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Will Blended Learning Cost Less? And Should That Be The Question?

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.

Learning On-Line

 

Move fast – don’t be afraid of failure

Empower your dreamers – say “yes”

Develop a vision and tie it to your mission

Focus on areas of most importance

Think about connecting with others

Brad Rathberger

Director, Online School for Girls

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Derek Purdy

As happens time and time again, at a professional learning experience related to technology, I learned not as much about technology as about learning.

I’ve enrolled in Charting a Direction for Online Learning, a year long course designed for educators at independent  schools. The course is sponsored by Online School for Girls, a learning organization serving a consortium of independent girls schools by assisting member schools to collaboratively develop blended learning experiences for their students. Most of the learning in this professional course occurs on-line, yet this past week I attended the first of two face to face sessions.

“Blended and online learning is as evolving of a field is there is in education. It is flipped on its head every six months or so,” shared Brad Rathberger, Director of Online School for Girls. We are beginning to recognize the potential to dramatically shift control of learning from teachers to students not as much through the technology as through the previously unimaginable potential for flexibility in the use of space and time made possible with technology.

Among the greatest moments of learning was the opportunity to hear from a number of students at School of the Holy Child. “We learn a lot about responsibility, academic integrity, learning to work with other people, and flexibility,” shared one of these very impressive high school seniors, reflecting on a course she was taking in multi-variable calculus. Participating in a college level math course, and interacting with some of the top female high school math students in the country, she interestingly didn’t reflect as much on math or technology, as on learning and growth, noting with maturity how she is less shy and more able to manage her time than she had been prior to her online learning experience.

While one cannot make generalizations about online and blended learning as there are so many approaches, evolving so rapidly, there are a number of broad models currently in use:

  • Rotation Model
  • Flex Model
  • Self-Blend Model
  • Enriched-Virtual Model

Rotation Model

Station Rotation Model

  • Students rotate through three broad types of activities in a continuous loop: individualized online instruction, teacher-led instruction, and collaborative activities and stations. This is the simplest blended learning model.
  • Alternatively, instead of one component of online learning there are two components, the individualized on-line instruction and the on-line assessments. Students rotate through four broad types of activities in a continuous loop: individualized online instruction, individualized online assessment, teacher-led instruction, and collaborative activities and stations.

Lab Rotation model

  • There is direct instruction for 3/4 of the day in math/science and literacy/social studies with teachers. There is a learning lab with on-line activities for the rest of the day, supervised by paraprofessionals.

Individual Rotation Model

  • There is a central computer lab along with numerous other learning settings, chosen depending on what a student might need; intervention, seminars, direct instruction, and group projects.

Flex Model

  • Students learn in a massive computer lab staffed by paraprofessionals for about half their day; and work with teachers in small groups for the other half. They come together for lunch and social activities.

Self-Blend Model

  • There is a physical place for students to come to learn in a collaborative environment when they choose to do so. Students can also work at home with their online teacher. They are not required to be in school.

Enriched Virtual Model

  • Students participate in supplemental on-line courses.

Independent mission-driven schools, not yet as fast moving or skilled at collaboration with other schools as we will need to become, must overcome a number of challenges, and capitalize on numerous strengths and opportunities, in order to design our own solutions for utilizing on-line and blended learning. If we are not proactive, as Brad Rathberger warns, we may find ourselves forced into solutions that do not reflect our missions.

As we move forward, what shall we consider in the move to blended learning options? How might we imagine anew possibilities for use of space, time, and financial resources? How might we assess the quality of on-line options? How might we support teachers to adapt and prepare for teaching and learning in a blended environment? How might we prepare our students? What cautions might we consider? What might inspire and enable us to dream?

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