Reaction 7: Blended Learning

Articles this week:

Next Generation Learning. (2010). Report: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Jacob, A. (2011). Benefits and Barriers to the Hybridization of Schools. Journal of Educational Policy, Planning, and Administration. 1(1): 61-82.

Obviously I am generally in favor of technology integration and am usually one who embraces change. In principle, I like the idea of blended learning as a way to provide students with a chance to test out of material they already know, go further ahead that their own pace, and customize content. I like the idea that this method could provide all students the opportunity to develop their skills. I will admit, however, that I objected to two things in this picture of technology integration by Jacob (2011) and in the Next Generation Learning Report (2010). The first is talking about schools in terms of efficiencies to reduce costs. The phrase that particularly stung was “substituting specialized software for expensive college-trained workers.” What happens in a place where children are “managed” by technicians? Isn’t that Sir Ken Robinson’s critique of the model we already have? Maybe one nostalgic ideal that I cling to is the foundational and formative relationship between student and teacher. I suppose better “products” may roll off the Khan Academy line, but are these going to be reflective, creative, self-aware 21st century citizens? When will they learn how to think and organize their own learning instead of following a playlist? I see the opportunity of blended learning as a way to free up time for a teacher so that he/she can spend more time on checking in with students, 1-on-1 instruction, or coaching student-led projects.

The second sticky point for me is that, even though many researchers and educators say that test scores are not an adequate the measure of a child’s learning, in the absence of other measures, this “achievement” number is still used. Jacob uses “value-added anaylsis of test scores” for the analysis of Carpe Diem Collegiate. These personalized learning programs, from what I’ve seen, are almost all math or reading, so it makes sense that they would perform better on math and reading tests. I remember teaching a science lesson that asked my students to do something very basic, like scale drawings. They were adamant they’d never seen anything like it, so I got their math text book and looked it up. Sure enough, they’d studied a whole chapter about it, but they couldn’t apply it outside of the textbook chapter. Are we assuming that students will be able to apply their Khan Academy math and or Read3000 outside of the program (and not just on another standardized test)?

These two points make me wonder what it means to be a learner in these school environments. In my opinion, blended learning is something that comes after, or at least in complement with, student-driven open inquiry within a learning community. Platforms such as Khan Academy or Read3000, that are effective at transferring skills, are part of a student’s toolkit, and I think they hold a lot of potential for freeing up teachers from repetition of the basics or for providing time/location flexibility in learning. I worry, though, about lack of continuity, whether this is the rapid change in platforms or the high turnover of teachers in charter schools, and the related erosion of a community of practice, both for teachers and students. Schools guided by efficiencies and products reminds me of our conversation about consultants: charter school organizations or educational entrepreneurs come in, provide some new software, see a bump in test scores, and leave. This is, in my opinion, a short-sighted vision of 21st century education that uses incredibly powerful and creative tools for basic skills.

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