Editor's note: This is an installment of Fast Forward, a recurring column focused on long-term cultural and technological shifts impacting public education. This edition focuses on the lasting impact of hybrid learning models embraced during the coronavirus pandemic.
Until just a few months ago, blended learning was an option for educators. But during the phases of reopening after COVID-19, hybrid models of learning will be the new normal.
Bruce Friend, chief operating officer of the education organization Aurora Institute, believes this moment could trigger a significant shift in the education system — one where hybrid learning transitions from optional to expected.
In the late ‘90s, Friend was part of a team that built the first statewide virtual school in Florida.
“People thought we were nuts,” he said. Yet, he added, the number of students who took online courses grew year after year leading up to the pandemic. “COVID has been an eye-opener. Districts now will understand that creating online and blended environments can no longer be just a luxury. They’re going to have to be prepared for it.”
Some see silver linings
As leaders prepare variations of hybrid models for fall, some describe the anxiety and skepticism around diving into a new model of learning. But others point out its benefits.
In a 2014 study analysis, the U.S. Department of Education described online learning as “one of the fastest growing trends in educational uses of technology” and found blended instruction has been more effective than strictly face-to-face or online instruction for postsecondary students.
With closures, that possibility turned into a need. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently encouraged superintendents to plan for distance learning even beyond the fall. “While there are unique public health situations facing each community, it is critical that everyone continue preparing and adapting with eyes focused on building capacity for distance learning and ultimately safely reopening soon," she said, according to a readout of her call with K-12 education leaders. She added that there is no "one-size-fits all solution" for learning.
While the impacts on elementary and secondary students are understudied, some believe those results are similar for blended learning K-12 classrooms that provide benefits not necessarily possible within the confines of traditional methods.
“One of the great things about online and blended learning is that it provides the opportunity for students to benefit from the flexibility of pace and time of when they work,” Friend said.
For students at Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis, Head of School Scott Bess said the model opened time for hands-on and project-based learning around topics of interest — which, in turn, fed higher student engagement.
Purdue Polytechnic's student population is traditionally underserved, with a majority being students of color and on free and reduced-price lunch. Yet, a majority of the school's junior class are on track to graduate.
Friend added blended learning also offers students a chance to build soft skills, including time management and proactive learning.
Laurie Wolfe, chief academic officer at Gem Innovation Schools, which has one virtual school and three brick-and-mortar schools in its network, has seen similar results. “One thing that [our teachers] have realized is that their students in the brick-and-mortar setting are far less independent than students in the online setting,” Wolfe said.
Setting the model up for success
But the potential benefits of the model, some believe, depend on the quality of implementation — poor structure could lead to poor results.
“Don’t take simply the traditional model and try to fit it into the online learning framework,” Friend said.
Bess believes the model used at Purdue Polytechnic High School has seen success in major part because of its project-based curricula. “If all you had to do all day long was be on your computer going through unit after unit, even the best, most motivated student would check out,” he pointed out.
Instead, the high school depends on online instruction to deliver state standards and dedicates in-person time to immersive passion projects teachers and students are able to choose themselves. His teachers might, on average, deliver two or four content lessons in a week to a select group of students and dedicate some additional time for those who might be struggling to meet state standards in their online classes.
Drawing techniques from her virtual school, Wolfe’s brick-and-mortar schools will provide weekly to-do lists with deadlines and other information to keep parents engaged and students on track in the fall.
And assignments won’t be due until Friday.
“We do that purposely knowing that everyone’s in a different situation, so you might work on them at a different time,” Wolfe said.
But there are still some wrinkles that need to be ironed out for it to run smoothly, she said, like what to do in case a substitute teacher isn't trained for hybrid learning.
A significant shift in education
In the fall, Bess is also preparing to make his already-flexible model a little more flexible. With some students preferring to learn strictly from home, others dedicated to coming into the school building every day, and some requesting a blend of the two, his staff will have to tailor delivery methods and priorities based on individual students’ needs.
And Friend, who believes this could be the beginning of a shift in education, said once parents and students are given the option of personalized and blended learning, many won’t be willing to go back to traditional models of instruction and could expect flexibility beyond COVID-19.
"I don't think that the local school building is going away," he said. "But I think people have been awoken to the idea that 'going to school' doesn't mean I must be dropped off at this physical space Monday through Friday.”
Bess said that was also the case for his teachers, who, once adjusted to an online and project-based learning approach, didn’t want to revert to delivering traditional instruction. “We don’t have a single content teacher who would go back to only teaching their six to seven periods a day of biology,” he said. “They love having these projects with their students that are outside of their content area.”
Trying to "set the stage for the new future of K-12 education," Sanford Kenyon, CEO of the micro-certifier Bloomboard, said some organizations have already begun offering teachers micro-credentials to support hybrid learning and a learner-centered approach.
“We need to start not at a baseline where we’re all at, but let’s meet each student where they are and build them up from there,” Friend said, adding this fall could be the beginning of a long-term shift toward personalized learning. “Here’s an opportunity to rethink how and when learning takes place.”