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What Will Work in New Blended Learning Experiment?

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By Katrina Schwartz

As the blended learning movement grows in the U.S., schools will need to experiment with what works best in different types of settings. There's still a lot to learn about different types of blended learning models, and a new nonprofit called Silicon Schools will raise and invest $25 million toward that effort.

With partial grants from the Bay Area's Fisher family (owners of Gap), and the advice of board members Michael Horn from the Innosight Institute and Salman Khan of the Khan Academy, the nonprofit, which has raised $12 million so far, aims to fund new and innovative approaches in existing blended learning programs with grants to each school.

The effort is led by Brian Greenberg, who chronicled the successes and challenges of piloting the Khan Academy in Oakland’s Envision Schools on the Blend My Learning blog. During that process Greenberg and his staff were very open about the pros and cons of integrating technology into the classroom, and other educators added their perspectives to what worked and didn't work on the blog. Greenberg points to the parts of the program that worked well, namely letting the technology do some of the heavy lifting in terms of grading, lesson planning and collecting analytics that free up teacher time to focus on students.

Giving students more responsibility for the learning process was also a significant outcome of the Envision pilot program. “What we're finding is that if you make the steps clear and make them accountable, the more you put them in charge of the process the more they amaze,” Greenberg said, referring to students. The pilot program also helped move the class toward “proficiency-based learning,” in which a student is responsible for an intended outcome, but not penalized every step along the way.

Greenberg intends to apply one important lesson he learned from the program to the schools funded by the Silicon Valley Fund: Technology in no way replaces the teacher. At some point the usefulness of technology runs out and the educator’s role is crucial. He also says that technology doesn’t preclude the need for a good classroom management systems and positive school culture. Kids can get off track or “fake” work on sophisticated software just as easily as they could in a traditional classroom.


And lastly, Greenberg says it’s hard for schools to navigate the many tools that populate the ed-tech space, especially when each is tailored to a different subject and use. He says the whole field needs to become more integrated, almost like an app store for ed-tech, and one that works across platforms. Schools don’t have access to endless money and as a result, ed-tech entrepreneurs and businesses need to design more precisely with the client in mind.

What’s interesting about the fund’s goal is that very little is proscriptive. Greenberg was clear to recognize that this movement is in its infancy. There is no blended-learning canon that can be taught to teachers. Rather Greenberg says the educators need to write the playbook. They need to be at the table and in the laboratories of innovation. And if all goes according to plan, in five years the various Silicon Schools will be networking with one another, sharing ideas with schools from around the world and thinking about how to scale up and replicate best practices.

The fund sees itself as the infusion of cash that schools need to get these expensive and technology-heavy programs off the ground, but they have no intention of funding them forever. “The schools that we fund, all eventually balance on California public dollars,” Greenberg said. “The hope would be that by finding new models and new ways to meet the needs of each kid that we can still make excellent schools work on California funding rates.”

Greenberg says the fund will focus on schools in Silicon Valley to try and build an “innovation hub” in an area already known for taking risks. The idea is to connect educators interested in integrating technology into the classroom with tech entrepreneurs who can create the software, apps and tools that will be most useful to teachers. “This combination of world class entrepreneurship with front line educational expertise is extremely promising. And if we can’t make that intersection happen here, at the heart of Silicon Valley, then we don’t think it will be easy to make it happen anywhere,” Greenberg said.


Greenberg says the fund is willing to give up to $700,000 to about 25 schools if they can demonstrate a unique idea or way to implement blended learning that pushes the conversation forward. Grantees also must have strong leadership teams, a track record of success and a financially sustainable model. The fund expects schools to be able to offer their innovations on the same budget as a traditional California public school.

The fund isn’t pushing any particular model of blended learning like Rocketship, Khan Academy or the flipped classroom. Rather, they want teachers to evaluate what works and what doesn’t from those “1.0 models” and then collaborate with ed-tech entrepreneurs to develop new tools for the areas that have been neglected or don’t work well. “You start to mix those things together in a real school, with really good educators and really good kids who are bought into this vision and that’s when it starts to get exciting,” said Greenberg.

Blended learning is a relatively new concept with a mixed track record. Integrating certain types of technology into the classroom gives teachers and students real-time feedback so that each student can work at his or her own pace, and can give teachers accurate information that can help them better group students according to comprehension levels on a specific subjects. But educators point out that too often ed-tech focuses on improving test scores rather than on building creative thinking and a passion for learning in students and that schools still need passionate, innovative and dedicated teachers, no matter how kids absorb the content.

Greenberg agrees that it’s too early to expect schools across the country to buy into a blended learning model. But he does hope that some of the strategies that are piloted in schools funded by the Silicon Schools Fund will inspire other teachers and administrators to take elements back to their own schools.


“We see creating new schools that are essentially laboratories of innovation, that are trying many different approaches, all with the idea of making education more powerful for each student and each teacher,” explained Greenberg. In five years, he envisions that the Bay Area will have somewhere close to 25 examples of how blended learning could be done. Some of those schools could be charter schools, others public, some built from the ground up and others a transformed existing schools. He wants to see it all so that lots of new ideas and ways of doing things can be tested.

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