Can ‘Blended Learning’ Help Students Re-engage with School? Header

Opinion

Can ‘Blended Learning’ Help Students Re-engage with School?

Jonathan Zaff Executive Director

Here’s what we know: Nearly 500,000 young people leave high school without graduating each year because they face too many barriers with too few supports and too little flexibility.

Here’s what we wanted to find out: Can blended learning – which combines online learning, supervised learning at a brick-and-mortar location, and at least some student control over time, place, pace and educational path – make it easier for students who have left school to re-engage and get their diplomas?

With more and more states, districts, nonprofits and for-profit companies beginning to use blended-learning strategies to re-engage young people, we wanted to paint the big picture, see who’s doing what and what they’re learning on the ground, and learn what the research says about blended learning’s effectiveness in educating re-engaged youth.

So here’s what we did: With generous support from Penn Foster, we examined the existing empirical literature on the impact of blended learning programs on the educational outcomes of re-engaged youth and interviewed 13 practitioners and administrators of blended learning programs.

And here's what we learned: Blended learning is fast becoming a predominant pedagogy used in re-engagement efforts sponsored by states, school districts, and non-profits. The tactics programs use include asynchronous learning (online) combined with synchronous learning (online and in-person), flexibility of the time during which learning occurs, competency-based and self-paced progression, and provision of non-academic supports (e.g., housing, food, mental health services, child care).

We found that the research base is unfortunately thin on if, how and when blended learning works for re-engaged youth. However, from our analysis of the existing evidence and in talking with practitioners and administrators, we found five emerging practices that can help strengthen blended-learning programs for young people who have left school without graduating.

What we found leads us to these recommendations:

  1. Align learning strategies with young people’s needs. Youth who leave school without graduating do not leave adversity behind when they re-engage. Educators must be equipped to deal with students’ social, psychological, economic and physical issues if they hope to get students to put their energies into an education rather than the practicalities of surviving day-to-day.
  2. Provide comprehensive supports. School-based and community-based programs that offer more than just classes are likely to be more successful. These programs provide human and social services, job opportunities, medical services, and opportunities for building relationships with adults who help them navigate school and life. These non-academic supports are often delivered by community partners.
  3. Use technology alongside, not instead of, teachers. Online platforms can enable self-pacing and competency-based progression toward graduation. But there’s no substitute for qualified teachers and adjuncts who can provide in-person instruction and build relationships with young people at risk.
  4. Sweat the details. Planning, implementation and quality assurance cannot be taken for granted. A blended learning program that is thrown together with little oversight is destined to fail in the same ways that a thrown-together traditional classroom is destined to fail. Continually checking in on student progress keeps programs honest about how they are doing and provides feedback for program improvement.
  5. Bring education policies in line with the realities of blended learning for re-engaged youth. Most policies have been developed with traditional classrooms in mind. With the flexibility in time, place and path, re-engaged students in blended-learning programs may not have consistent seat time and attendance – a requirement in several states that fund education based on average daily attendance

In addition, students arrive at re-engagement experiences at different points in their educational trajectories. Some students need multiple years to finish, while others only need a few more credits. Often, the re-engagement schools are being held accountable for ensuring that re-engaged youth graduate on time, despite students being well behind their peers. Thus, even though students are making substantive progress toward graduation, the schools and the students may appear to be failing by the on-time graduation standard.

For more information, check out the full research brief, “Blended Learning Offers Promise as a Strategy for Re-engaging Students.” 

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Jonathan Zaff is executive director of the Center for Promise, the research institute for America’s Promise Alliance housed at Boston University. Beth Peabody is an education research and policy consultant based in Massachusetts.