Elements of success in digital learning: teachers and mentors

Last week we released Proof Points: Blended Learning Success in School Districts. This is the second of a series of blog posts reviewing findings across the districts that we researched, and other schools and districts that we have not yet profiled.

All of the programs that we have profiled—and others that we have researched—believe that teachers are central to their success.

This finding is 1) probably not a surprise to most people involved in digital learning, and 2) perhaps beginning to sound a bit redundant on this blog.

But as long as publications such as The Atlantic are suggesting that teachers are becoming less important, it’s worth repeating and giving examples of how important teachers are in digital learning. In fact, the lack of recognition of the importance of teachers in all digital learning programs may be the biggest misconception in digital learning generally. Writers and policymakers sometimes talk about online and blended learning without much focus on teachers. Educators who are implementing digital learning almost always focus on the importance of teachers.

The role of teachers varies based on the program. Blended programs similar to Spring City and Randolph often use existing teachers, providing extensive professional development so that the teachers become comfortable with the use of digital content and data in the physical classroom. Programs similar to Spokane, Putnam, and Poudre use some teachers that spend at least part of their time online, including using tools within the learning management system to consistently communicate with students during their time online.

A previous blog post explored how successful blended courses used by physical schools need to have someone serving as a mentor, not merely as a monitor, in cases where the teacher is online.  I’ve recently had the opportunity to visit blended programs in California, Chicago, Oregon, and Missouri. All of these had someone—a teacher or staff member—who was serving as a mentor to the students who were working extensively with online content. This mentoring role was fairly consistent even as the academic, subject-matter role of the teacher differed. In a military academy in Chicago I watched a librarian engaging in highly personal ways with students, alternatively encouraging and cajoling them. In a town in California, the high school principal explained how the best teachers in the blended credit recovery program use a mix of “pom poms and boxing gloves.”

The role of teachers and mentors varies in these programs. What doesn’t vary is that all successful programs are relying on teachers and mentors as a key building block that enables student success.

Elements of success in digital learning: leadership

Last week we released Proof Points: Blended Learning Success in School Districts.  This and several upcoming blog posts will explore findings from the research into the schools that we have reviewed so far.

Strong school or district leadership is present in all scalable and sustained blended learning programs.

As we spoke with the programs that we were considering for profiles, in most cases it was clear that the exceptional leadership of one or more people was a fundamental key to success. Examples include the following:

  • Kenneth Grover is not only the principal of Salt Lake City’s Innovations High School, but he was central to the creation of the school. During several phone interviews his dedication to the school, and focus on students was clear. To see what I’m talking about, see his video on YouTube.
  • Randolph Central School District Superintendent Kimberly Moritz provided the first memorable quote of the project when she said, in her response to our survey, “a decade of mediocre results is our control group.”  She worked with school and district leaders to create and implement the program after first recognizing that the district needed to improve student outcomes. As many excellent leaders do, during our interviews she often deflected questions and credit to others who she brought onto the calls.
  • In addition to the research we did into the Poudre Global Academy, we were able to attend a presentation that principal Heather Hiebsch gave at a Colorado blended learning conference. Her energy in that session showed that she was passionate, but that she didn’t let her excitement for the school get in the way of a clear assessment of initial results—which resulted in some early changes to the program to improve outcomes.
  • In addition to these positive examples, during our research we became aware of a couple of programs that have been held in high regard, but appear to have slipped since the person who was instrumental in starting the initiative moved on.

Among the ramifications of the importance of leadership is that a program likely can’t be considered mature until a change of leadership has occurred (along with other factors). A change of leadership, followed by continued growth and success, is a sign of program maturity and suggests that the blended learning initiative is here to stay. Until that point, it’s hard to tell for sure if the success of the blended learning school or program will outlast its founder.



Proof Points: Blended Learning Success in School Districts

In a post earlier this week I explained that among the “noise” of blended learning research, signals of success exist–and that we would be publishing some examples soon. Today we and the Christensen Institute released the first of two sets of case studies that examine blended learning efforts in six traditional school districts, and the correlated improved student outcomes. Proof Points: Blended Learning Success provides profiles of leaders in blended learning and explores their innovative strategies. Profiles include:

  • Innovations Early College High School, in Salt Lake City, UT, was created to address concerns about the number of students who were becoming disengaged and dropping out of their schools. For the 2013–14 school year, its graduation rate was substantially higher than the average graduation rate of the district, state, and nation.
  • Poudre School District Global Academy, in Fort Collins, CO, opened in the fall of 2009 to provide a flexible school option for students in grades K–12. Based on student growth measures in several different grade levels and subject areas, the PSD Global Academy is ranked as the first or second best school in the district and is in the top 5% of all schools in the state.
  • Randolph Central School District (Randolph, NY) created a blended-learning program at the elementary school that focused on differentiated instruction. Since implementing the blended program, math scores on state assessments have improved significantly across the board.
  • Spokane Public Schools (Spokane WA) has developed and implemented blended learning in numerous programs across the district with a goal of increasing graduation rates and college and career readiness. The district has increased its graduation rate from 60% in 2007 to 83% in 2014.
  • Spring City Elementary Hybrid Learning School (Spring City, PA) uses a three-station Station Rotation model of blended learning. It has seen improved test scores in math, reading, and science since implementing its blended-learning program.

