Finding the Right Mix for Blended Learning Success

Many school leaders are looking for new ways to raise student scores and make teachers more effective while also engaging students in their learning. One alternative that has been gaining popularity is the concept of “blended learning,” a term new to many educators, but with a history that is decades old, having been first introduced in the private sector some 25 years ago. Understanding how to effectively use technology to supplement instructor led training (ILT) has been a focus of large corporations for years. K – 12 educators, now embracing blended learning, can learn much from corporate trainers that have invested in and successfully deployed these technologies and methods for decades.

The authors Christensen, Horn, and Staker, in their 2013 report,  state that blended learning is: “…a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home. The modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience…”

But for other practitioners, “blended learning” is simply considered a delivery model for “competency based personalized learning.”  This expanded definition creates a student’s learning path based upon their individual need, often determined by diagnostic tools that identify  individual skills gap below or above grade level.  The competency based model is wed to the notion that the pace of student learning varies and mastery for one student may require much more exposure to subject matter  and skills practice than for others.

“Competency based personalized learning” require the acquisition of foundational skills with progressions to more advanced topics occurring when material mastery warrants moving forward.  Blended learning, the use of technology to supplement classroom instruction, facilitates competency based personalized learning.  Personalized learning – is student centric.

Without the use of blended learning tools and technologies, teachers and school leaders would be overwhelmed as they would have to process individualized student data, analyze lesson results, provide guidance, while constantly refining the learning paths for each student in a class or school.  Creating a true personalized learning environment for schools using blended learning is not an easy task.  School leaders exploring these new techniques should understand the foundational elements needed for success and the time it takes to bring about the cultural change required among teachers and students.

Blended Learning Concepts Are More Than 25 Years Old

In the 1980s and 90s, corporations, like schools today, had to embrace technology to effectively re-train global employees that had a wide variation of skills and skill levels. In the 1990s, a few technology pioneers developed computer based platforms that took advantage of what was then called “multi-media” to introduce graphically rich, video based courses on topics from using new software applications to employee expectations in the workplace. In the early 90s, two companies pioneered and dominated the global technology training market. As the lead product designer and developer for the largest firm, I was responsible for the introduction of Skillbuilder, the leading training platform of its time. As one of the inventors, I was awarded a patent for what was then an innovation as one of the first personalized learning computer based training (CBT) applications.

Move forward some 25 years to today, and the instructional concepts and benefits of technology training are generally the same as they were, but the terms have changed. What has also evolved over time is the delivery technology available to course developers. In the early days, course developers were limited to using CD-ROM technology for audio and video.  As the internet emerged at the start of the century, corporations adopted large libraries of “web based training (WBT)” used to re-skill their work force. What these corporate trainers had realized from the earlier pre-internet days was that technology based training was not only cost effective, but employees preferred it.  The learner had much greater control over their pace of instruction.  The availability of course delivery over the internet, using much richer media, made training much more accessible and cost effective.

For those that want to understand the historical context of  technology training and blended learning, I recommend the book, Web Based Training by Colin Steed, published in 1999. Much of the research and perspectives discussed in that book still apply today, and many educators about to invest both time and money in blended learning initiatives may gain insight from the work and research done for corporate clients some 15 years ago.  Of course there are many recent books available today describing the benefits and practices of the blended learning approach such as Blended: Using Disruptive Innovations to Improve Schools, by Michael Horn.

 School Leaders Need to Understand Innovation Adoption Models From Industry

In the past few years, I have been working with schools launching school wide initiatives to explore the efficacy of the new blended learning model. Working to deploy programs such as iReady from Curriculum Associates, Accelerated Reader from Renaissance Learning, IXL, Imagine Learning and MyOn exposed me to the newest wave of tools and more importantly the promises and practical pitfalls of adopting school wide blended learning strategies.

What has been readily apparent in some of the schools piloting blended learning is the lack of exposure to and  appreciation for the culture change needed among teachers and administrators to be successful.  The “technology adoption curve” of the teachers/administrators  in the school building has to be considered before launching a school wide blended learning initiative. Corporate trainers had an easier task when deploying their technology training solutions than school leaders have today. Innovative training technologies were readily adopted by employees eager to re-skill to maintain their status, get promotions or avoid lay offs. The corporate training department was also well staffed and well funded with the mandates from senior management to train employees.

In many of today’s K – 12 schools, technology and its benefits in closing skills gas may not be fully understood by many. Teachers struggling to enhance lesson plans to accommodate the rigor of new standards and state assessments may not have the time, attention or skill to develop integrated lessons where technology supports are integrated with classroom instruction. Another major constraint for many schools is the limitations of their technology infrastructure. Blended learning generally requires up-to-date computers, access to high speed internet and skilled IT staffing to keep the platforms working.

