by Tom Nieman
Last week at a presentation at the Illinois Charter Schools conference, Phyllis Lockett, the CEO of New Schools for Chicago, introduced Chris Liang-Vergara (FirstLine Schools) and Anirban Bhattacharyya (KIPP) as “national experts” on blended learning. That seemed to me quite a large introduction, but they lived up to it.
Both Chris and Anirban were about as unassuming as two presenters could be. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, they addressed the fifteen or so of us in attendance as learners like themselves, seeking answers for ways to raise student achievement. No razzle-dazzle, just here’s what we have been doing, and here are the results, so what do you think?
Following up with them after the presentation, I found both very approachable, and both offered to work with us at our Chicago charter schools if we wanted. Anything they had learned they were willing to share. None of this was about them; what they knew was to be shared in the interest of better educating kids.
Here are a few takeaways from their presentation on blended learning:
1. Blended learning can increase achievement.
Chris explained that starting a well-functioning charter school improved student achievement by about 25 percentage points, but then the school achievement scores flatlined. Once a blended model was adopted, gains in achievement took off again.
2. Blended learning is not necessarily about the technology.
Both models of blended learning depended on small group instruction and focused RTI interventions, with personalized and differentiated help for every student.
3. Blended learning is not about programs.
Both Anirban and Chris deflected focus as much as possible from the curriculum programs they were using. The curriculum software and the hardware were less important than the data they generated, because the data was what helped teachers place students in small groups and address their individual needs.
4. Data-driven instruction now means individualized data generated daily by each student, not merely their annual test results.
Managing this flow of data into actionable instruction seems one of the biggest challenges in both blended learning and conventional learning environments.
5. Blended learning involves reworking staffing and scheduling throughout a school.
The blended models described in these case studies utilized all personnel at the school to create the effective small group instruction needed, and the daily schedule also underwent a complete revamp.
6. Blended learning is about helping master teachers teach more effectively.
The blended models created environments where the best teachers had time to teach their students in small groups, and the whole school seemed focused on helping give students the most personalized and differentiated instruction possible.
So learning seems to come in the most serendipitous ways. One cold Chicago morning, at a small presentation at a small conference, Chris and Anirban shared a wealth of learning on the benefits of blended learning, and the case studies about their experience describe what it takes to make it happen.
For anyone interested in learning more about blended learning, you can read about the specifics of their models in two excellent cases studies published by the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation.
FirstLine Blended Learning Case Study
This is a paper details the blended learning initiative at Chris’s school, the Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans.
KIPP Blended Learning Case Study
This study explains the blended learning initiative at Kipp schools, specifically blended learning at KIPP Empower in Louisiana. Anirban Bhattacharyya works with the KIPP Foundation and is in charge of instructional technology for all 144 of their schools.