These cases demonstrate the variety of ways in which blended learning may be implemented, and also notable characteristics that are consistent across the group. These include strong leadership at the school or district level, dynamic and engaging instruction from online and onsite teachers, and digital content and platforms that allow students greater control over their learning. All of the educators interviewed indicated that they are in the early stages of blended learning implementation and expect their programs to grow into larger roles within each district.

The second set of profiles will be released next month. Additionally, school leaders from the Proof Points case studies will present at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning symposium in Orlando this November

We are grateful to our partners at Christensen for working with us on this research, and especially to the school and district leaders who gave us their time to better understand and profile their work.

Subsequent blog posts will explore some of these blended learning programs in more detail.

The signal and the noise in blended learning research

The Signal and the Noise” is the title of the book by renowned data geek Nate Silver, whose understanding of probability and statistics has allowed him to make a living playing poker, predict numerous election results with far more accuracy than other pundits, and parlay his knowledge into a successful blogging career. In the book Silver discusses topics as varied as baseball and climate change, exploring the ways data should be used. In presidential elections, for example, he might point out that a poll on the website of Fox News is “noise” (because it’s a self-selecting sample of a biased audience), but that within the dozen legitimate polls coming out of Ohio there is a pretty good signal that one candidate has the lead—even though some polls will show the other candidate winning.

The signal and the noise is also a pretty good description of the state of research into digital learning. A recent article from Education Week would have us believe that Blended Learning Research Yields Limited Results. On the surface, the article’s observations are accurate. But the article focuses on the many issues that obscure what is happening in digital learning (the noise), while shortchanging the issues that are becoming more clear in digital learning (the signal).

Among the legitimate sources of noise are:

  • Digital learning is implemented in countless different ways, and many elements differ between programs. These include the types of content, technology platforms, the role of the teacher, the extent of teacher professional development, the degree of planning prior to implementation, the control that students have over their learning, the amount of and success of communications with stakeholders, and many more. Any one of these can have negative impacts on success if implemented poorly.
  • Experimental research in education often takes five years or more from the point of study design to when the results are reported. In a field that is changing as rapidly as digital learning, that time period makes research difficult and relatively less valuable than in other, slower-moving fields. By the time a study is published the school and the field in general have changed multiple times.
  • The majority of studies into online and blended learning have been of college students or adult learners. Some of these findings may apply to students in high schools or younger grades, but many do not.

And yet, a discernible signal about outcomes of digital learning programs exists. Distinguishing the signal requires a basic understanding of several points:

  1. Meta-analyses of student outcomes related to educational technology repeatedly show that the application of technology shows no significant difference in student outcomes. This finding has been true over decades of study.
  1. The meta-analyses show no significant difference overall because they include studies of programs that are implementing technology well and with enough time to mature (often with positive results) and programs that have not implemented well or are in very early stages (therefore with flat or negative outcomes.) This is currently true of studies of blended learning.
  1. Within these studies that collectively show no significant difference are those examples of success—the schools and districts that are using online and blended learning to improve student outcomes. They exist, as do the schools and districts that have implemented poorly and have not produced positive outcomes.
  1. Schools are producing data that can be studied without setting up an experiment to test blended learning, because of the presence of state assessments, AP exam scores, NWEA MAP, and other tests. None of these is perfect. But as the data set collectively becomes sufficiently large, it produces useful findings even if any single data set is not as strong as an experimental design with a randomized controlled trial would be.

The noise suggests that we know very little about blended learning outcomes. But the signal paints a different story. It shows that the use of blended learning does not automatically produce positive outcomes. But if well thought out, and implemented with fidelity to the plan and to the ways in which the technology was intended to be used, it can be successful.

How do we know? In part, because we looked at results from some blended learning programs, primarily in charter schools, for some of the research in Keeping Pace 2014. More recently, working in conjunction with the Christensen Institute, we have been seeking examples of success in traditional school districts. We have found them, and in just a few days we will be releasing the first profiles documenting these successful blended learning implementations.




Arizona Online School Accountability Update

Previous blog posts have explored accountability related to digital schools in general, and how Arizona has been considering changes to accountability requirements for online schools. The Arizona Department of Education recently proposed to the Arizona State Board of Education (SBE) a set of changes to the accountability system for Arizona Online Instruction (AOI). Specifically, the issues and changes include:

  • The current system leaves too many AOI schools as unrated. This situation violates the intent of state education code and the conditions of the waiver the state is seeking from NCLB requirements under the federal Department of Education’s flexibility rules. The changes would increase the number of schools receiving a rating.
  • AOI schools are required to have a 95% rate at which students participate in state testing. Despite ramifications for not reaching this level, some schools do not, and they are penalized even in situations when a student has taken the state test but is associated with a physical school. ADE proposes counting all students as having taken the test for AOI accountability purposes even if the student took the test while associated with a physical school.
  • Particular attention is on increasing the important of student growth relative to proficiency, and also on graduation rate calculations. The ADE also recognizes that virtual schools serve a mobile population with diverse set of academic goals. The proposed system would reward schools for retaining under-credited students, and also reward schools for students’ growth towards graduation. It would also reward schools for graduating students in five, six, and seven years.

In late March the Arizona SBE unanimously approved the changes. See page five of the “summary of board action” for details.

Some other states, such as Colorado, have implemented different accountability systems for schools based on the student demographics of the school (e.g. Colorado’s Alternative Education Campuses). Some online schools fall under these alternative systems based on their student demographics, which are often based on having a very high percentage of at-risk students. To our knowledge, this is the first example of a state implementing a different system based on the mode of instruction. We will be watching to see how this plays out in practice.

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