Should We Stop Expanding K-12 Blended & Virtual Schools?

April, 2016 – The National Education Policy Center released a report on the performance of existing k-12 blended and virtual schools in the United States. When looking at adequate yearly progress (or an alternative standard) for these blended and online schools as a group, the researchers found that the group consistently performed well below their brick-and-mortar counterparts. They found a higher teacher to student ratio as well. Based upon these and a few other analyses, they made the following recommendations. I’ve included them with a bit of commentary. You can review the entire report here but following are their recommendations and my thoughts.

Policymakers slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor outcomes have been identified and addressed.

First, the report itself recognizes the limitations of how they are measuring the performance of students in these blended and virtual schools, and the limited data. Second, allow me to give a little insight into how some of this testing works for virtual schools. These test numbers for virtual schools are typically coming from a single day event where they make virtual school students travel to a site for this exam. Anecdotally, I know one instance where technical glitches with the computer lab were such that students were supposed to start their test at 9:00 AM and they didn’t actually get started until 1:00 PM. The students are not used to these sorts of tests. These virtual schools do not teach to the test (something that I consider a strength). And again, this is a single day in the school year in a context and format that is completely unfamiliar to the students. If anything, this just says that the virtual schools are not playing hoop jumping game of school as well as others, but I am suspect about assuming that it says too much of substance  about student performance for the entire virtual school ecosystem.

With that said, I agree that we need better measures, but we need to be flexible and open about how we assess student growth and development. Virtual schools should not be penalized because they do not fit the narrow boxes set up for traditional brick and mortar schools.

Additional, we need to consider more holistic affordances and limitations in schools. This might seem like an extreme example but, are we calling for limiting traditional brick and mortar school enrollment until they fully address the incredibly troubling issues with school violence, expansive bullying or related issues? If schools are doing well with AYP, are we okay with all this other stuff? While there are many reasons why families choose virtual schools, you might be surprised how many were related to justifiable concerns about such issues. I’ve met countless parents who were at their wits end trying to find a solution in the school or an alternative that did little more than address some of the most basic and fundamental physical, emotional and social needs of their kids; and people in the brick and mortar schools were not helping. These are real and important issues, and we don’t want to exacerbate the problem. So, do we really want to limit access to one of the only reasonable options for some of these kids to have a physically and emotionally safe learning environment? Of course, there are many other solid and viable reasons for virtual schooling, but I contend that we need to consider these issues with the larger context and situation in mind.

We don’t pay enough attention to how policy sets individuals and schools up for failure. I contend that we need to completely revisit how we go about measuring the quality of schools and student learning and that we create an approach that recognizes different curricular goals and standards for different schools, virtual and otherwise.

Oversight authorities specify and enforce sanctions for virtual schools and blended schools if they fail to demonstrate that they are doing a good job with their students.

Again, before we start throwing out sanctions that usually make it even harder for schools to improve quality, how about revisiting the way the measure success in the first place? This is good cause to pause and reflect about the entire AYP enterprise and how we do it now. And in an online course, there are an incredible number of data points that they didn’t even consider for this review of the health of virtual schools. Some of the lessons can give 20x the detail that we have of student behaviors and learning than in almost any brick and mortar school, yet none of that data was mined (because it wasn’t available to the researchers).

This is a classic problem with innovations. People try to measure them with old methods or standards. That often doesn’t work. We need new methods for new models.

Policymakers require virtual schools and blended schools to devote more resources to instruction, particularly by specifying a maximum ratio of students to teachers.

We don’t have the data to mandate this. This is largely driven by the student to teacher ratio, but it doesn’t consider other ratios. Should we also require a certain ration of adaptive learning software to students in brick and mortar classes? There are things done online for virtual students that are not done for the brick and mortar students. Besides, we have research to indicate that student to teacher ratio needs vary by context and the type of learning activity. This is too premature, especially until we find better ways to more broadly monitor learning and engagement for learners in any type of school.

State agencies ensure that virtual schools and blended schools fully report data related to the population of students they serve and the teachers they employ.

“Mom, can you tell Billy to share his candy with me?!” Okay. I get it. The researchers want access to more data. They want to policymakers to make it easier for them to write these sorts of reports and conduct additional research. This will, in their view, allow for greater accountability and better schools for all. They want everyone to play by the rules that benefit them the most in this pursuit. Perhaps this is valuable. Perhaps not.

State and federal policymakers promote efforts to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools and blended schools. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents an opportunity for those states with a growing virtual and blended school sector to improve upon their accountability systems for reporting data on school performance measures.

