How to Maximize Blended Learning in the Classroom

Sooner or later, it happens to most every educator: A shiny new piece of technology first attracts—and then distracts—attention with promises of potential to boost the quality of teaching and student outcomes. “Blended learning” is no exception.

When it comes to online learning, K-12 classrooms in the United States have reached a tipping point, with the majority of districts implementing blended learning, where students spend part of their formal education in a traditional bricks and mortar classroom with a teacher, and some time spent mastering content via online instruction.

Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and author of “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools,” argues that instructors and administrators tend to focus too much and too quickly on new technologies. Instead, he thinks educators’ time is better spent assessing goals and organizing frameworks to reach them.

The promise of blended learning

Pedagogically, online learning seems to offer limitless promise and opportunity. But recent reports, such as Education Week’s “Blended Learning: Breaking Down Barriers” from April 2015, find that the jury is still out in terms of impact. Researching blended learning is challenging, because schools all apply different methods of implementation.

But when blended learning works, it demonstrates how powerful tools can set schoolwide goals to boost results for all students and better prepare them for college and career.

One program, Teach to One: Math, is an outgrowth of New York City’s Department of Education. Its approach includes group and individualized lessons for middle schoolers. In particular, kids performing outside the middle majority of their peers benefit from lessons that build on what they’ve recently mastered. In a study of the first two years of implementation at 15 urban schools, students showed gains “almost 47 percent above national norms.”

And perhaps more compellingly, students in this video reveal children’s metacognitive analysis of their own learning styles—an important marker of what it takes to become a true lifelong learner:

Disruptive learning

Horn’s theoretical framework is based on the work of Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School. “Disruptive innovation” upsets the status quo in terms of a given industry service or norm. In the business world, it applies to a free tool for people at the bottom of the market that goes on to change expectations of that service or industry for upmarket consumers as well.

Applied to the blended learning context, online learning began to serve students in remote areas who didn’t have easy access to the offerings at a suburban or urban school. Lower costs over time have enabled those original users higher-quality resources at bargain prices.

Over time, technology and its applications have radically improved. Many K-12 students take advanced subjects via MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, via platforms like edX and Coursera. And today’s teens may have an entirely different view of higher education, with emerging options to earn bachelor’s degrees entirely by MOOC.

Attitude, not age, is key indicator

Some people extrapolate that teachers in their 20s are digital natives, and therefore intuitively use pedagogy that exploits the potential of blended learning.

“The reality is that most of those aspiring young teachers were taught in very traditional teaching environments,” says Horn. “It’s not something that’s been modeled for them a lot.”

Personality and attitude, rather than age, are generally better indicators of a teacher’s potential success.

Some educators want to try blended learning because it suits their teaching style, or because it’s believed to help kids, or because it’s a buzzword at the moment—but those things don’t necessarily mean that the educator is demonstrating leadership qualities.

Tips for leaders implementing blended learning

Cover of "Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools" by Michael Horn and Heather Staker.

Published by Jossey-Bass

Here are some tips from Horn on the important aspects of leadership when it comes to implementing blended learning.

Don’t get caught up in gadgets for their own sake

Enthusiastic embracement of hardware and software by teachers and students isn’t a problem in and of itself—but it should be a means to helping individual learners.

Focusing too much on whiz-bang aspects can mean losing sight of the learning goals at hand. Instead, marshal the technology in support of student’s deeper needs. “What are you trying to achieve?” should be a fundamental question.

On the flip side, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with constantly updating tech. Luddites don’t have to throw the e-baby out with the bathwater. “You don’t have to be using the latest and greatest,” Horn says. Again, focus on what you’re trying to achieve.

Appeal to educator needs

The leaders who have the most success in reaching their peers appeal to reasons why teachers need to do this first, says Horn, rather than focusing on the tech itself. Asking a question like, “Do you wish you had more time to reach additional students?” is more likely to tap into the meaty issues that all teachers grapple with.

Awaken others to become leaders

We tend to think of teachers as educating students, but opening up to also educate and be educated by one another is huge, says Horn. “Education is something that’s the core of what they do—helping others learn.”

Empowered teachers feed their own curiosity and use new tools themselves. Asking teachers how they would construct their school of the future helps in developing a transformational view of a school’s possibilities.

Horn recommends giving teachers lots of freedom on the ground to make different choices. “It’s not that you’re hands off,” he says, but that “you’re not delivering ‘the solution’ from on high.”

Team teaching environments are popular at some schools, with several adults available while each student works at a computer station. Even in more traditional setups, teachers who truly step up to the call of innovation get great results. “They hold their heads higher, become evangelists, and teacher-leaders within and outside the building,” says Horn.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.

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