Research & Commentary: Blended Learning

Published May 14, 2014

Blended learning initiatives are becoming increasingly common in K–12 schools. These programs combine in-person “bricks-and-mortar” education with supervised and individualized online learning. Blended learning reduces student-teacher ratios while attending to each student’s individual needs. Drawbacks include the initial expense and the risk of losing face-to-face teaching, but overall, such programs are sweeping the nation and receiving broad public support.

By combining face-to-face interaction and online learning, teachers can tailor instruction to a student’s specific needs, increasing equity in education. For example, KIPP schools in Los Angeles rotate among small-group instruction with the main teacher, online learning, and small-group instruction with a secondary teacher. This allows large classes to be broken up and teachers to help individual students. Online learning programs allow students to work through problems and assignments at their own pace, which lets teachers know where students are struggling or succeeding. A 2010 meta-analysis published by the U.S. Department of Education suggests a combination of online learning and face-to-face education is the most efficient and effective way to learn.

Despite its proven success, states have laws that prohibit school districts from starting blended learning programs, including “highly qualified teacher” designations, student-teacher ratios, seat-time requirements, credit hour regulations, charter school caps, and geographic enrollment restrictions. States such as Nebraska and South Dakota offer little opportunity for charter schools or individual students to “self-blend” their own educations. Instead of ensuring quality education, these laws impede student success by restricting access to the best learning environments. States under budget pressures that make it difficult to devote time and money to blended learning programs can at least revoke laws that restrict schools’ freedom to develop these programs.

A 2012 study, “Keeping Pace with K–12 Online and Blended Learning,” notes that although many states have some form of online/blended learning, only Florida makes these options available to all students. In 2011, Florida passed legislation authorizing full- and part-time blended options for K-–12 students. In 2012, the state began to allow Florida Virtual School (FLVS) to provide part-time options for students in grades K–5. These policy changes expanded the programs, outlined effective funding mechanisms, and ensured participation of quality teachers.

Well-implemented blended learning programs provide quality teachers and innovation that allows students to seek individual attention and learn at their own pace. These programs can equalize student access to quality education. Legislators should consider reforms that allow blended learning to expand, such as relaxing seat-time and student-teacher ratio requirements, and expanding choice options such as charter schools, vouchers, education savings grants, and taxpayer savings accounts.

The following documents offer additional information on blended learning.

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online & Blended Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice

Keeping Pace is a review of online and blended learning programs in all 50 states each year. In 2013, its tenth annual review found digital learning has increased but is still largely determined by a student’s ZIP code. Florida is the only state providing a full range of supplemental and full-time online programs to all students. The report looks at which programs have been most successful and offers strategies to implement different forms of blended learning.

The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning

Online and blended learning can serve as a “disruptive innovation”—one that transforms a clunky, inefficient, and frustrating sector into one that is simple, less expensive, widely used, and customizable, write Michael Horn and Heather Staker in a report for the Innosight Institute. State policymakers, they say, must avoid attempting to cram this innovation into existing school models and instead promote policies that encourage it to develop its own model. The authors then categorize six existing blended-learning models and explain how they work in schools across the country. 


BlendedLearningNow is a website that provides educators and advocates with resources regarding blended learning. The project was started by the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust), a national network of education reform organizations. BlendedLearningNow publishes blogs, articles, and case studies that show the advantages of blended learning.

Kansas: High Quality Online Learning Increases Equity in Education

Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), testified before the Kansas Senate Ways and Means Committee on the merits of online and blended learning. She states supplemental learning is cost- effective and allows every student access to a world-class education.

Blended Learning in Practice: Case Studies from Leading Schools featuring Firstline Schools

This report on blended learning programs analyzes the instructional, operational, and financial models of Firstline Schools. Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans, a Firstline School, uses blended learning with “lab-rotation” to respond to each student’s needs. The school uses “tiers” to separate students based on specific educational needs. All students partake in a large, teacher-led instruction, and then split off to go to a computer lab or a learning support room. Some students continue to learn through self-operated online programs, and others receive specific instruction to help bridge skill gaps. Students all use online programs, but they use a variety of such programs, chosen based on the individual student’s needs.

Blended Learning in Practice: Case Studies from Leading Schools featuring Summit Public Schools

This report on blended learning programs analyzes the instructional, operational, and financial models of Summit Public Schools. Located in San Jose, California, Summit Schools provide innovative education to a diverse population. When data showed Summit students were struggling in math, the school implemented a blended learning program to close the gap. The new math program uses the Khan Academy, a self-paced online exercise program, and face-to-face instruction from teachers. A teacher starts off by introducing a concept or reviewing materials. Then students shift to the Khan Academy program and work through problems at their own pace. Not only did students begin excelling at a much higher rate, but teachers were able to use the data and cater their face-to-face instruction more specifically to what the class needed.

Blended Learning in Practice: Case Studies from Leading Schools featuring KIPP Empower Academy

This report about blended learning programs analyzes the instructional, operational, and financial models of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. KIPP focuses on blending technology with in-class education to provide small-group instruction to meet the needs of each individual student. For example, a 90 minute reading block in a KIPP kindergarten consists of three 30- minute rotations with self-directed learning on computers, small group instruction with the lead teacher, and small group instruction with the intervention teacher. An online system uses games, videos, and animation to sustain students’ attention while adapting to each student’s level and pace. Each 28-student classroom consists of a lead teacher with at least five years of experience, an intervention teacher with one to three years of experience, and an instructional assistant. KIPP implements technology to provide education at less expense while maintaining small class sizes.

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