“This isn’t as good as what we were doing”
A previous post explored the ways in which Arizona State University is implementing online learning technology, and in particular its view that “we kind of don’t pilot stuff here.” According to Philip Regier (Executive Vice Provost, ASU), pilots often don’t work well at the start and therefore don’t reach scale. “If you start with a pilot and you go a semester or two and it’s, “Hey, this isn’t as good as what we were doing,” you’ll never get to scale. In our case, the experience with math is a very good example of that because working with a new technology is not a silver bullet. It’s not like we’re going to use this technology, and now all of the grades are going to go up by 15 percent. What you have to do is work with the technology and develop the entire learning ecosystem around it, and that means training faculty. We are moving faculty away from standing up in front of a room delivering content to looking at a dashboard and figuring out which students they need to work with on a 1-on-1 or a small-group basis in order to succeed… If faculty don’t have multiple time periods or multiple teaching sessions to get used to that, it’s easy to resist, and if you resist it, it fails.
There is much to unpack from Regier’s quote.
First, this point: “It’s not like we’re going to use this technology, and now all of the grades are going to go up by 15 percent.
That is exactly what we are seeing in our Proof Points research. It’s taking districts several years of implementing blended learning before they see results, and often the results are much smaller than a 15% increase in scores. That doesn’t mean that it’s not working. It does mean that change takes time, and real change across a large district may manifest as a small percentage increase in overall student outcomes.
Second: “What you have to do is work with the technology and develop the entire learning ecosystem around it, and that means training faculty.”
Implementing blended learning is about so much more than using technology. The cultural and pedagogical changes are much more difficult to implement, and take much more time.
In addition, the “ecosystem” approach is necessary but difficult. In a recent column in Education Next, Michael Horn explored why charter schools get most of the attention regarding blended learning when there is so much activity in district schools. One of his reasons is that charter schools have “used [blended learning] to transform their entire schooling model” whereas traditional schools have “often been a bit more ad hoc—a class here, one subject there.” A big part of the reason for that difference is that transforming the “ecosystem” is far easier in a new or small school. Charter schools are more likely to be new or small, or both, than traditional school districts, and in at least some cases they are free of regulations that make change more difficult in traditional schools.
Finally, there is an important distinction between a post-secondary institution and many K-12 schools. Colleges are schools of choice; if students don’t want to attend them they can choose another option. States and school districts vary in the extent to which students can choose a different school than the one closest to them geographically. In situations where students do not have the ability to choose from a range of schools, it’s not quite so easy for a K-12 educator to say, essentially, “we’re going to try this new approach and we’ll adjust until we get it right”—if that means, for example, that fewer students will be successful in learning geometry over the next two years. Innovating is easier when the stakes are lower, or when those who are being experimented on have some say in it—or at least the ability to leave.