Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Spree2010

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Spree2010

Among the many challenges faced by schools today are rising costs and shrinking budgets.

Within many independent schools requests for tuition assistance continue to increase, while enrollment may be less robust than in the past. Charter and public schools are also struggling with making the most of limited budgets during financially trying times. Some are turning to blended learning as the central feature of a cost cutting business model.

But will blended learning really cost less? And should that be the question?

I’ve been privileged this year to participate in a blended learning experience as a student, having enrolled in the course Charting a Direction for Online Learning offered by  Online School for Girls. The course skillfully conveyed information while at the same time modeling the experience of blended learning, combining a year of interactive online units with two in-person seminars.

Since sharing my reflections from the first Online School for Girls Seminar in  Learning On-Line, I have come to embrace for my school the potential of utilizing variations of what is known as the station rotation model in which students rotate through various activities in a continuous loop: individualized online instruction and assessments, teacher guided instruction, and collaborative activities and stations. I’ve learned much more in the past several months about online learning resources and I am energized by the potential to personalize and differentiate learning. And, yet, focus on affordability has turned me into a skeptic, at least a financial skeptic, not compelled by the suggestion that blending learning may solve our affordability and budgetary challenges.

As an educator in a Jewish day school, I look with interest at The Bold (Blended and Online Learning in Day Schools) Project. The generous grant program seeks to fund  up to 8 Jewish Day schools to implement blended learning school-wide, documenting the process and measuring effectiveness along the way in order to provide guidance to other schools. The program hopes to “foster cost reduction and lower tuition while personalizing learning and energizing teaching.” Schools accepted into the program are required to fully implement blended learning within three years, committing both to having every child participate in a minimum of two blended class periods per day and to restructuring the school’s educational/financial model to lower costs and reduce tuition.

The primary route to cost savings as far as I can glean is by increasing the school’s student-teacher ratio in one of three primary ways:

  • Increasing class size (nonetheless maintaining personalized learning by having students rotate between independent online learning and teacher guided learning experiences in small groups within which students receive much individualized attention)
  • Increasing the amount of sections a teacher teaches (by combining in class and on-line learning so a teacher might teach 6 sections instead of 4, but still have the same amount of time with students)
  • Offering on-line electives in lieu of electives taught by teachers in the school

Some suggest there might be savings in textbooks and other curricular resources although I wonder how that is possible given the technological costs involved in blended learning, even in schools where students bring their own devices. Others argue there will be an increase in revenue as blended learning will be so engaging that more students will enroll. The Bold Schools Project cites potential overall operating cost reductions of 25% and per pupil cost savings of $1,000.

As a result of financial pressures, we may well need to grapple with the value of small student-teacher ratios, even within independent schools that have long prided themselves on a small student-teacher ratio. Yet for me student-teacher ratio and blended learning are two separate conversations. I will persevere with blended learning, but without any anticipation that we will glean cost savings as a result of our blended model. I will not commit to full school implementation in which each student must participate in at least two blended class periods per day. A large part of the potency of blended learning is the ability to think in new, creative ways about the use of time, space, and technology to support learning. Perhaps schedules will look dramatically different. Perhaps students will be able to learn in different locations in addition to school. Perhaps we won’t even think in terms of class periods anymore. The possibilities are endless. We are embarking on a learning journey without knowing the final destination. And that is ok with me.

Comments on: "Will Blended Learning Cost Less? And Should That Be The Question?" (6)

  1. I look forward to following this journey. While I’m a big proponent of the blended model learning, I worry about implementing this model mostly to save money and/or resources. I wish more dollars were pointed in the direction of children and the community both in public and private domains.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Hi Maureen,
      I hope you’ll not only follow this journey; but offer your insight and wisdom along the way. I so value you perspective.

  2. Shira,
    Great post! I echo your concerns in my recent White Paper on blended learning:

    The only thing I would add is to emphasize the opportunity to “think in new, creative ways about the use of time, space, and technology to support learning.” Whether you’re thinking about blended learning or some other pedagogical model, I think it makes a lot of sense to consider both the educational AND the financial changes offered by the different options. It may not result in cost-savings, but it is worth a thoughtful discussion about the budgetary implications of trying a new pedagogical model.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Hi Charles,
      I entirely concur that a budget is an educational plan in numbers. We spend our financial resources and our time on what we value and we must be deliberate in determining what we value. I learned much from your recent White Paper and I am grateful for your clarification. I look forward to ongoing conversation.

  3. Rachel Mohl Abrahams said:

    I want to thank Shira for sharing her thoughts about the BOLD project. I agree with almost all her points: blended learning lets teachers focus their efforts on the individual needs of each child, even with larger class sizes. She also agrees about the potential of online courses to increase the course catalog and give our students more choice. She just will not commit to the cost reduction, and if her school can afford not to, this is fine.

    As we see new schools starting with blended learning models and a much lower price point, the funding partners thought we should help existing schools move to this model as well. We hope some will commit to change and reinvent themselves, as we all move forwards to a perhaps very different educational model in the future.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Hi Rachel,
      Thanks so much for commenting and I do appreciate AVI CHAI’s support for existing schools. I learned much from the workshop you sponsored and would hope to work with the consultants you are sponsoring as part of BOLD to develop a blended learning program, just not with the stipulations included in the BOLD grant. I appreciate your honesty in sharing that your concern is with lowering costs and that you are promoting a business model based on a higher student-teacher ratio. I’m not sure that business model is typically so often directly stated for schools and parents to understand. My other concern is with a pre-determined end point of at least two blended courses periods per student per day. I don’t know where this journey into blended learning will lead and can imagine many different configurations. I do look forward to learning from your documentation of the process with BOLD schools and your measurement of their effectiveness.

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