Looking to add its perspective about Facebook’s work with the growing and successful Summit Public Schools to develop state-of-the-art educational software to personalize learning, The Nation on Sunday posted an article from the BBC with largely specious criticisms of blended learning.
The BBC’s reporter, apparently unable to find a knowledgeable, unbiased source to provide a thoughtful appraisal of the Summit-Facebook collaboration, extensively quotes Ms. Leonie Haimson, the leader of New York City-based Class Size Matters, offering criticism of blending learning. In Ms. Haimson’s words, “[t]he educational tech boosters call it personalised learning, but it’s really depersonalised learning.”
Ms. Haimson goes on to say that parents want less screen time and more human interaction with teachers and peers. Perhaps she hasn’t been in a high-quality blended learning classroom like those at Summit. A goal of many blended learning models is to increase opportunities for students to collaborate, communicate, and create in small groups and as a class, leveraging the best digital resources. Blended learning, taking advantage of what adaptive technology does best and allowing humans to make better use of their time together, is actually a much more engaging approach to teaching and learning.
In contrast, Ms. Haimson would have one believe it is better to keep children in classrooms (of whatever size) using out-dated print materials designed to teach to the average student (not the actual, live student holding the textbook), where time is used extremely poorly by requiring teachers and students to manually accomplish rote tasks, and the opportunities to collaborate and create are often stifled. Ms. Haimson’s vision of blended learning being like Apple’s ‘1984’ commercial is wildly off-base.
Moving on to the efficacy of blended and personalized learning, Ms. Haimson - without citing any research studies or data - says, “[t]here is a growing body of research showing that online or ‘blended’ learning actually widens the achievement gap.” It would be useful to see this body of research, since the number of quantitative studies looking at the academic impact of blended learning is still growing, and what has been studied generally shows blended learning yielding modest improvements.
One notable meta study published in 2013 from the well-respected SRI International says, “The advantage over face-to-face classes was significant in those studies contrasting blended learning with traditional face-to-face instruction.”
While it is true that there are a few other studies that have shown unclear academic improvement for schools implementing certain blended learning models, there are two important considerations to keep in mind: 1. there is no evidence - none - that it actually does harm to learning; and 2. because personalized learning practitioners generally take their commitment to innovate seriously, models are often constantly evolving and difficult to study in controlled research environments able to isolate the influence of other in-classroom factors on student outcomes.
The efficacy of blended learning depends greatly on the quality of the teacher leading the class and on how well they are supported with actionable information on student performance. It is ironic for Ms. Haimson to criticize blended learning on a research basis since the evidence for class size reduction has provoked much debate of its own, with what positive impacts there are seeming to be highly dependent on how class size reduction is implemented and - again - the quality of the teacher.
Education nonprofit The Learning Accelerator recently wrote about, “an established body of evidence for personalizing or individualizing learning and facilitating student agency to foster self-regulated, intrinsically motivated learning, all of which blended learning can enable at scale. In addition, there is a growing number of studies that demonstrate that blended learning can in fact be successfully implemented in public K-12 school districts, and can be effective in meeting academic and non-academic goals for both student and teacher outcomes.”
But back to the specific schools in The Nation’s article, it is clear from recent academic data, that Summit Public Schools has found a compelling blended learning model that other schools could successfully emulate. Specifically, Summit Public Schools’ 2013 California API scores outpace those of neighboring Santa Clara County and San Mateo schools.
One area of reasonable concern raised in the article concerns the privacy of student data. There is no doubt that the increasing use of technology in schools carries with it the need to be ever vigilant about the collection and use of data. Student data are not just numbers on a spreadsheet; they are the embodiment of what a student was and is. This is precious cargo.
In that context, the right mix of attitude and action can stand as a bulwark against breaches of privacy. First, Summit has signed the White House-endorsed Student Privacy Pledge, meaning that Facebook employees working with Summit are required to handle student data in accordance with the tenets of that commitment. Second, federal law known as FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), protects the privacy of student data. While imperfect, it carries significant penalties for the misuse of information. Congress is currently working on strengthening this important law.
Clearly, Summit and Facebook are not shying away from their commitment to maintaining student privacy. Advocates like Ms. Haimson would do well to turn their considerable energy toward scrutinizing the data collected on children outside the school walls, which is more pervasive, less secure, and only used for marketing. By comparison, the data inside schools is more constrained, secure, and purposeful.
Both The Nation and the BBC could certainly have been more thoughtful and balanced in their approach to reporting the promising innovations of blended and personalized learning. We invite these news outlets and Ms. Haimson to visit any number of high performing, exciting, and student-centered blended learning schools, including any of those highlighted here at BlendedLearningFacts.com.