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Report Examines How Blended Learning Supports Competency-Based Education

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A recent report from the Clayton Christensen Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank interested in "disruptive innovation," looks at how blended learning, the combination of learning online and in bricks-and-mortar schools, is being used to support competency-based education in 13 New Hampshire schools.

Last month, I visited New Hampshire to find out how the state's embrace of competency-based learning is translating into practice. As I wrote about in an Education Week story, "Taking Competency-Based Learning From Policy to Reality," New Hampshire mandates that high schools award credit for mastery of material, rather than for completing a certain number of hours of classes. This makes it possible for the state's schools to allow students to move through school at their own pace and receive academic credit for skills gained from internships, community service, independent study, performing arts groups, and online courses. As I explained in the story, many schools and communities in the Granite State still have a long way to go towards fully implementing competency-based learning. At the same time, I highlighted the work of a new initiative aimed at helping to institutionalize this approach.

Competency-based learning is a form of education that requires administrators, teachers, and students to use time differently. Students advance upon mastery, which means sometimes they speed through material and sometimes they need more training to understand certain concepts. Students earning credit for off-campus activities may do these activities (New Hampshire educators call them "Extended Learning Opportunities") before school, during the school day, after school, or in the summer.

In the Christensen Institute's report, author Julia Freeland observes that blended learning can help students forge an individualized path through school in four main ways:

  • Online courses allow students to progress through content at a flexible pace.
  • Online courses allow students to be tested on what they learn when they are ready to be assessed, rather than before or after.
  • Online content can offer students multiple pathways to mastery, not just a single lesson or textbook.
  • Blended learning provides tools to personalize learning for each student.

Freeland writes that there are two models of blended learning—a "sustaining" model, in which online learning makes traditional classroom learning more effective and efficient, and a "disruptive" model, in which online learning occurs in the absence of traditional school conventions like classroom teachers and schedules.

Freeland found that schools in New Hampshire that were the furthest along in implementing competency-based education fell into one of two categories: They were small enough (fewer than 75 students) that teachers were able to design and support individualized learning plans for students offline. Or they used disruptive models of blended learning. Examples of disruptive models are courses that a student takes entirely online to supplement other classes or customized playlists of modules, such as online work, small-group sessions, and projects, that individual students rotate through.

"Based on this small, early-stage sampling, blended-learning models that tend to be disruptive relative to the traditional classroom appear especially well-suited to support competency-based education at scale," Freeland writes.

For more on blended learning, check out this special report from Education Week on efforts around the country to engage students in tech-based study outside of school.

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