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Interview with CRPE’s Betheny Gross on Blended Learning Model Innovations

Blended learning is an innovative education model that combines online and traditional instruction. The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study the financial implications of a range of blended learning models. I caught up with Dr. Betheny Gross, CRPE’s senior research analyst and research director, to talk about the study.

Q: What is the framework of the study?
 There are two parts to the study.  One is to continue to develop a classification of blended [learning]. People take different approaches to blended learning. Many of the approaches are similar, but with their own take depending on different theories of action about teaching and learning.

Some people go into blended thinking they need to radically personalize [education] for each student, and the best way we can do that is to harness technology. There are others that think about how best to optimize teachers by maximizing opportunities for kids to have in-depth discussions with teachers who are addressing their specific needs and goals. A way to do that is to have some of the instruction and curriculum happen over technology.

Part of the work we’re doing is thinking through theories of action…what type of school do they imply in terms of teachers and technology, and then costing it out. In our observation of schools that are implementing these models, we’re asking and commenting on questions such as: What does the resource allocation look like? What resources are needed for start-up and for continuation [schools]? How are resources distributed throughout the building? Do traditional revenue structures correspond or not to the way these schools need to structure their resources?

Q: What is the motivation of the study?
A: A lot of people are looking to blended as something that’s a new and a vital piece of our progress in education. They’re seeing it as an opportunity to expand the capacity and productivity of teachers in schools. There’s a lot of energy behind it right now, and a lot of development going on in the field to make sure that there’s good research to support that development.

Q: What do you hope to find out?
A: What we want to understand is how resources are used, and the extent that we see a new distribution of labor and technology for the delivery of instruction. We also want to understand how schools pursuing this work can do it in a sustainable way. This is a challenging question because so many of the schools engaging in blended learning received substantial start-up grants. And we know that there are and can be rather substantial startup or transition costs, especially if it requires a big investment in network and fiber.

Q: What role do public charter schools play in blended learning?
A: Public charter schools are called on to be our innovators, to be our incubators. They have both the incentive and opportunity to really explore these models because of their ability to optimize resources in schools.

I think there are a lot of incentives for charters. It’s not lost on anybody in the charter sector that they have to be very careful with budgets, which tend to be very tight. This is an opportunity to think through how technology can optimize their resources.

With the freedom public charter schools have around resource allocation, they really do have the opportunity to go out and rethink the whole school from top to bottom. They don’t need to have 15 classrooms with a teacher and 30 kids in them. They don’t need to think about [getting] into spend-it-or-lose-it arrangements. They can think about how to structure their spending; how to reconfigure their revenue and expenditure flows; and different ways to structure pay for teachers.

This is all within their reach–they don’t have many of the traditional revenue or expenditure constraints that district schools are now slowly unpacking. Charters can move very quickly. It’s not a surprise that a lot of the schools in our study are public charter schools.

Q: What role do you see blended learning playing in the future of public education?
 I think it depends on what we find in these early studies, and there are also impact studies going on. I anticipate, although I don’t have any particular evidence to back this up, that we are going to see it more and more. I think that it’s an approach that addresses a lot of resource challenges that we are facing.

I think it’s also an approach that’s very respecting of the fact that kids are brought up interacting with information differently than we did when we were kids. It tries to take advantage of that, and meet kids where they are with how they work with and think through information. And in that sense, it has a lot of great potential.

Q: What is the timeline of the study?
A: The study is a 19 month study starting from last December. An interim report will come out sometime in the fall, and then the final will be out the following summer.





Photo: Dr. Betheny Gross, Senior Research Analyst and Research Director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE)