The morning-after pill for blended learning Posted on February 27th, 2012 by Heather Clayton Staker

Amid the political wrangling about government-mandated contraception distribution, I had the thought that some of the preliminary ideas about regulating new education models are like birth control for innovation. They could prevent or abort before the innovation becomes viable, and the story ends there.

I’ve been troubled especially by early signs that government is starting to define and encode blended learning. Online learning, which involves the Internet delivering instruction and content to students, has been around for several years. But blended learning, meaning learning that takes place when online instruction blends into brick-and-mortar schools, is quite new. Policymakers are just starting to notice it. Their efforts so far have concerned me.

In one state (name withheld), a few legislators kicked around the idea of authorizing up to 25 “blended-learning demonstration programs” in schools throughout the state. The demonstration sites would weave online learning together with face-to-face instruction and have one year to measure results. If effective, the program could expand to more schools.

Other state legislators recently debated the merits of allowing paraprofessionals, meaning adults without teaching licenses, to supervise students working online and thereby allow credentialed teachers time to pull aside clusters of students for small-group face-to-face instruction.

In a third conversation, a national education group grappled with whether it should begin to pressure all states to define blended learning in law, and whether that the definition should specify that blended learning must include both online and face-to-face learning methods.

The problem with all three of these ideas is that codifying any of them into law will not improve education, and even worse, will likely prevent viable blended-learning models from coming to fruition before they get a fair chance to play out.

Consider the first example with the 25 blended-learning demonstration sites. The well-intentioned legislators wanted the bill to be an affirmation of support for blended learning. But literally millions of K-12 students are already blending online learning into their classroom experiences across the country. Ironically, if the bill were to have been successful, it would have reduced blended-learning programs drastically to a measly 25 sites statewide—a significant reduction to a phenomenon that already is happening organically across that state, without any specific authorization from on high. That’s one of the beauties of blended learning. It’s finding its way into classrooms on its own, thanks to resourceful teachers, students, and administrators, without any need for department of education “demonstration programs.”

The idea of regulating paraprofessionals is also severely flawed. Teachers have long been privy to the use of teacher’s aides, parents, and other non-credentialed adults to support their classrooms. Indeed, countless non-certified adults interact with students each day, including cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and tutors. Today a few blended-learning models are finding fruitful new uses for carefully screened paraprofessionals. The acclaimed Rocketship Education schools in San Jose, Calif. use a lab-rotation model, in which students rotate to a learning lab for two hours each day to learn online with paraprofessional supervision. The model has allowed Rocketship to save roughly $500,000 per year in traditional expenses, which it reinvests in higher teacher salaries (20 percent higher than surrounding districts), a two-hour after-school Response to Intervention program, leadership training, and Academic Deans. Its first school had an API score of 925 after its third year, which represents a ranking of 1st in Santa Clara County and 5th in California when compared to similar schools with at least 70 percent low-income students.

Rocketship is a pioneer in this new use of paraprofessionals. Only recently have a few other schools followed suit. Some legislators want to abort already? This early, even when we’re seeing success? Teachers and administrators have always had the power to use non-certified adults as classroom resources. Now of all times is not the moment for legislators to interfere.

In the third example, some organizations are starting to encourage states to define blended learning, and to define it narrowly. The problem is that ambiguity is sometimes good. Let the innovation get its messy start and expand instinctively, bottom up. No state leader can presume to know the precisely best way for an innovation to emerge. Policymakers can rightly demand accountability and results, but to define the form is to presume an impossible omniscience and seems arrogant.

Schools are starting to blend new models of learning into their programs, thanks to online learning as a technology driver that makes countless unexplored opportunities now possible. I’m terrified that state agencies and leaders are going to start intervening so early in the process of conception.

Filed under: Education Blog

One Response to “The morning-after pill for blended learning”
Bill, on March 8th, 2012 at 9:20 pm Said:
Very interesting analysis. I share your concerns about policymakers putting a fly in the ointment, no matter how well intentioned. It’s a tricky issue but you’re right to point out the dangers.

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