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New York City Schools' Blended Learning Experiment

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Online learning is on the rise, particularly in blended learning environments, as educators find ways to leverage the specific advantages of both virtual and traditional classrooms.

New York City Department of Education's iZone is taking the lead with iLearnNYC, a virtual learning pilot program that allows participating students to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes and recover missed credits online (using certified, NYC public school teachers certified in their subject areas), as well as experiment with digital technologies in a mix of face-to-face and online platforms.

Forty-two of the city's public schools are currently trying it out, and that number will jump to 125 for the 2011-2012 academic year.

I spoke with Arthur VanderVeen, CEO of the iZone, who sees iLearnNYC as a key component of the iZone's effort to "redesign schools around the needs, motivation, and strengths of individual students."


Still, he stresses, this is a program that the New York City Department of Education is tracking vigorously. While online learning sounds convenient and exciting, it's important that schools and districts interested in launching similar pilots do it with care.

“Online and blended learning are growing at a tremendous pace, and have a high potential for accelerating student learning through personalization," explains VanderVeen. "They combine the ability to allow students to move at their own pace while bringing them together around engaging projects. But it's a district's responsibility to ensure that it's being implemented in a thoughtful, planned way.”

Other points he made about iLearnNYC:

It increases student access to advanced courses. "In many cases, schools don't have the staff or resources to offer many AP courses or electives, like foreign languages. This is a way for us to meet student needs more flexibly. Several schools are now sharing AP teachers, for instance. When one school has a resource and another school doesn’t, we can equalize access to quality. East Bronx Academy has a very strong AP English teacher who's teaching about 12 students face-to-face using an online course blended model. The iSchool, in Manhattan, has 8 students who are synchronously meeting via Skype with the Bronx school twice a week."

It creates alternatives for students to recover credits from failed courses. "The benefit of online credit recovery is that allows you to be much more flexible and proactive with students who aren't successful in traditional models. During the school day, students are working on courses they've previously failed. They have regular access to that teacher for support for that course. We're looking at ways to have online instructors support students at more than one school, and, if a student is clearly failing a third of the way into the year, putting them into an online credit recovery course to focus on their areas of need before the year is over.

Some students perform better when there's less distraction. When we go out to schools and talk to these kids, we hear that in traditional classrooms, they're impacted by disruptions, distractions, and how they get along with a teacher. It's not always an environment for success. Now, they can focus, and they do -- at their own pace."

Teacher training and school support is vital to the success of these kinds of programs. "This is a significant shift in the instructional model. We have to invest in developing teachers' abilities to use these tools effectively. Participants in iLearnNYC go through an application process; schools have to articulate how will this will help them achieve their goals for students. [Once a school has been selected], managers are assigned to networks of schools to engage with the principal and leadership team of each school to align the program to strategic goals, the professional development needs of their teachers, and identifying the right students for each course.

These programs are replicable, but not a panacea. "[iLearnNYC] is definitely replicable, especially since the technology is getting more accessible and interoperable. A big piece we're pushing with all of our vendor partners is developing common standards for sharing content across platforms; I think that’s going to be a critical change in the industry. But districts can't assume this is a panacea in times of hard budgets. Online courses still require strong teachers with new media instructional skills.

Cost savings are not the first appeal here. In fact, they're not that real. The highest cost in education is your staff. If student-teacher ratios are the same, then costs are the same. But a school that might offer a class to a small number of students because they're committed to offering a range of courses can now aggregate students from across schools. There are also efficiencies to be gained around content, as digital resources become cheaper (as opposed to textbooks)."

iLearnNYC will publish results of the pilot in order to support and advise programs like this in New York and elsewhere. "We are implementing this within a very strong evaluation framework. We are carefully tracking the students who are taking these courses, whether blended or online. We’ll be comparing their outcomes on state tests, AP tests, college-going rates, and qualitative measures, like student engagement, comfort with technology, and other impacts of the program on students, and will quickly adjust where we need to change our practice. To share more widely with the field, we'll be publishing our results regularly. We're committed to doing this right and understanding whats working and what's not."

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