This article originally appeared in The Cloud Goes to School (sponsored).

To call Roxburgh, New Zealand, a small town would be an understatement. It’s home to a handful of stoplights, about 600 people and thousands of apple trees.

No more than 175 pupils attend Roxburgh Area School at any given time. Yet this bucolic spot in the heart of the Teviot Valley might just be at the forefront of the next big movement in education today — a push to bring online and physical pedagogies into one.

The effort at Roxburgh was born of necessity in 2014. Due to Roxburgh Area School’s small population, officials were unable to staff a large range of subject choices. Using videoconferencing to offer the school’s 35 seniors more choices from around the world was the logical solution. Instead of embracing this strategy as a standalone, officials decided to dovetail it with a new “Learning Centre,” a physical space where students can work independently with the support of a teacher. According to Principal Gary Pasco, students usually meet online for one hour of lectures, then have three hours to work independently in the Learning Centre.
 

You can’t have a discussion about blended learning without defining it first. Think of it as the ultimate mash-up — a true mix of early adopter virtual education and traditional desk-and-classroom pedagogy.

VIRTUAL FAIL

The Online Charter School Study by CREDO at Stanford University found fully online charter school students had far weaker academic growth and were a full year behind in math compared to their traditional public school peers.

The approach takes the very best from the traditional face-to-face approach — one-on-one instruction with educators — and the increased efficiencies of virtual learning and mixes them into one multifaceted curriculum. On any given day of a blended curriculum, students might have face-to-face instruction with one teacher, group work with classmates, then an online lecture with a subject matter expert farther afield.

Blended learning certainly is gaining momentum. The New Media Consortium’s 2015 Horizon Reports for K-12 and higher education indicated that blended learning is “on the rise” at K-12 schools, universities and colleges, and represents a “key topic to watch” over the next two years. What’s more, a February 2015 publication funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reviewed 20 studies on blended learning in higher education and reported that blended instruction produced higher academic achievement than exclusively face-to-face and online courses.

At the same time, recent research suggests virtual learning on its own is not working the way experts had hoped. Perhaps the most damning evidence: An October 2015 study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University indicated the majority of online charter students had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers. To conceptualize this particular shortfall, the study said it would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year.

“There’s no question things are changing,” says Michael Barbour, director of doctoral studies for the Isabelle Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University. Barbour has been studying changes in K-12 and higher education for more than a decade, and sits on the board of the National Education Policy Center.  “One thing we can say is that the schools of tomorrow won’t look anything like the ones kids go to today.”

Lawrence Public Schools in Kansas offers a glimpse of how tomorrow is shaping up. The district launched a blended initiative in 2013 and expects to have blended learning rolled out to 400 K-12 classrooms by fall 2016. “Our implementation is now in every grade level and every core subject in our schools,” says Dr. Angelique Nedved, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the district. “We wanted to address student engagement differently than we had in the past and were interested in an instructional model that empowered our students to become self-advocates for their own learning style.”
 

While students should become self-advocates for their own work, that doesn’t mean they have the ability to self-regulate and be autonomous. Gary Miron, professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University, says this often is the biggest failure of virtual learning — that programs assume school-aged children have adults at home to keep them on task. One solution to this problem: School facilities that enable students to engage in virtual learning from an environment staffed with real-live educators.

“Just having people around to help students stay on task can make a huge difference in the amount of material students actually get through,” says Miron, who has had extensive experience evaluating school reforms and education policies over the years.

Another helpful addition: Technology facilitators who can help students troubleshoot problems with the equipment they use to access the virtual components of their curricula. These individuals aren’t content experts, but instead technology experts who exist exclusively to step in and handle any tech issues.

According to John Watson, CEO of the Evergreen Education Group, a consulting firm in Durango, Colo., blended learning also prompts districts and school officials to completely rethink traditional school setups. Currently, most brick-and-mortar schools require students to show up every day; however, with a blended model students might be required to go to a physical school certain days of the week, and could be assigned to work virtually on the other days.

