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.