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.

 

The Value of Newbies & Naysayers in Online Learning Innovation

I’ll admit it. I can be a snob about some things, which is why I need daily reminders that the novice perspective can sometimes lead to greater innovation than that of person who has years of experience in a domain. For example, I’ve been exploring the affordances and limitations of online learning since the middle 1990s, so when I read a news article about this “new” development called online learning, I get a little frustrated. Or, when people write about MOOCs as if they are the birth of online learning, I become suspicious about the veracity of their “research.” I get a little irritated when people miss the fact that distance learning is centuries old, that online learning is decades old, and that there is a substantive body of research about both. That is why it is humbling but important for me to remind myself that we really need the newcomers and what might seem like “the uninformed” to imagine the future of blended and online learning.

Consider this conversation that I’ve probably had with more than a hundred people over the years, people who are new to online learning as a student, teacher, or some related role. They bring up critiques or concerns that I’ve settled in my mind a decade ago, but their concerns remind me that they are not settled for them. It isn’t enough for me to say, “Well, that is a great question, but we’ve already looked at that and it isn’t an issue.” Of course it is an issue. If 100+ people bring it up, it doesn’t matter how much I want them to think or feel differently, or to not consider it a worthwhile problem.

Take the use of live video in online courses as an example. How many times have I talked to new faculty or students who tell me how the course can feel less personal, and how we could address this by making the course more centered around live video interactions. I’ve heard countless people tell me that they think online learning will take off once the video conferencing technology reaches a certain level of quality. I’m tempted to point out that there are completely different paradigms for looking at the design of online learning that make little to no use of streaming video. If only they would read the great research about the promise and value of threaded discussions, asynchronous online collaboration tools, and dozens of online teaching strategies that are exceptional at helping students learn as much (or sometimes more) than they might have in a traditional face-to-face course. I can look at the sheer number of comments about how streaming video would make online learning better and more personal, and chalk it up to mass ignorance and being uninformed about the research. Or, I can get really curious about this trend. Why do so many people keep coming back to this? What is it about streaming video that draws so many people to it as an affordance? Maybe it isn’t just trying to apply a face-to-face teaching mindset to the online space. Maybe there is more to this, something that truly does have the potential to amplify both formal and informal online learning. Maybe it would lead to greater adoption and engagement because perceptions can influence reality for the online teacher or learner.

I have learned so much from so-called novices and online learning newbies. I’ve learned just as much from critics. They look at blended and online learning with lenses that are not standard to me. They see what I miss. They feel what I don’t. They ask questions that I rarely or never considered. They propose solutions that sometimes seem absurd to me, but when they try they, they actually work sometimes.

That is why I believe that students and teachers new to online learning, curious outside observers, and entrepreneurs with no background in the field may well be the future of the field. Some of the most promising and disruptive ideas might come from these groups. They don’t self-censor their way to inactivity. They are not simply building incremental changes based on past research and practice because they know very little about those things. They have the advantage of looking at the field with a fresh perspective, uninformed by the educational ruts of past practice and dominant policy. The humility to listen and learn from these people, to partner with them, to invite their candid input and critiques may well be the source of the next great developments of education in a connected world.

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. – http://www.educause.edu/library/competency-based-education-cbe

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?

5 Reasons for Blended Learning: Clarifying the Why

I’m leading a 4-week mini-MOOC on Adventures in Blended Learning from January 5 – 30 (by the way, all are welcome to participate in part or all of the experiences). While signing up is already already indication that those people have interest in understanding and maybe trying to intentionally design blended learning experiences, I am compelled to start with an exploration of the compelling “why” about blended learning. Without the why, too many things can go awry and a sense of relevance about “what” we are learning is more likely to die. As I explained in a recent article, integrating technology in and of itself is not an admirable or worthwhile goal. It is about designing learning experiences that best meet the needs of students. Toward that end, I offer 5 possible (but somewhat overlapping) reasons for considering the use of blended learning. This is far from an exhaustive list. There are many more, but these represent some of the most commonly referenced reasons.

1. To reap the promised benefits of research findings about blended learning.

There is a growing body of literature that now spans over a decade about blended learning. We are finding multiple benefits from taking the best of both worlds (face-to-face and online) in the classroom. As such, some are choosing blended learning so they can reap the benefits suggested in these research reports.

2. To create opportunities for one-on-on and small group time between the teacher and students.

In a traditional classroom environment, the teacher is often working with everyone at the same time. That leaves little time for high-impact personalized moments with each student or small groups of students? Think of the idea of stations that is common in early childhood education. Now imagine a situation where you do the same thing with older students, even high school and college. Every “station” contributes something new to the student’s learning about a stated learning objective. Some stations might be practice, others a chance to test their knowledge of key ideas through an interactive low-stakes assessment online, and yet other stations might be the teacher working with a small group of students. This is one of many possible blended learning models, but it allows teachers the flexibility to meet the needs of more students while giving everyone rich and valuable learning experiences.

This is also part of the reason that many are opting for a form of blended learning called the flipped classroom, where students learn about basic content outside of class but then come to class to do “homework”, freeing up the teacher to wander the room and work with individuals or small groups as needed.

3. To provide personalized learning.

We all know that students are not the same. They come to our classes with different knowledge, skills, abilities, passions, prior knowledge beliefs about what we will be teaching, levels of confidence, and all sorts of other things that impact how and what they learn in our classes. One strategy in the past was to try to find a level of teaching that reaches somewhere in the middle, allowing the teacher (sometimes with help) to do special work with the struggling students and/or enhancements for the student performing well. Or, in some contexts, the struggling and high performing students just have their needs unmet, sometimes walking away from the experience bored, disconnected, and with little progress. As we think about leveraging the best of face-to-face and online instruction together, it gives us new ways to think about providing multiple pathways to the same learning destination, pathways that work for individuals. Or, for some it is more about the pace. Some self-paced digital learning experiences allow each student to work at different paces, better meeting their individual needs. Personalization by time and pace are challenging in many traditional classroom designs, but new opportunities arise when we explore blended learning designs.

Many talk about this is terms of moving away from a one-size-fits all approach to education.

4. To take advantage of student data and adaptive learning.

As educational products and software develop, there are growing selections of what is called adaptive learning software. It is software that adapts and adjusts according to student performance, allowing a level of personalization and tracking of student progress that is difficult otherwise. By blending a class experience between teacher-guided instruction and computer-based instruction with such software, teachers are able to get rich data about student progress, and students get lessons catered their own level and readiness. Take a look at the image included in this article written for educational publishers and content providers (you might be interested in reading the article too). Notice the feedback loops that I represent in the visual. Designing classes that get at these sorts of models if part of what is leading schools and teachers to opt for a blended learning approach.

Many argue that this data will help us from letting some students “fall between the cracks.”

5. Extending the classroom and resources beyond the school walls.

The digital revolution leaves us with unprecedented access to rich content, communities, and people from around the world. Some are designing blended learning lessons and experiences to capitalize upon this access, building opportunities for individual students or groups to engage with this online content and people or communities to help them make progress in their learning. We see this with foreign language instruction as teachers build programs for students from different countries to interact with each other. We see it for student-centered projects and research. We see it with students collaborating with professionals or students from other schools using digital tools.

One example comes from the idea of helping students build what we call a student personal learning network, but there are hundreds of other ways to leverage this access as well.