Blended Learning: A Winning Proposition for All

GUEST COLUMN | by Jessie Woolley-Wilson

When Wendy Funk, a first grade teacher at Penngrove Elementary School in Petaluma, Calif., saw the 28 names on her class roster, she knew she had her work cut out for her. Wendy’s goal as a teacher is to spend as much time as possible with each of her students to make sure they are getting what they need to learn and grow. However, in the past four years, Wendy’s class size increased 55 percent from 18 to 28 students. With 18 students, the individualized attention that Wendy considered critical for effective learning felt challenging, but achievable. Now with 28 6- and 7-year olds in her classroom, it felt downright daunting. Wendy’s solution? She introduced blended learning into her classroom.

As the number and diversity of students in classrooms grow, it is increasingly urgent that schools shift away from the ineffective factory model that attempts to move all students regardless of prior knowledge and skill through curriculum at the same speed using the same instructional approach for all students. As evidenced by Wendy’s response, struggle presents opportunity and fuels innovation. We’re seeing blended learning starting to take hold as a new instructional approach to meet the needs of every child.

Heather Staker of Innosight Institute in the report entitled, The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, defined blended learning as “… any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.” This concept of some student control over time, place, path, and/or pace empowers students to take ownership of their learning and develop into lifelong learners.

The idea of giving students greater control over their learning is not new, certainly. Some may recall the open school movement of the 1960s and 70s. This movement encouraged individual growth and self-directed learning, and as a consequence, did not follow a prescribed curriculum. (Source: The Principals’ Partnership Research Brief on Open Schools ) However, school systems moved away from this model for a number of reasons including recognition of the need to measure learning outcomes and demonstrate learning and proficiency for all students, not only those with a high degree of intrinsic motivation.

The new challenge with blended learning is enabling individualized learning and pacing within an infrastructure built for the factory model. At the upcoming iNACOL (International Association for K-12 Online Learning) conference in New Orleans, attendees could fill every time slot in the schedule learning how to implement a blended learning model into their classrooms. There is seemingly limitless demand for examples of what works in blended learning and why. Teachers want to implement blended learning but struggle to understand how to get started and modify their current instructional approach.

Fortunately, blended learning is dramatically aided by a new class of technology that makes individualized learning for all students a reality in classrooms today despite the antiquated infrastructure. Intelligent adaptive learning™ allows students to take control over their learning, but in a manner that pulls them forward through effective, standards-based curriculum. As a result, each child receives the individualized instruction that she needs at the very moment that she needs it.

Like the recommendation engines that drive many consumer applications today from movies to music and shopping, intelligent adaptive learning actually “learns the learner” as the learner learns. Said differently, this technology learns the user through use and adapts appropriately based on user behavior. In addition to collecting data about right and wrong answers, this new technology actually captures the strategies student use to solve problems.

Further, intelligent adaptive learning can recognize if the student is solving problems optimally. When teachers leverage this technology, they are able to deliver individualized instruction regardless of class size and the diverse learning levels of the students.

The real-time responsiveness of this technology is what teaching professionals have been seeking for decades. Just as the surgeon relies on modern technology to provide first-rate care for patients, teachers find that adaptive technology provides an unparalleled level of personalization, allowing them to see into a child’s level of comprehension and misconceptions and provide the scaffolding needed to move her to the next level.

This approach protects against advanced students getting bored and struggling students getting frustrated. All students get the level of instruction they need when they need it. It’s like having a personal teaching assistant for every child – that’s virtual, affordable and highly scalable.

So what does a blended learning classroom look like? In Wendy Funk’s classroom, students have 20 minute rotations through an 80-minute math block that include whole class instruction, collaborative learning in groups, small group or one on one time with Wendy, and time in an adaptive program in which they learn at their own pace.  It is the time within the adaptive program that qualifies the model as blended. It allows all students — advanced, on-level, and struggling — to persist through challenge, and progress toward proficiency with confidence and with a motivating sense of empowerment.

We are constantly learning and evolving in our quest for a better solution or approach. In the case of education, this experience has led us to a technology revolution to create learning tools that align with Common Core State Standards, use motivational elements such as game mechanics to engage students, and collect critical data continuously and in real-time. Today’s blended learning model recognizes and addresses the challenge that children learn in different ways and at different rates. It helps teachers be more effective and supports their goal to maximize every instructional minute in the school day. It fosters persistence, proficiency and mastery, thereby building confidence and shaping critical thinkers. It is a winning proposition for all.


Jessie Woolley-Wilson is President, CEO and Chairman of the Board at DreamBox Learning. She has held leadership roles at Blackboard, LeapFrog Schoohouse, The College Board and Kaplan. She received her MBA from Harvard Business School. 


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