May 28, 2014

Dell Foundation Blended Learning Report adds to existing knowledge, but doesn’t demonstrate improved outcomes

A recent “Blended Learning Report” commissioned by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and written by SRI, adds to the growing body of knowledge about blended learning implementations. It is valuable, as the field benefits from additional investigations and examples, especially in exploring and describing ways to improve blended learning implementations. It does not, however, provide the relatively simple examples of quantifiable outcomes that I believe educators, policymakers, and advocates need, particularly in non-charter public schools.

The research appears to have begun with a focus on seeking quantifiable outcomes, as “the study was motivated by the following research questions:

  • Do students in blended learning models show changes in academic achievement that differ significantly from their peers’?
  • Do students in blended learning models show a propensity to close the achievement gap?…
  • Are blended learning models more effective for some types of students or subject areas than for others?”

These are three of the five research questions listed in the opening to the report. In my view, they are the most important questions. But the answers are not apparent in the report.

The fact that the outcomes results are not easily accessed in the 173 page report is an issue in itself. In order to navigate the findings I relied on the very useful blog posts by the Foundation’s Cheryl Niehaus, and as a researcher I was far more willing to dig into the report than most administrators, legislators, school board members, or other key people are likely to be.

According to the blog post, “During the 2011-2012 school year when the study was conducted, most of the participating organizations demonstrated statistically significant positive effects in at least some grade levels and/or subject areas. However, the findings also point to clear areas for improvement.” Pages 15-16 of the report discusses the limitations of the attempt to determine outcomes measures, and the school-specific “impact analyses” that are scattered throughout the second part of the report provide the numbers.

The bottom line is that this report includes some examples of success, and many useful descriptions of implementation ideas and issues (which I will discuss in a future blog post). I don’t think it’s going to sway many people who are as yet unconvinced that implementing blended learning is worth the time, money, and effort.

2 Responses to Dell Foundation Blended Learning Report adds to existing knowledge, but doesn’t demonstrate improved outcomes

  1. John,

    Thank you for your time reviewing the recently released SRI report, and for your thoughtful comments. I wanted to take a moment to address your observation that the impact findings are distributed throughout the report. As noted in my first blog post on the findings, the research and report should be seen as a formative analysis; the report is not designed to give a summative answer to the question of whether or not blended learning works. My concern, therefore, was that any summary of outcomes data across models would invite comparisons that can’t yet be supported 1) given where we are in the field, 2) given the single year of data contained in this analysis, and 3) given the small number of schools studied. For now, it seems appropriate that each model’s outcomes be viewed in the context of its overall implementation; thus the outcomes data has a more appropriate home in each of the individual site reports. Yes, this does make the report more labor-intensive for readers. But in my view, the information design of this report should guide readers through a nuanced view of the data. If you haven’t yet seen Tricia Mass’ take on the report on CRPE’s blog, I think you’d find it interesting. In addition to offering her thoughts on the report’s structure, she begins a list of lessons learned from the various parts of the current blended learning fact base.

  2. Cheryl, thanks for your comment and for pointing me to the CRPE blog post. I do agree with those comments. You may also see that I touched on some similar themes in a subsequent blog post.

    As I mentioned in my post I found your interpretation of the issues in the report very valuable and look forward to seeing your additional thoughts.


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