: But technology, by itself, won’t transform practice. What’s been so striking in education is that a lot of those efforts have been just layered on without asking what teaching and learning should look like in this new paradigm.

Don’t try to adapt technology or software to your current business processes, because it won’t work. Instead, you really ought to change your practices to meet what the software can now allow you to do.

You talk about creating a culture that will allow these things to bloom.

Staker: Culture is a critical piece to glue together the experience. When we say culture, we mean those tasks that are repeated over and over again until they become embedded into a common, shared way of doing things.

One problem that can beset these organizations is that they create their teams and they do the design and implementation, but they don’t retain those teams to be the masterminds of the culture. So while we’re talking about the topic of culture, I think that’s one key strategic decision that the leaders can makeÑkeep the teams on-site and on hand to think about culture issues and getting those right over the long term, even after the implementation is well underway.

You say blended learning works, but you acknowledge there can be roadblocks along the way.

Horn: There are a lot of people who write education books and say, “This is the panacea for what ails.” I think two things: First, our credibility comes from being honest that there isn’t a silver bullet out there, but we’re giving people the best advice we can based on solid research. Second, we say just because we’re using technology doesn’t mean that it’s automatically going to be good.

Many more schools are experimenting with blended learning. Are we approaching a tipping point where it becomes part of the fabric of education?

Horn: It’s difficult to know. The problem is the Department of Education doesn’t collect great data on this. We do know, talking to the leaders of a lot of the major education technology companies, that at least 8 million students are being served in blended learning environments in K12. And that doesn’t even factor in the teachers we don’t know about who have independently decided to flip their classrooms, use a variety of resources out on the web to create station rotations, and so on.

So if that tipping point hasn’t exactly been hit, it’s just around the corner. And I think it’s accelerating a lot faster than conventional wisdom often gives it credit for.

Staker: America’s teachers work incredibly hard. We hope these innovations can help channel their efforts for the highest impact. The teaching role can become more satisfying and these innovations can be a springboard to offering more for students than we’ve been able to offer in the past.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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