Blended learning

Ten years ago in the USA only 45,000 students received on line lessons.  Today the total is over 3 million and rising rapidly.  The rapid maturing of the on line market place together with the ubiquity of access provided by computer and tablet technologies, means that schools globally will increasingly migrate to providing some learning on line.

These developments represent what Clayton Christensen calls ‘disruptive technology’ – something done differently, more effectively and cheaper than currently provided.  Christensen is a professor at Harvard and has been struck by the emergence of on line courses at universities offering cheap, popular and effective ways of learning for students.  What started at universities however is now being replicated by schools.

Let’s start with a definition of ‘blended learning.’ The recent Innosight report on these developments in the USA1 has defined blended learning as: a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home. (ie a school of some sort).

The report recognises that there appear to be four emerging models of on line learning:

  1. Rotation model: here a student rotates between traditional learning in school and one of a number of on line experiences. These can be sub divided into:
    1. Station rotation: here students experience traditional teaching and then rotate to acquire some on line learning and possibly some group/online learning.
    2. Lab rotation: this is the same as station rotation except that the students visit different classrooms within the school to participate in different learning modalities.
    3. Flipped classroom: here the students rotate between traditional and on line learning in school and on line learning at home. The on line content differs from home work in that the primary delivery of content and instruction is on line and at home. Teachers check learning in school and reinforce what has been learnt via follow up activities. This model gives students control over time, place, path, and/or pace of learning.
    4. Individual Rotation model: here a learning programme for individual students is established that may well be unique and blends traditional classroom instruction with on line learning.
  2. Flex model: in this programme content and instruction are primarily delivered on line. Support for students varies according to need with some receiving a great deal of additional teacher instruction and some quite little. Within this environment typically students are in large spaces in front of desktop machines – up to 270 in some places – with spaces off for small group instruction, tutoring and coaching.
  3. Self- Blend Model: In this model students choose individually to undertake additional courses on line either at home or school or both. The school facilitates this and ensures that the course is completed and problems and difficulties overcome.
  4. Enriched virtual model: Here content and instruction is delivered remotely (at home) and students do not attend school on a full time basis. They visit school to augment their on line experiences. This model when operated applies to all the children of the school and not simply some.

These ideas are all very new. Their attraction lies in potentially extending the number of hours that children learn and providing ‘expert’ tuition in the form of well thought out on line delivery. Potentially such tuition can be world class and highly engaging as it can utilise a variety of visual and audio materials. These then are ‘enriched’ learning environments and students tend to respond to them well because they are used to seeing and working in such realities.

Work so far this year

  1. A group has been set up at Cornwallis to develop some on line course material.
  2. Sixth form are an obvious target for on line courseware and some is now available.
  3. We have met with Pearson group to discuss partnership with them. They have asked for a paper to develop more formal links.
  4. David Simons and I have discussed the idea of a 20/10 curriculum model for September 2012. This would involve 10 hours of on line learning at home for a pilot year group in addition to their taught time in school.
  5. Materials from the Khan Academy focusing on maths have been used in both schools this year.

Areas that could be developed easily

Many curriculum areas lend themselves to on line migration of some form. These would include: English, maths, ICT, science, history, geography, RE,  some language provision, some art provision,  and some personal and social courses. Additionally an A level content base could be established for most courses.

Assessment modification

Moving into the on line world would mean the further development of metrics to assess when students are on line using materials, what they are learning, and what they need to reprise within a traditional taught environment.  This moves students into a more individualised approach to learning with increased coaching and mentoring and a school wide concern about student motivation.

Costs

The costs of strategically undertaking this work across these schools are difficult to quantify.  I believe the schools will need new structures and people to undertake the new work of providing and mapping student work in an on line world.  These costs would be met from re orientating the school cost models.  In the non teaching areas we recently  identified savings of up to £850,000 a year. Within the teaching sphere there are potential savings in the longer term if this model was adopted at scale and proven to be successful.

