Choosing Your Blended Learning Model for Districts and Schools
Educators and researchers alike love to obsess over what model of blended learning a school should implement. A favorite question I get asked is: “OK, now that you’ve told us about all the blended-learning models, be honest, what’s the best one?”
My answer? There is no “best model” of blended learning. The best model is the right model for your school—or classroom—given your circumstances, students, and objectives.
Other times people get stuck obsessing about innovating with the newest variant of a blended-learning model or trying to implement the “most disruptive” type. Again, this is the wrong starting point.
People often forget that yesterday’s news—the blended-learning “stalwarts” like the Station Rotation model—haven’t been around for all that long. Just a few years ago they were considered cutting edge. As my coauthor, Heather Staker, likes to say (and I’m paraphrasing here): There’s a lot of juice left to squeeze out of the Rotation models. In other words, there’s still plenty of improvement to be done in everything from how students rotate to what activities students tackle and from how software feeds performance information to teachers and students to deepen their interactions to the moves of a teacher in a Station Rotation model. Montessori and other models have had a long time to improve and perfect what they do. Better to spend time focusing on implementation and operation of your model than on finding the latest model—so long as you’ve chosen a model that fits your needs.
And there’s the rub. Figuring out what model is right for your circumstance requires knowing the answers to questions like: What are you trying to accomplish? What equipment do you have? And what do you want students to control?
In our just-released new book, The Blended Workbook, Heather and I walk educators through a step-by-step design process to create the right blended-learning model for their circumstance. Based on the methodology we introduced in our Amazon-bestselling book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, this book provides the design exercises to create what’s right for you across your district, school, or in an individual classroom.
When we think about instructional models, given that there is no “best” model, nor does it make sense to chase the latest and greatest for its own sake, an obvious question is why name your model at all?
Using the vocabulary of the blended-learning models serves two purposes. First, it helps you communicate your vision to other stakeholders. When you explain that your design involves a Flipped Classroom combined with a Flex model, for example, other people who are at least basically familiar with blended learning get a preliminary idea of your intentions in only a few words. Second, naming the models helps with your research and development. Other blended programs across the world are tagging their designs with the names of the models. Enter the model name in an online search at the Blended Learning Universe, for example, and you will find examples of other blended programs that resemble your design. This can help with the research and testing that you will want to do as part of discovery-driven planning, about which I wrote previously in this newsletter in “De-risking Innovation.”
From there, to “choose” your model, knowing the answers to these six questions is critical.
1) What problem are you trying to solve?
Are you trying to solve a problem in a core academic area among mainstream students? If so, a Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, or Flipped Classroom are likely to be better fits than the more “disruptive” models of Individual Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, or Enriched Virtual. Alternatively, if you are trying to address a problem of non-consumption—where the alternative would be no course or learning experience at all—those more disruptive models can be great fits.
2) What type of team do you need to solve the problem?
Your desired level of change—are you trying to change one classroom or alter the architecture of an entire school, for example—helps determine what type of team you need and who must be on the bus to design and implement your blended initiative. For teams that require only coordination within a classroom or across departments, Station Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Lab Rotations tend to be better fits. If you’re changing the architecture of a school, a Station Rotation or Lab Rotation is still likely, but not always, the way to go. If you’re creating a new education model entirely, then the disruptive models of blended learning may be better fits.
3) What do you want students to control?
If you want students to control their path and pace during the online portion of the course, then the Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, and Flipped Classroom are good fits. If you want them to control their pace and path throughout almost all of the course, Individual Rotation and Flex are good bets. If controlling pace and path through most of the course with the flexibility to skip in-person class at times is important, the A La Carte and Enriched Virtual models rise to the top.
4) What do you want the primary role of the teacher to be?
If the teacher is going to be delivering face-to-face instruction, then a Station Rotation or Lab Rotation are the best bets. If the teacher is going to be providing face-to-face tutoring, coaching, and enrichment to supplement online lessons, then a Flipped Classroom, Individual Rotation, Flex, or Enriched Virtual design is likely a better fit. If the primary teacher will be online, then A La Carte is the way to go.
5) What physical space can you use?
If you’re going to use existing classrooms, then Station Rotation or Flipped Classroom are the best fit. Add a computer lab and you’re in the Lab Rotation zone. If you’re in a large open learning space, the Individual Rotation, Flex, and Enriched Virtual may be great fits. And if you have more openness on space—meaning any safe, supervised setting—A La Carte can work well.
6) How many Internet-enabled devices are available?
If you have only enough devices for a fraction of the students, then some sort of rotation, specifically a Station or Lab Rotation, will likely be best. If you have enough for all the students during a given class period, then Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Individual Rotation, or Flex could work. And if you have enough for all students to use in class and have at home or after school, then all the models could work.
To answer these questions, you of course have to do some up-front design work. And at the end of answering these questions, a clear model might not always emerge. Instead, you’ll get a sense for the possible instructional models for your circumstance. Then you’ll go about making tradeoffs in your design, modifying certain things, deciding what’s most important, and figuring out what models you might want to combine. Once you’ve done that, only then does it make sense to lock into the instructional model you’ll implement for your students.
When you are ready for your next steps, or if you want to go deeper into what I outlined above, our workbook can help. Check it out!
About Michael B. Horn - Guest Author
Michael Horn speaks and writes about the future of education and works with a portfolio of education organizations to improve the life of each and every student. He serves as the Chief Innovation Officer for Entangled Studios and as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions. He is also the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank. Horn is the author and coauthor of multiple books, white papers, and articles on education, including the award-winning book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and the Amazon-bestseller Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. An expert on disruptive innovation, online learning, blended learning, competency-based learning, and how to transform the education system into a student-centered one, he serves on the board and advisory boards of a range of education organizations, including Education Elements, the Clayton Christensen Institute, the Robin Hood Learning+Tech Fund, and the LearnLaunch Institute. He also serves as an executive editor at Education Next and is a venture partner at NextGen Venture Partners. Horn was selected as a 2014 Eisenhower Fellow to study innovation in education in Vietnam and Korea, and Tech&Learning magazine named him to its list of the 100 most important people in the creation and advancement of the use of technology in education. Horn holds a BA in history from Yale University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.