Yes. Now this is where I think that they have hit on the most important point. It might not even take the research and report that they wrote to get at this one. The entire system needs better ways to measure outcomes, and we need to do it in a way that blends accountability and an encouragement of educational innovation. People do not tend to think that way. We have a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to familiar systems even if they have massive problems while having a far higher standard for innovations. I’m all for careful review and scrutiny. Let’s just do it equally for all and in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily inhibit innovation.

In the end, what we need the most are solid, data-driven and research-informed online teaching and learning practices. We do indeed need more research in this area, and we need to do it in a way that brackets our assumptions about what school should look like, how it should take place, and an openness to a much broader range of outcomes, potential benefits, and potential limitations.  Right now we reward schools that play the policy and regulation games the best or that have the best zip codes and that isn’t going to be adequate for our progress in education.


Educational Innovation & Building a Plane in the Air

Is making educational change like building an airplane in the air? Perhaps you’ve heard that phrase before. The more I think about it, the more I see it as having some useful lessons for thinking about managing change in learning organizations.

I had the privilege of helping with a recent boot camp for a select group of schools chosen to get help working toward a school-wide make-over, with a focus upon moving toward a blended learning model that amplifies their core values. The goal was to help these schools be successful with this innovation while also developing promising practices to share and replicate elsewhere.

We started the first day with a critical conversation about the compelling why behind theirs school and having non-negotiable school-shaping concepts through which they sift new programs, projects, ideas, policies, and practices. Without such groundwork, it is far too easy to make blended learning about chasing the next shiny thing. Coming up with your school-shaping concepts, and making them truly non-negotiable is a key to what I call mission-minded educational innovation that pops, that has a distinct and compelling identity and that results in a high-impact learning organization.

At the end of that first day, we debriefed, and I was struck and excited by one of the questions.

I see how you can do this if you are starting a new school are doing a re-start, but some of us are not in a position to do that. How do we make changes now, while we are still teaching students and working through many of the identity questions.

It is true. There are many benefits to starting from scratch, and engaging in school-wide educational innovations in existing organizations calls for a different approach. It calls for change management and developing the knowledge and skill to know when, what, how, and how much you can adjust at any given time. You are building (or at least updating) an airplane in the air, as represented by the following video.

This playful representation of managing change for existing, living, moving organizations provides a little comic relief to the familiar pain and challenges of leaders who have tried to do such a thing. It also highlights the risks associated with such an effort and draws our attention to some guiding principles.

1. Changing Course

Sometimes it isn’t as if you are building or rebuilding the concept of school. You are just adjusting or changing course. That is not uncommon in the air. We often need to adapt to the circumstances, and that is why things like curriculum require constant review and adjustment. That isn’t necessarily like building a new plane as much as making the adjustments necessary by a good pilot.

2. Major Changes are Done on the Ground, When People are Not Present

That is true for schools as well. Major changes typically happen between school years. You might plan for it during one school year, but launch it the next. There are exceptions to this, but there are still the exceptions. Even in the video you don’t see them building the engine in the air. Some things can be worked on as you go, but it just isn’t possible or advisable to make core changes in the air.

3. Building and Rebuilding Requires Care & Skill

Whether it is on the ground or in the air, it takes time, skill, and special attention to do this well, and in a way that does no harm. It requires knowing the difference between a major change and a minor adjustment; and having the wisdom to choose the best strategy to achieve the goals/changes.

4. A Compelling Why Makes a Huge Difference.

Maybe the comments in the video were over the top and full of cliché, but educational innovation can quickly fizzle under difficulty or pressure if there is not a compelling why to justify the time, effort, challenge, and risk. This is also critical for nurturing shared ownership or buy-in from the different stakeholders.

5. This is not a one person task.

If you have a small and simple enough team or organization, some changes can be led and managed by a single person, but most learning organizations don’t work that way. There are many parts to leading a successful educational innovation, and a committed, cooperative, core team is going to be necessary.

While these may seem simple, I’ve seen plenty of examples where innovations or attempted changes failed because lessons like these were ignored. Lone range efforts rarely work in complex learning organizations. Changes without a clear goal and compelling why often don’t have what it takes to persist or last. There is usually a learning curve and the need to develop or tap special expertise to make these changes a reality. And it is important to assess what can we done “in the air” and what needs to wait for us to be back on the ground. Pay attention to these five lessons and you’ve greatly increased your changes for a successful rebuild.

Adding Depth to our Comparison of Face-to-Face & Online Learning

Since I’ve been involved with online learning for twenty years, I confess that I sometimes find it frustrating to engage in the persistent conversation about whether online learning is as good as face-to-face learning. Yet, it is still an important question. New people are joining the conversation who are largely unaware of the possibilities and the thousands of conversations that came before them. This conversation remains an important discussion regardless of the no-significant-difference studies because education is about more than looking at student scores in a class. There are countless psychological and social elements to learning that warrant our consideration. It is just that we’ve been having this conversation for over two decades and it is time to deepen it, to add more complexity and nuances. The answer to the question remains the same. Yes and No. Changing modes of educational delivery and interaction for learning results in gains and losses. There are affordances in various online contexts just as there are limitations. The same is true for different face-to-face contexts.

When we explore questions like this, it is critical that we consider an obvious fact. Not all face-to-face courses are alike. Not all online courses are alike. This means that a simple comparison of broad categories like face-to-face and online does not lead to a substantive answer to the question. Consider the following five factors that impact  both online and face-to-face courses.

1) Size of the Class

Look at the following image. Do these two face-to-face classes have the same affordances and limitations? They have some things in common, like the fact that the sessions are likely synchronous in nature, but there are many distinctions. Yet, people who compare face-to-face and online courses often make the argument that all face-to-face courses are somehow much more intimate and personal, or that nonverbal communication is possible with face-to-face and not online.

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2) Tools, Strategies, and Methods

Are we looking at a face-to-face seminar with lots of discussion and interaction in a small class? Are we looking at a larger lecture course? Are we looking at a course that makes use of well-planned small group projects and peer-to-peer interaction? Does the course include time for each student to conference one-on-one with the professor? There are so many ways to design learning experiences, and every one that I listed can be done in online and face-to-face courses. Online, I’ve had rich and vibrant synchronous conversations with groups using everything from Blackboard Collaboarate to Google Hangouts and Adobe Connect. They are qualitatively different from a small group seminar discussion face-to-face, but most of the comparisons between online and face-to-face are not exploring the comparison at this level of depth.

Once we start looking at the affordances of different methods and strategies between online and face-to-face, then we start to cultivate a more nuanced understanding. Look at something as simple as the asynchronous discussion boards used in many online courses. We can look at the benefits and limitations of asynchronous interaction as a way of nurturing critical thinking. We can look at the time students devote to a discussion online compared to many face-to-face facilitated strategies. We can examine the ability to have a persistent archive of entire discussions for continued review. We can look at the ability to continue a discussion over days, weeks, even months.

My point is not that one is better or worse against some universal standard. It is about understanding the complexity of designing learning experiences of all kinds.

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3) The Skill and Commitment of the Teacher

Teachers and professors are often the ones making the arguments about the benefits or limitations of online compared to face-to-face. As such, it continues to confuse me that few of these arguments give much consideration to the skill, commitment, and impact of a specific teacher. Look at the image below. Doesn’t it make a difference if we are talking about the teacher on the left or the right? The behaviors, habits, skill, creativity, care, and competence of the teacher plays an important role in the effectiveness of a learning environment, whether it is face-to-face or online.

By the way, it is usually true that we can better track and monitor teacher behaviors in an online course. That leads to a different conversation about teacher autonomy and accountability, but it is interesting to note that being able to observe, measure, and document teacher actions helps us predict and understand the rigor and quality of online and face-to-face learning experiences.

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4) Student Learning

If you browse the web for articles comparing face-to-face and online learning, you may be surprised to find a minority that take into account performance of students as part of the comparison. Are students learning as much across delivery systems? Of course, a simple answer doesn’t end the conversation because of the three factors mentioned above. More factors impact student learning than whether the course happens to be online or face-to-face. Yet, this is the time when people in the conversation are wise to look at the past and present research comparing student learning outcomes across modalities.

5) Access and Opportunity

Early literature about distance learning (dating to pre-Internet days) were full of discussions about providing education to broader and more diverse audiences. There was a vision of increasing access and opportunity through new forms of education. Yet, many of the comparisons between face-to-face and online assume that both are equally viable options for everyone. Family and life circumstances, location, travel and flex schedule requirements of work, physical and health considerations, work commitments, and dozens of other factors come into play. One question that drives the exploration of online learning is how we can increase access and opportunity to learning that benefits people and helps them reach their goals. It doesn’t take much research to discover that online learning is indeed helping people accomplish things that would have otherwise been more difficult or impossible.

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Access and opportunity are not always strong factors. There are plenty of instances where a person has the time and flexibility to choose between an online or face-to-face course. Yet, access and opportunity is a large enough part of the vision behind distance learning that it warrants a place in the discourse about online versus face-to-face.


There are differences between online and face-to-face learning, thousands of them. There are also thousands of differences between face-to-face and and other face-to-face courses. It is still just as important to explore these similarities and differences as it was when online learning was something new in the 1990s. Yet, given the fact that this is a 20-year-old conversation, it is time to deepen the discourse. What if we enriched our conversations and explorations by looking at more of the factors that I mentioned above?