Data and Deployment Plans Are The Foundation For Blended Learning Initiatives

Adopting one or two technology tools is NOT blended learning, unless they have been fully integrated into daily classroom practice. To be successful, blended learning strategies should be part of a school wide data strategy, as these tools can generate massive amounts of data, reports and analysis, which can overwhelm those not trained to analyze and interpret complex reports.    When technology tools are simply cobbled together without an over-riding deployment and data strategy, students may also get conflicting lessons  and assignments and may become the victim of technology overload. Many tools promise outcomes that are unrealistic given the training of the school’s teachers, the availability of technology, engagement of students and day-to-day processes.

What I have also found is that school leaders have not been sufficiently exposed to the well known adoption model for new technology that those in industry are well accustomed to. Many theories of innovation adoption originally come from a book published by Everett Rogers in 1962 called the Diffusion of Innovations (now in its 5th edition).  Rogers looks at the spread and acceptance of new innovations from a organization’s cultural perspective. In this seminal work, he describes the often slow process of culture change and adoption of new innovations.

Let The Innovators Engage Early Adopters and Lead The Change Effort

In Rogers’ model of diffusion, a group called the “innovators” often introduce new technologies and processes. We would hope that the school leader fits that role, along with a select few in leadership.  Without the buy-in and understanding of the school leader and leadership team, even the most effective tools will fail.

Identifying the “early adopters” in a school is also critical to success.  These are the teachers/administrators most receptive to trying new innovations. When “innovators” are paired with the early adopters, they work through the issues of deployment, facing the challenges with a “can do” attitude.  The innovators often create the vision of the beneficial outcomes to be gained from an innovation.  The early adopters help to define the processes that will be used when the innovation is integrated into day-to-day practice.  These early adopters point out the challenges and enhance the vision of the innovators’ plan.

Once the early adopters have demonstrated success in their use of the innovation by integrating into their daily classroom practice, they can communicate their successes and processes to the “early majority.”  Winning over the “early majority”  is key to effecting the full buy in across the culture. This “early majority” has to be convinced that the innovation actually works, delivering on its promise to enhance outcomes.   When the early majority accepts the innovation and believes it can be beneficial,  school leaders should see more classrooms, more teachers, more students putting added demands on the processes, technology and tools.  The incremental growth, if it has been planned correctly, should not stress the systems and processes developed by the innovators and early adopters.  Instead the early majority creates the culture of change that can sustain the use of the disruptive innovation, with its new tools, techniques and methods.

Rogers’ model goes on to describe the adoption process as the innovation gains broader acceptance and becomes part of the culture.   The next group, “the late majority” joins in.  They adopt when it is clear that the innovation is there to stay.  Aligning this group with the shifting culture is the outcome that spells success.  Although there may be few that remain outside of the change and skeptical of the results.

The last group to adopt, if they adopt at all, are called the “laggards” in that they generally stick to the old ways and find it difficult to embrace new things.  But by the time the change has reached the “laggards” the culture has shifted, the disruptive innovation accepted and adoption has become endemic, defining a new phase  for the school.

Set The Right Expectations, Culture Change Takes Time

I cannot overstate the importance for school leaders embarking on a program to pilot blended learning to gain a understanding of cultural adoption and change strategies as it relates to new technology. The false belief that once purchased and deployed , blended learning tools will either be readily accepted by all or show immediate benefit has killed promising programs that could have been instrumental in the longer term transformation and turn-around of schools.

Too many “tools” vendors, anxious to make school-wide sales by making school wide promises, send school leaders down a path that is counter productive to their objective.   Expecting too much change too quickly has placed undue burden on many pilot programs, leading them to be viewed as failures even though they are bringing about noticeable and measurable change. Corporate trainers, that have long recognized the adoption curve, plan for a multi-year roll out of new technologies and techniques across an organization.

School leaders that understand this simplistic yet powerful model of culture change will be more attuned to the needs of their teachers and administrators. This understanding will also allow school leaders to craft more refined strategies that allow them to better gauge the success of these innovations. School wide adoption of “disruptive” innovations, like blended learning, is a process that will take time measured in years. Therefore leaders need to commit to a long term change plan and set realistic expectations of yearly progress at the outset.  No matter how effective the innovation, no matter how polished the tool or how much the leader wants it to be adopted – change – especially culture change required by new disruptive innovations, take time.

Successful Blended Learning Initiatives Require A Multi-Year Plan

Leaders wanting to bring about disruptive change should identify and support the innovators and early adopters in their buildings that will lead the effort, providing them with the means to trial and pilot the blended learning process.    The research is clear on the efficacy of successful models of blended learning. What we don’t hear much about  are the deployment failures that come from unknowingly purchasing tools without the requisite investment of time and effort in the planning for its multi-year roll-out and adoption in the school building.

Creating a successful blended learning program requires real planning.  It should be part of an overall change program that starts with a data plan and a deployment plan.  School leaders need to understand what to expect, communicate those expectations to their teams and not be fooled by the promises of young eager vendors that have no exposure to the culture of the school or the readiness of the staff for change.



, , ,