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Blended Learning: Iterating Toward Better Learning At Scale

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"Instead of 'fixing' K-12, let's build something better," said Alex Hernandez from Charter Growth Fund (@ThinkSchools) who opened a conversation among experts on the future of learning. "Blended learning is not about technology, it's about personalizing learning for students. We can give students the instruction they need, when they need it."

Hernandez has been a teacher and a private equity investor. After a few years of focused learning, Hernandez is among the most creative thought leaders in the emerging blended learning space. He addressed the Philanthropy Roundtable's recent session on blended learning--part of a series of convenings that keep foundations current on trends and best practices.

Hernandez described how top performing charter networks initially introduced blended learning rotation models where students cycle through computer labs or classroom stations. While these implementations often resembled existing schools and classrooms, teachers began to focus more on differentiated, small group instruction and students ditched worksheets for adaptive, online content. The early results are encouraging and organizations like Rocketship Education, Firstline and the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools are scaling blended learning across their schools.

Early success has encouraged charter networks, like Summit Public Schools, to pursue competency-based models where learning is self-paced and success means students can go "deeper" or "further" in their learning compared to traditional schools where there is less flexibility.

While promising, Hernandez was quick to note that we're in an early "messy" stage of blended learning. Borrowing a baseball analogy, Brian Greenberg of Silicon Schools calls it "Top of the First."

As an investor in blended learning networks, Hernandez is focused on a few big questions:

  • Do kids learn more as self-paced, individuals or when moving together in groups?
  • Can we increase the velocity of learning and create more space for such things as projects, the arts and deep thinking?
  • Is increased student ownership of learning one of the keys to college success and persistence?

Given how fast learning tools are changing--the gap between home and school life--Hernandez is "not sure that incumbents will lead the way." That's why he pays attention to innovation in higher education, private schools, and community-based organizations.

Hernandez admited that there can be a lot of hype and noise as school systems try to become innovative. For example, districts can spend millions of dollars on laptops or iPads without addressing the student or teacher experience. "Hardware is not a strategy," he added.

He noted that "innovation rarely unfolds the way we expect" and that education entrepreneurs can seemingly come out of nowhere with brilliant ideas and practices to reinvent education. As a result, entrepreneurs should focus on big impact and foundations need to support entrepreneurs every step of the way, from incubation to launch and scale.

"What we need now are a lot of blended learning proof points and a lot of capital to iterate," said Hernandez. "We are trying to optimize these early models and figure out what to scale."

Alex is a "huge fan of public private partnerships." Me too. I suggested that we need to build partnerships that put the right form of capital to work:

  • Public leaders (state chiefs and system heads) should frame goals and opportunities and invite capable organizations to spend money on their problem.
  • Philanthropy should bring its two unique strengths to the table--a longer term view and support for equity.
  • Private enterprise should do what it's good at--producing and scaling innovation.

Chris Rush, New Classrooms, noted progress made in public school districts buts said leaders still "need more support and cover." Innovators still face "big risk and are accountable to old system."

U.S. education donors have taken notice of the blended learning opportunity. Most claim to have incorporated it into their agenda.

Many foundations consider themselves innovative risk takers, but most play it safe when it comes to investing in new, potentially disruptive efforts. Alex notes that it's incredibly difficult to raise the first $100,000 for promising, but risky new ventures when it can be just an entrepreneur and an idea. Rush agreed, "We need more money for innovation."

U.S. education has made important progress in the last decade. Brian Greenberg noted that "it was all necessary"--wiring schools, adding computers, developing charter networks, expanding online opportunities--"to lay the groundwork for this decade of innovation."

Alex concluded, "The state of blended learning is early--but it's good enough to get started. We can have better schools, for our own children, in our lifetimes."

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