By Heather Staker
Senior Research Fellow
Clayton Christensen Institute
The decade ahead will present unusual and important opportunities for school leaders in Texas. The blend of online learning into brick-and-mortar schools — or “blended learning,” for short — is transforming the way students learn and schools operate. The innovation has the potential to usher in an unprecedented era of personalized, student-centered education. At the same time, it presents risks that require a deliberate strategy to mitigate.
In our new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, Michael Horn and I offer a practical field guide for implementing blended learning. Thousands of school districts across America — over 75 percent by some estimates — are starting to awaken to the possibilities. The book provides a glimpse at several of them and identifies the reasons they are replacing the old system with a blended model.
Most Commonly, the catalyst for change is one of three things:
1. Desire for personalization.Today’s schools were designed over a century ago, patterned after the efficient factory system that had emerged in industrial America. This resulted in batching students by age into grades, placing them in a classroom with one teacher, and standardizing teaching and testing. The challenge is that in today’s world — in which over 60 percent of jobs require knowledge workers — this design falls short. Leaders are turning to blended learning because they feel an urgency to personalize instruction so that struggling students do not fall through the cracks and advanced students have opportunities to accelerate.
2. Desire for access. Many schools, particularly in rural and inner-city areas, struggle to offer access to as broad a range of learning opportunities as their students and communities need. Families are starting to ask why, in a connected world, zip codes still dictate the quality of most public schools. Blended learning is the big innovation that holds the most promise for distributing access more equitably.
3. Desire to control costs. Resources are limited and leaders feel stretched to differentiate instruction for every child. But having a personal tutor and learning plan for every child is prohibitively expensive, so educators are eyeing blended learning as the best opportunity to achieve the ideal of a tutor-like experience for every child without the added cost.
With these motivators in mind, leaders are forging ahead with a variety of blended models, ranging from “Station Rotations” and “Flipped Classrooms” to “Flex” and “Enriched Virtual” designs. Successful efforts to personalize learning are emerging in Coppell ISD, Spring ISD, Dallas ISD, Houston ISD, Lufkin ISD, the Rio Grande Valley area, San Antonio, and Austin — to name only a few.
Despite early signs of success, however, the effort will only succeed over the long term if leaders are strategic about mitigating the risks. Over the past several decades, Texas has spent billions of dollars on computers in classrooms, and oftentimes with little to show for the investment in terms of results. The most common mistake schools make with technology is to fall in love with the technology itself. This leads to cramming — the layering of technology on top of the existing model in a way that adds costs but does not improve results.
To maximize the impact of blended learning, the most successful leaders start by identifying a clear problem to solve. Then they bring the right team to the table to design the student and teacher experience. Only after a rigorous design process do they consider the technology and devices that are best suited to the effort.
Digital innovations present extraordinary opportunities to bridge gaps in our education system and tailor instruction to individual student needs. The future is full of promise for Texas schools, but we need entrepreneurial leaders to design and implement the personalized system that is now within reach.
Raising Blended Learners is a demonstration initiative showcasing blended learning strategies for improving student achievement across diverse student demographics and geographic regions in Texas, particularly among districts with persistent achievement gaps.
Through a statewide competitive application process, five schools districts will be awarded up to $500,000 and intensive technical assistance over three years, to implement blended learning plans and serve as statewide demonstration sites for blended learning in Texas. Follow along for announcements and updates.