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Marc F. Bernstein Headshot

Can Blended Learning Save America?

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Online education is beginning to revolutionize the instructional delivery system on the college level; it can, and must, do the same in our high schools. As Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote: "Unless current trends in education are reversed, the situation (income inequality and limited economic growth) is likely to get even worse."

Today, as we slumber in the wake of the great recession and a mediocre recovery, President Barack Obama and many progressive economists, including Stiglitz, recommend universal prekindergarten programs and free college as a vehicle to reverse the ever-growing income inequality that exists in this country. While both of these initiatives would most certainly have a major impact on the readiness of young adults to enter the world of work better prepared and without the baggage of enormous debt, the growth of the American economy -- a key reason for these initiatives -- would take at least one and probably two generations to have their positive effects felt. We can't wait that long!

There have been a litany of efforts to improve the public schools, but to little avail. These include making course content more uniform and rigorous; raising academic expectations; increasing teacher salaries, extending school hours, adding remediation; establishing charter schools and voucher programs; demanding greater accountability through increased student tests; and, now, removing ineffective teachers based upon student test scores and classroom observations.

Fortunately, education is on the verge of a monumental change precisely where it's needed: blending online and face-to-face instruction in a manner that recognizes the power of technology to transform teaching and learning with the imperative of facilitating meaningful student-teacher relationships. Most, if not all, of the previous reforms were organizational in nature, which is why their effects were so limited.

Previous reforms failed because the teaching/learning process hasn't changed even though students, their families, and society-at-large have changed dramatically. Today's classroom instruction mirrors that of yesteryear with a teacher positioned in the front of a 750 square foot classroom, speaking to two or three dozen students whose desks are arranged in neat rows. But, students have changed. There are increasing numbers of students from families of poverty and limited education and whose primary family language is not English, but they are incredibly technological. They don't respond to the traditional lecture-based, teacher-directed lessons that still permeate our classrooms.

Unless there is a major effort to develop quality, interactive online curricula for courses taken by large numbers of students that fully integrates online and face-to-face teaching, it's likely that this instructional reform, one of the first reforms directed at how students learn, will become another reform failure. Large states should "bid" on the development of this model, now.

One viable course format would alternate interactive online instruction and individualized assessments, developed by our nation's most engaging and knowledgeable math teachers and Silicon Valley's braintrust, with a class period (on the next school day) taught by a certified math teacher who would provide the identified academic support (based on the assessment data) and interpersonal support teenagers need.

Algebra, a required subject for almost all high school students, is a perfect first course for this blended approach. And since our brightest students will learn their basic algebra under almost any instructional model, let's compare the results of math accelerated middle school students who use this blended approach with those who are taught in the more conventional manner. A pretty easy research project, once the blended curriculum is developed.

The bottom line is quite simple: We have a generation of high school students who have not been succeeding from today's instructional paradigm. Reform after reform has failed. We must capitalize upon teenagers' intrinsic motivation towards technology while recognizing that being adolescents means needing relationships with caring teachers. It's time to change the paradigm.