The right, and wrong, questions to ask about blended learning effectiveness

District of Columbia Public Schools is among the districts that we have profiled in our Proof Points profiles, which is why the blog post titled Some DC schools are betting that personalization can fix education caught my attention. The overall post is informative and well written, but in this sentence it makes a common error of conflation that undermines its larger point:

“And while DCPS has recorded some encouraging results with blended learning, research on its efficacy in general has been inconclusive.”(Links were in the original.)

I commented on the post, and my comments have been added there. I’m including a lightly edited version of those comments here, because the view expressed in the post is so common—and therefore creates a teachable moment for those interested in how blended learning should be evaluated.

My comment:

I'm part of the research team that created the Proof Points profile that was linked in the "encouraging results" part of that sentence. Our research showed the ways in which DC Public Schools has implemented a successful blended learning program, and the ways in which the district has tracked student outcomes data.

The key question around the use of technology in education should never be "does it work" in general terms--which is the mistake that's made in several of the studies that you link to, including the Hechinger Report which suggests that blended learning results are "inconclusive."

The long history of studies of all sorts of technologies in education show that technology alone isn't sufficient to create change. But properly applied technology, with planning that targets measurable educational goals, sufficient attention to supporting teachers with professional development, and consistent district leadership, can create improved results.

DC Public Schools is implementing blended learning in thoughtful ways, and the district is conducing extensive analyses to better understand what is working and what's not working, to build on the successes and learn from the failures.

The evidence shows that DC has positive results from its blended learning program. That doesn't mean that blended learning is going to work in all instances, so it doesn't negate the reports you link to from Hechinger, Gates, EdWeek, and other sources. But your blog is about DC, and it seems to me that the post underplays DC Public Schools' successful efforts while overplaying the general concerns raised by others about technology in education. A casual reader might come to a mistaken conclusion about the value of technology in personalizing learning in DC.

To be clear--some concerns are legitimate, because there are many poor implementations of technology in education. But the evidence strongly suggests that DC is, in many ways, an excellent example of best practices in the implementation of blended learning.

(End of the comments I submitted to the blog.)

To repeat: the question regarding effectiveness of blended learning (or other flavors of education technology) shouldn’t be the general “does it work?” The question should be “is it working in this particular school/district/program?” And when evaluators can answer that question in enough circumstances, the picture of what works in blended learning, broadly speaking, will become increasingly clear.