Blended learning: when will we see quantifiable outcomes?

A previous blog post made this statement: “As of early 2014, we are seeing several inflection points in the application of technology in education, some of which have the potential to determine whether the definitions and categories [of blended learning] are important.”

The post then explained one of those inflection points, which is that studies, foundations, and others are increasingly discussing policies and practices that will require significant technology investments and hold promise for demonstrating improved outcomes, but do not mention blended learning or discuss technology in depth.

Here’s the second inflection point: based on the 2014 California eLearning Census released by CLRN (which we discussed here) and other data (most of which are not as good as the eLearning Census), we are now seeing numbers of blended learning implementations that call for policymakers and researchers to look for evidence of success in quantifiable, demonstrable ways that link to student achievement outcomes.

The CLRN report counts 150,589 students “participating in blended learning” in school year 2013-14. The CLRN research is a census, not a sample, and given that the student count comes from 31% of districts in California, the number of students in blended learning is likely much higher than reported in the census. We are looking further into these numbers, but pending further study it seems reasonable to assume that at least 250,000 students in California are involved in blended learning.

A quarter of a million students in California is a small percentage (about 4% of all K-12 students)—but it’s a high enough number that we should be looking for examples of success based on quantifiable outcomes. To this point in time, we don’t have enough such examples. CLRN surveyed districts about success, and reported as follows:

“New to the census this year…is a single question asking districts about the impact online and/or blended learning has had on student outcomes. Districts selected from a) Increased course completion rates; b) Improved graduation rates; c) Greater student engagement; and d) Uncertain. Districts could choose one or more impacts and could provide anecdotal information in an “Other” field. While 23% of districts were uncertain whether eLearning had any effect on student outcomes, the majority of districts and charters were fairly positive, particularly in their comments. 58% felt that eLearning resulted in greater student engagement, and 50% responded it increased course completion rates. 40% felt that eLearning increased graduation rates. Those who answered that eLearning increased student engagement provided the majority of the comments in the “Other” field.”

The above paragraph is an underwhelming statement about the outcomes of blended learning implementations in California. That’s not a comment on CLRN’s study or methods, but about the ability of the schools that have 150,000 students taking part in blended learning to explain why they have invested in such programs.

It is possible and plausible that school administrators are choosing to implement blended learning because they are confident that it is improving student achievement and outcomes, even if they can’t point to any quantifiable outcomes. But with 150,000 students counted in blended learning in California, and presumably a large multiple of that number taking part in blended learning across the country, it’s time that we document and disseminate those results in a way that will resonate across the spectrum of stakeholders.

Why is this an inflection point? Because if we find the successful cases, the discussion of definitions and categories should give way to an examination of what works and why. And if we can’t find quantifiable outcomes, then we should be asking ourselves an entirely different set of questions.