A theory of action for why advocates believe blended learning can work

The Learning Accelerator (TLA) recently released its Blended Learning Research Clearinghouse 1.0, which was compiled by TLA Partner Saro Mohammed. The document provides a valuable synopsis of eight studies that are wide-ranging in their design, ranging from the Proof Points that we have released in conjunction with the Christensen Institute, to studies by SRI, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, and others.

Michael Horn has written an excellent column over at EdSurge reviewing the TLA Clearinghouse in detail. I agree with his description and in particular his statement thatasking whether blended learning ‘works’ is the wrong question,” and I won’t go into depth repeating the points he makes. As many researchers have noted about all sorts of educational technology applications, the answer to the question of efficacy is generally that the application can work under certain circumstances, and the key questions are really about which conditions allow it to work. Several of the sources cited in the Clearinghouse make this point as well, and some of the studies go into discussions about the conditions under which blended learning appears to work.

In addition to providing a guide to some of the existing research, the Clearinghouse also contributes a valuable description of a commonly used theory of action for why blended learning will improve student outcomes. This point is captured as follows:

“There is, however, an established body of evidence for personalizing or individualizing learning and facilitating student agency to foster self-regulated, intrinsically motivated learning, all of which blended learning can enable at scale.”

The report goes on to document and describe seven “instructional elements of personalization that have been found to have large, positive effects on learning,” including references to the relevant studies.

Within the larger context, which is that studies into the effectiveness of blended learning have been limited, the key points from this section of the TLA document are:

1) Numerous studies have shown elements of personalizing learning to be successful at improving student outcomes.

2) Blended learning can enable personalized learning to be implemented at scale.

3) Blended learning is likely to improve student outcomes because it will allow personalized learning to reach a significant percentage of students—which is difficult without technology.

In fact, some people argue that blended learning doesn’t just allow personalized learning at scale; it is required to deliver personalized learning at scale.

These general ideas appear to be increasingly accepted. When one asks a school or district leader why they are adopting blended learning, more often than not the answer is related to personalized learning. But it wasn’t many years ago that the answers were not so clear. The TLA report documents a reason why the link between personalized learning, blended learning, and student outcomes makes sense.

In post-secondary education, students taking online courses have lower course completion rates but higher degree completion rates

A couple of weeks ago our blog noted a study showing that in California community colleges, students had lower completion rates in online courses than in face-to-face courses. The post was based on an article in US News & World Report from The Hechinger Report.

Now comes an important addition to the story via these same sources, pointing out that in community colleges, students who take distance education classes (that are mostly online) are more likely to finish their degrees than students who don’t take any online classes. From the original study, by researchers at the University at Albany and Furman University:

“…we hypothesized that community college students who participate in distance education in early semesters graduate at lower rates than students who do not. Contrary to expectations, the study found that controlling for relevant background characteristics; students who take some of their early courses online or at a distance have a significantly better chance of attaining a community college credential than do their classroom only counterparts.”

Further, the researchers controlled for student characteristics such that “this does not appear to be an effect of better, more motivated, or more academically prepared students self selecting into distance education.

In the US News article, the study’s main author calls it a “paradox” that students finish online courses at lower rates but then complete degrees at higher rates than average. But with further reflection this phenomenon is not so surprising. Many students, in both colleges and high schools, are choosing online courses because they are more convenient than the traditional courses. For college students, the face-to-face course may be less convenient because it requires commuting to a class whose timing interferes with job or family—not even accounting for lost commuting time. For high school students, in many cases the online course may be the only one available if the student attends one of the many high schools that doesn’t offer a wide range of courses. Even if students are less likely to complete a single online course than a single face-to-face course, the increased availability, flexibility, and convenience of the online courses makes them particularly helpful for students trying to complete a set of requirements for a degree.

Examining success rates in online courses is important for many reasons, including that understanding the issues keeping completion rates from being higher will help teachers and schools improve outcomes. But this latest article is a valuable reminder that passing the course is not the ultimate goal. For a high school student, the goal is usually graduating from high school ready for college or career. Online courses that increase access and opportunities help students achieve that goal, even if passing rates are lower than in face-to-face courses.

Forecasting the Internet’s impact on business is proving hard. Predicting impacts on education is even harder.

The Economist believes that “Forecasting the internet’s impact on business is proving hard.”

“Prognosticators have a bad record when it comes to new technologies. Safety razors were supposed to produce a clean-shaven future. Cars were expected to take off and fly. Automation was meant to deliver a life of leisure. Yet beards flourish, cars remain earthbound and work yaps at our heels.

The internet is no exception. Anyone looking for mis-prognostications about it will find an embarrassment of riches. The internet was supposed to destroy big companies; now big companies rule the internet. It was supposed to give everyone a cloak of anonymity: “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” Now Google and its like are surveillance machines that know not only that you’re a dog but whether you have fleas and which brand of meaty chunks you prefer. We can now add two more entries to the list of unreliable forecasts about the internet: that it would make location irrelevant and eliminate middlemen.”

One can find similar failed predictions about the impacts of the Internet on education without too much effort. Indeed, it’s not so much the clearly failed predictions that are most misleading, but instead the accounts of small-scale successes that were assumed to be scalable and about to take over education but never did. Some (e.g. Second Life) seemed fanciful at the time and have had little measurable impact. Others (e.g. School of One and the extensive use of “playlists” of instructional materials) continue to exist and evolve, in some cases working well but rarely at the scale that the most optimistic advocates envisioned. (It’s important to note that these advocates have often been outside the schools and programs doing the work; internal educators have usually been more realistic about growth constraints.)

But changes are happening, and in some ways the evolution of the business and education worlds are similar.

