Blended Learning is the Reform Most Likely to Succeed

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Online education is beginning to revolutionize the instructional delivery system on the college level; it can, and must, do the same in our high schools. The alternative, to paraphrase Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, would be to allow income inequality and limited economic growth to worsen.

President Barack Obama and many progressive economists, including Stiglitz, have recommended universal pre-kindergarten programs and free college as vehicles to reverse the ever-growing income inequality in the United States. While both of these initiatives would have a major impact on the readiness of young adults to enter the world of work, and without the baggage of enormous debt, the growth of the American economy — a key reason for these initiatives — would take at least one and probably two generations to have their positive effects felt.

We can’t wait that long.

Fortunately, education is on the verge of a monumental change precisely where it’s needed: blending online and face-to-face instruction in a manner that recognizes the power of technology. Most, if not all, of the previous reform efforts were organizational in nature, which is why their effects were so limited.

Programs like standardized curricula, testing, teacher evaluations and charter schools all rely on an outdated teaching/learning process: a teacher positioned in the front of a classroom, speaking to two or three dozen students seated at desks arranged in rows.

But students have changed. And so have their families and society as a whole. There are increasing numbers of students from families of poverty and limited education whose primary family language is not English. Many of them are technologically savvy. They are motivated to engage with computers.

Unless there is a major effort to develop quality, interactive online curricula for courses taken by large numbers of students that fully integrates online and face-to-face teaching, it's likely that blended learning, one of the first reforms directed at how students learn, will become another reform failure. Large states should “bid” the development of this model, now.

One viable course format would alternate interactive online instruction and individualized assessments, developed by our nation’s most engaging and knowledgeable math teachers and Silicon Valley’s brain trust, with a class period the following school day taught by a certified math teacher who would provide the identified academic support (based on the assessment data) and the interpersonal support teenagers need.

Algebra, a required subject for almost all high school students, is a perfect first course for this blended approach. And since our brightest students will learn their basic algebra under almost any instructional model, let’s compare the results of math accelerated middle school students who use this blended approach with those who are taught in the more conventional manner. A pretty easy research project, once the blended curriculum is developed.

The bottom line is quite simple: we have a generation of high school students who have not been succeeding with today’s instructional paradigm. We must capitalize upon teenagers’ capacity to learn new technology while recognizing that being adolescents means needing relationships with caring teachers.

It’s time to change the paradigm.