A design guide for blended learning: Q & A with Heather Staker

As schools and leaders across the country consider technology's role in student learning, Heather Staker and Michael Horn have served as guides.

Their research into "blended learning" has helped shape the national dialogue about educational technology and online learning, and provided a compass for school leaders looking to make smart decisions based on best practices.

Their excellent new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, takes leaders through the process of implementing a blended learning initiative -- from identifying a problem, to building a team, to creating a solution -- and offers lessons learned from inside and outside of education.

I spoke to Heather Staker on the phone last week from the iNACOL Symposium, where the book launched. Here is a transcript of our conversation.

Why this book?

HS: Disrupting Class came out in 2008 and it offered the 50,000-foot view of how online learning is a disruptive innovation and how it was poised to change the way that students learn. Fast forward to 2014 and it is our sense that educators are hungry for a more zoomed-in view of how to actually make that happen well. It’s about the power of personalized learning and transforming our system into one that’s more student centered. It’s a practical design guide.

How is blended learning “disruptive?”

HS: What we’ve observed is that some blended learning implementations are disruptive relative to the traditional classroom, and others are sustaining to the traditional classroom. “Disruptive” innovations offer a new value proposition. They get a start serving non-consumers and then they get better and better over time. What we’ve seen is that some of the blended-learning models are following that same pattern. They start as a solution to dropout recovery or to credit recovery. They don’t look like traditional classrooms. They’ve improved over time until now we’re seeing more and more schools set up Flex studios or Enriched Virtual campuses. The disruptive models replace traditional classrooms with a more student-driven, flexible design.

Other blended-learning implementations are a “sustaining” improvement to the classroom, but they do not disrupt  it. Station Rotations and Flipped Classrooms fall into this category. Every district in America should leverage these sustaining innovations to help traditional classroom teachers optimize their face-to-face instruction time.

The distinction between these two types of innovations is important. For leaders who want to harness sustaining innovation, they can operate within their current constructs. They don’t have to create an “autonomous team,” as we describe in the book. Leaders who want to blaze more of a disruptive trail need to be more willing to grant autonomy and to rethink really how a school works.

Could you explain the concept of “jobs to be done”? Why is it an important thing for schools to consider?

HS: The jobs-to-be-done theory answers the question of motivation. So often I hear adults bemoan that too many children today are unmotivated. Students are plenty motivated, but they are motivated to do the things that matter to them. We need to crawl into their minds and understand the jobs they’re trying to get done. By seeing school from the students’ perspective, we can tailor the student experience around their intrinsic motivations.

In our research we found that the two jobs students share are 1) to feel successful and make progress, and 2) to have fun with their friends. When they “hire” school, it’s because they want to do one of these two jobs. Students who feel like failures at school will look elsewhere to get their needs met. Blended implementations can include experiences that help students nail those jobs perfectly. Those types of implementations are so much farther ahead in terms of leveraging student motivation.

One example of that is some schools are becoming really good at helping students see where they are and where they need to go next. And just that transparency is one way that schools can help students feel that success is attainable and that they’re making progress. The learning science is clear that that’s more motivational.

You address the importance of “culture” in implementing blended learning effectively. Could you explain what you mean by culture?

HS: Culture comprises the shared processes and priorities that are so embedded in the organization that people don’t even think about trying to do things another way. If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful. The problem is blended learning oftentimes requires new processes and students and teachers face new tasks – even small things like getting laptops out appropriately, or teachers learning to respond to data. The best implementations are really thoughtful about inventing processes that work and rehearsing them until they become ingrained in the culture of the school. So often that culture piece is missing. Teams haven’t worked strategically to identify a successful process for a task and reinforce it until it’s habit. Teachers in general are very good at establishing processes and protocols in the classroom. But we’ve found that with technology, there’s actually a higher margin for error when it comes to devolving into a dysfunctional culture.

Does all of this lead to computers taking over teaching?

HS: It’s my biggest fear that teachers will feel replaced. The opportunity, in fact, is for teachers to have richer connections with students than ever before. Through blended learning, teachers have more time for high-value activities such as small-group instruction, mentoring, Socratic discussions, or project-based learning. These are learning methods that we have long treasured, but they can be tricky in a classroom that’s mostly whole-group instruction. Blended learning frees up the teacher to migrate into a place where his or her focus is on promoting deeper learning. I hope teachers will seize the moment to take on the higher order tasks that they want to do but haven’t been able to do.

Anything else?

HS: I think as a society we’re facing a very promising time for the future of learning. We have the tools at our fingertips to move beyond the old construct and replace it with something better. My hope is that through our combined efforts we can channel this disruptive moment and create a more student-centered, personalized environment for every student in America.