Competency-based Badges for Differentiated Instruction

I’m delighted to start with the third MOOC that I’ve hosted. This one is called Adventures in Blended Learning. The following video explains the main goals of the course.

As I say in the video, one of the goals is to get informed about the possibilities of teaching and learning in the digital age. So, on the first night of the course, Kirsty Plander tweeted the following:

I love these sorts of questions. These are the types of teaching and learning questions that great teachers are constantly asking. A question like this represents awareness of students, the ability to observe and identify challenges to learning, and a desire to explore possibilities that will better meet the needs of each learner. In this case, Kristy poses a classic question about meeting the needs of diverse learners. We all know that students come to our classes with widely different life experiences, levels of confidence about formal learning environments, different levels of background knowledge about the course, different attention spans, different goals and passions, and so much more. Each person is a unique creation, full of potential. If that is true, how to you give some power to the potential in each student?

Some approach this by trying to teach to the middle, thinking this will stretch those who struggle, meet the needs of the majority, and hopefully be enough to not bore the advanced students. Yet, if you’ve taught for a few years, you know that such a strategy doesn’t work especially well. What are our options?

This is where blended learning becomes a promising possibility. As many explain, blended learning allows you to address these sorts of challenges by blending the best of face-to-face teaching and learning with the best of digital learning experiences. Allow me to share one (of many possible ways to design a blended experience to address the situation posted in Kristy’s Tweet above, and I’ll do it with two things that I’ve written quite a bit about over the last year or two: competency-based education and digital badges.

For the sake of time, I’ll just use the Educase explanation of competency-based education for now.

The competency-based education (CBE) approach allows students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace regardless of environment. This method is tailored to meet different learning abilities and can lead to more efficient student outcomes. –

Imagine you are teaching an introductory business course. Some students have work experience, they learned quite a bit from their parents, and they are coming to the course with a working knowledge of the basics. Others do not have a clue, but this is the first course, so there are no pre-requisites. So, imagine breaking that introductory course (or just the prerequisites) into a discrete list of competencies. What skills do they need to have upon completion of the course? what skills do they need to thrive in the course in the first place (prerequisites)?

Once you have that list, now imagine creating a simple tutorial or or learning experience associated with that skill. It might include a reading or two, a recorded mini-lecture on the topic, a couple of practices exercises, a couple of case studies or real-life situations that use that skill or concept, an ungraded practice quiz for students to test their knowledge, as well as some advanced applications of the same concept (added as an optional…going deeper element). Finally, you come up with a description of how you would know when a person truly has the understanding and skill that you wanted in the area. You write it out in a specific and measurable list of criteria.

All this goes into an online learning module. There is a different module for each core concept. When students come to the course, they complete some sort of pre-test to see what they do or don’t know, what skills that do or don’t have. That pre-test should include measures for each of the modules built online. This could be done pretty easily using any number of online quiz/test tools. The result will give the student a list of areas to work on for the course. If a student performs well, they might be guided to a set of more advanced tutorials or just more advanced applications of the same basic concepts. If the student did not do as well, the list of suggested modules are included. Students can progress through completion of the modules and demonstration of their growing competency on a personalized, self-paced basis (or, perhaps certain skills must be demonstrated by the end of week 2 or 3 of the course). When a student completes the module, a digital badge is issued (here are some options for creating badges, or some LMSs like Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard have them built-in). The badge is evidence that students met the criteria. You can even set the badges up in levels. You need to complete all 8 level 1 badges to gain access to the 5 level two badges…you get the idea.

This may sound like a ton of work to prepare. It is, but it doesn’t have to be all done at once. In fact, you could involve a group of students in helping create some of these modules as practice tools for themselves and learning modules for future classes. Refining and improving the modules could even be a challenge/task for students who perform well on the pre-tests.

There are so many ways to get at a challenge like Kristy described, but I see this one as especially promising. In fact,  it would not be hard to co-create it with a team of faculty at several schools, sharing their resources with one another. It would be a great way to divide the labor and make it more doable. Or, if one is not ready for that option, the instructor can just start small. Start with 3-5 of the most important skills or the areas where the most students enter a class with deficiencies.

What do you think? Would this potentially help address the challenge posed by Kristy? What are the benefits and downsides to such a practice? What other strategies might you consider? Can you think of how we might blend learning across face-to-face and online instruction to help address it?

Even as I’m finishing this article, I’m thinking about how to approach it in a completely different way through a self-directed, project-based approach. If you are game, I’d love to hear your suggestions on proposed ways to address this challenge. Why not share your it in the comment area?