“Companies are increasingly treating the physical and virtual worlds as complements rather than alternatives. The virtual world is better at some things—comparing prices, say, or giving consumers in the wilds of Kansas the same choice as ones in Manhattan. But the physical world is better at others.”

The same holds true for most schools and students. Relatively few students are choosing a fully online education—although for those who do and remain in the online school, it is often their best educational option. But most are adding an online course to a slate of courses at a physical school, or taking classes at that physical school that are combining online and face-to-face elements.

The role of real people continues to be important as well, in business and in education.

“Mukti Khaire of Harvard Business School argues that in many other areas middlemen are more important than ever: people are so confused by the overwhelming choice the internet brings, and the cacophony of user reviews, that the need for trustworthy guides and other sorts of intermediary is increasing.”

This point speaks to the views of people who believe that when students can find extensive instructional materials on the Internet, they won’t need teachers. But in fact teachers will remain in many roles, including the “trustworthy guides” for some students.

The column’s closing is especially applicable to education:

“The internet is now starting to transform education and health care. Given the technology’s capacity to cut costs and increase access, it would be wrong to give in to incumbents in those businesses who are dead set against reform. But it would also be unwise to trust in digital revolutionaries who insist those incumbents will inevitably be swept away by a wave of startups. There is a world of difference between disruption and destruction.”

The Economist’s views aren’t all directly applicable to K-12 education. In particular, the view that technology can cut costs has, so far at least, been limited. But it seems safe to say that traditional schools have not yet been “swept away” by completely new schools and classrooms. Change is happening, and although much of it is still measured and incremental, that doesn’t make it any less important.

Interest in post-secondary online learning reciprocity growing

Some of our past blog posts have explored the current shortcomings and potential benefits of reciprocity between states in teacher certification and sharing online courses. Often our views tend towards skepticism. Regarding teacher certification our research suggests that the current benefits of reciprocity are often overestimated, and we have expressed uncertainty about whether proposals from our friends at Digital Learning Now regarding course choice operating across state lines have a high likelihood of success. (Which isn’t to say that proposals suggesting course sharing or reciprocity across states are not good ideas.)

Recent apparent advances in post-secondary reciprocity provide hope that perhaps similar issues are being addressed within higher education. I stress that these are “apparent” advances because unless one delves deeper under the hood than I’m able to do, it’s hard to tell if the policy changes will have an impact on the ground. Still, it’s early and these efforts hold promise.

The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) calls itself a “voluntary, regional approach to oversight of distance education.” The why and how include:

“Higher Education needs a new way for states to oversee the delivery of postsecondary distance education.

The current process is too varied among the states to assure consistent consumer protection, too cumbersome and expensive for institutions that seek to provide education across state borders, and too fragmented to support our country’s architecture for quality assurance in higher education — the quality assurance “triad” of accrediting agencies, the federal government, and the states.

A new, voluntary process of state oversight of distance education has been created to redress these problems. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement is a voluntary agreement among its member states and U.S. territories that establishes comparable national standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance-education courses and programs. It is intended to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by postsecondary institutions based in another state.”

When New Mexico recently joined NC-SARA, the Albuquerque Journal described the benefits for the state’s educational institutions and students. “The ability of New Mexico’s public and private colleges and universities to offer online programs beyond the state borders just increased considerably and includes target states from coast to coast. In addition, New Mexico students who take distance education courses from institutions in those other states can now rest assured that the programs meet high, uniform standards.”

Could a similar approach work in K-12 education? Perhaps, but post-secondary education has a longer history of working across state lines than does K-12, and SARA is administered by four existing regional education compacts (Midwestern Higher Education Compact, New England Board of Higher Education, Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education). Of these, SREB has been significantly involved in K-12 education, but the others less so.

Still, it’s worth watching what happens with SARA and whether its approach and potential success can be replicated at the K-12 level.

The risk of partisanship in federal blended learning policy

Our policy research at Keeping Pace is usually focused at the state level because state laws and regulations tend to have a greater immediate impact on digital learning than federal laws. But we are keeping an eye on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind because major changes to the main federal law governing education would almost certainly impact digital learning at some level, and we have also been keeping tabs on some other proposed federal efforts that would have direct influence on digital learning (i.e. student data privacy).

In this context, a salient observation from Brookings is that the recent political skirmish over the Common Core “highlights a key tension facing education advocates seeking to use federal policy to advance their goals: Any benefits from federal involvement may come at the cost of heightened partisan polarization.” (emphasis added)

Brookings’ researchers come to this conclusion based on survey data that show two facts:

1. Significantly more people surveyed support Common Core when Common Core is described but not named, compared to when it is described and named, and

2. Essentially all of the higher level of support comes from people who identify as Republican.

In other words, quite a few Republicans like the ideas behind Common Core, but oppose “Common Core.”

In case any blog readers lean left and suspect that this finding is due to a specific party-affiliated trait that keeps Republicans from seeing straight when an issue is associated with the Obama Administration, Brookings notes that a “similar dynamic was evident in public opinion on No Child Left Behind in the waning years of the George W. Bush administration. Support for the law dropped markedly in questions that referred to it by name, as compared to questions that used otherwise identical language to describe its key provisions. These effects were observed mainly among Democrats, suggesting that the law, despite its bipartisan roots, had come to be closely associated in the public mind with the Republican president.”

Partisanship appears to be increasing. It also appears to be worse at the federal level than at the state level; or at least the political gridlock that results is worse at the federal level. All this suggests that digital learning advocates may benefit from maintaining a focus at the state level, rather than expecting that significant positive change will come from a change to federal laws. As the Common Core saga has shown, any apparent progress in federal policy may be a short-lived or pyrrhic victory.







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