“Whether it’s staggering a schedule, team-teaching or another sign of innovation, thinking about blended learning enables you to broaden the perspective,” he says.
 

Education institutions that embrace blended learning likely will have to hire educators to teach in both the physical and virtual spheres — most likely (due to financial constraints) educators who can do both will be preferred. James Woodworth, senior quantitative analyst for CREDO, says schools

also must broaden their perspectives to roll out new forms of professional development, since the skill sets for teaching in classrooms and online are vastly different.

“[Online learning] is a highly specialized skill set, which current teacher prep programs do not seem to provide,” he says.

At the University of Maryland University College, which offers approximately 1,000 online courses each semester, Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, notes all blended learning instructors must take a class about how to teach and engage students online.

What else works? Collaboration. Districts with successful blended learning programs have put people into mentoring and coaching roles and tasked them to work one-on-one with educators as issues arise. Nedved says districts should set aside time for teachers to discuss instructional strategy and share what’s working across grade levels and content areas. She also says flexibility is one key to success.

“If you want more authentic buy-in from staff, then be comfortable with implementation being opt-in and looking different across classrooms, buildings, grade levels or contents,” Nedved says. “Also support teachers in selecting when, where and how often they blend. We discovered this approach, in 95 percent of our classrooms, led to the teacher blending their entire day.”

The district helped teachers transition to blended by providing professional readings, models and frameworks to help them understand the new instructional model. “Q&A panels composed of blending teachers were also one of the strongest components of our professional learning support,” Nedved adds. “Teachers sharing their stories, struggles, celebrations and needs gave us powerful insight on where we needed to make adaptations.”

Michigan Virtual University (MVU) dubs its instructors “iEducators” and requires them to participate in a one-time on-boarding program, monthly professional development sessions and weekly webinars. Each of these instructors also is assigned a mentor for additional support and collaboration. Stephanie Pearsall is an iEducator in the science and visual arts department, and says this approach has helped make her a better teacher — both online and off. “My employment with MVU has honed my relationship building and effective feedback skills,” she says. “Every day I am exposed to challenging, cultured experiences that enable growth and expertise as a professional.”

An increased reliance on blended learning likely will revolutionize the way we build schools, too.

Some say Roxburgh, New Zealand’s Learning Centre model will drive entire renovations, moving schools away from classroom-based setups and closer toward environments with flexible spaces that can be configured any number of ways to facilitate interactions and group work. Watson, from Evergreen, likens this approach to common design plans at startup companies, saying the spaces often can get quite loud because of all the collaboration.

“These blended classrooms might seem chaotic compared to classrooms where everyone is sitting quietly,” he says. “Instead of 1 person talking, there are 5 or 10 different conversations going on around the room — evidence of learning happening in a completely different way.”

Other experts predict blended learning will give way to a different philosophy driven by pop culture: a plan they call the Starbucks model.

Central to this model is the notion of personalization — the move to empower students to build an entire curriculum around what interests them most. This is the idea behind Global Personalized Academics, a new company started by Julie Young, the former executive director of Florida Virtual Schools. As Young sees it, “schools” that adhere to this philosophy will be more like community centers where certified teachers and students can meet to work on projects, take a class or any combination of the two. She adds that students likely would use this model to fill gaps in their educational histories.

Finally, in what could be considered a back-to-the-future approach, other learning gurus say they see blended learning working best in an environment that mirrors one of the most iconic educational formats in U.S. history: the one-room schoolhouse.

Joe Freidhoff, vice president of research, policy and professional learning at Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, speaks passionately about this subject and recently shared a blog post he wrote on the topic. In that post, he noted that while the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear struggled from the limited skills of a single educator in a remote location, a one-room schoolhouse with a well-trained professional educator, robust technology tools and access to the Internet for supplemental learning could offer most students a highly personalized learning environment that could be globally competitive with any school, regardless of size and location.

“Perhaps the pioneers of the one-room school concept will show us another trail to thriving in the digital frontier,” he wrote. If Roxburgh is any indication, we’re already on our way.