Moving this forward at fast

  1. Choose the model: this is probably best undertaken in discussion. Some of these approaches noted above are simply impossible politically. A Flex model could be undertaken, especially given the structure of plazas. Likewise Flipped Classrooms offers a low risk low investment model for development. Both of these – Flex and Flipped – would be my recommendations.
  2. Choose your partners: most of the American scaled examples are working with larger partners. Pearson might be crucial for FST and Microsoft too. iNACOL ( http://www.inacol.org) is also a US based organisation that it would be worth linking with.
  3. Structures: FST will need to have new people and new structures to move in these directions. Setting up a think tank with some young researchers would be one way of embedding this. Such individuals could research learning and on line materials and feed this into the wider teacher and student community. Additionally the metrics team needs to be developed further to cope with on line feedback from on line learning systems. I would propose that a senior manager from outside school is brought in to manage this. On the back of this school management models need to be revisited as the management of the future will look different from today’s offer. The costs of adjusting the metrics team would be neutral. To employ two researchers might cost £50,000 plus on costs with these costs being met from savings elsewhere in back office operations.
  4. Content: there is a growing volume of good content available and this could be utilised by FST. The emergence of Apps from Apple, Google, Pearson and (soon) Microsoft will drive this significantly in the next decade or so. Again a research team could access and assess much of this for school use.
  5. Parental involvement: need to roll out a programme for parents to understand this.
  6. Staff training programme: critical as we redevelop teachers as coaches and people who can interrogate data and respond appropriately to what it is saying.

Proposal

FST plaza based schools were always designed to take advantage of the development of significant on line learning. To simply use plazas for traditional classroom approaches misses potential benefits for learning and savings too. We are now at a point where we have generations of students who are comfortable with screen based learning and who can benefit from a multi media approach to learning. The future is likely to see significant developments in these areas globally. FST has the opportunity to undertake this work at some scale and potentially lead thinking in the UK and Europe on these approaches.

My own suggestion would be to move cautiously but strategically with this work. Assuming that partnerships can be forged, the easiest route might be to convert the Year 7 plaza at Cornwallis into a Windows 8 environment deploying slate devices rather than tablets. FST could seek some sponsorship from Microsoft and Samsung for some of this. Windows 8 is new software being launched by Microsoft later this year which features the kind of ‘touch’ environments used on Apple devices. Microsoft will be keen to demonstrate this new technology as will Samsung who will make devices to run the software. So a suggested time and cost model might be as follows:

Date Activity Cost
Summer 2012 Generate commercial relationships with Pearson, Microsoft and Samsung Zero
Autumn 2012 Make cost savings at Cornwallis to enable new model of learning and pay for technology. Aim to save £850k pa Zero
Spring 2013 Develop new team of researchers and revised data team £62,500 pa
Summer 2013 Revisions to physical space in plaza £5000
Summer 2013 Purchase 220 slate devices £100,000 (within ICT refresh budget)
Autumn 2013 Run programme of enhanced screen based learning in school and at home Within existing budgets

Teachers would need training in these new approaches, the application of mentoring and the use of enhanced data feeds that tell them how students are progressing. This could be undertaken in house during the summer term 2013. Parents would also need to be briefed about their role at home. Assessment reports could be modified to let parents know progress on a weekly basis.

Curriculum areas covered would initially include: science, English, maths and humanities. Many materials are free. Some are not. A deal with Microsoft and Pearson could enable FST to gain access to their premium materials for free.

Longer term this model could be progressively rolled out cover all year groups. In the longer run the management of plaza environments would include non teaching staff as well as teachers. Teachers would develop their roles as mentors and guides and be less responsible for core content delivery (which would be undertaken on line). Plaza management would include a student motivation component and could be undertaken by individuals with a data and psychology background working with two coaches for each plaza. Such teams would work closely with teachers and here FST might choose to support learning by employing fewer master teachers who can easily inhabit this new world of on line and traditional teaching combined with sophisticated measurement techniques of pupil progress. Using this model at scale would – if desired – save one third of teaching staff.

Performance indicators

These should include: rate of progress per student; school attendance; self-management default data; on line attendance and percentage of students with apparent conceptual difficulties from work undertaken on line.  FST can then compare these indicators with historic information on previous year groups.


  1. Heather Staker & Michael B Horn:  Classifying K-12 Blended Learning (Innosight Institute, 2012)