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Blended Learning: Some Love It, Some Hate It—But Everyone’s Talking About It.

Blended learning! This has been the most galvanizing affordability strategy we’ve considered so far at the Affordability Knowledge Center. Its potential for disrupting the day school financial model, or improving pedagogy for day school students, has been fodder for some amazing conversations on both the PEJE Blog and JEDLAB, the new destination for Jewish educational debate and sharing knowledge.

It started with a great blog post—by G-dcast’s Educational Technology Director Russel Neiss—written in response to this blended-learning white paper. From there, the conversation exploded across multiple platforms, and covered a plethora of issues relating to blended learning and affordability. Jon Mitzmacher, Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in Jacksonville, Florida, effectively laid out the issue: “I’m all for making day school more affordable. And I’m all for replacing teachers who are ineffective. And I’m all for utilizing the latest technology. I’m just not sure they all go together in as neat a package as we may wish.”

Teachers Are Still the Heart and Soul of Jewish Education

The most impassioned comments were in support of teachers, and the primacy of education in this discussion. Dr. Eliezer Jones at Yeshiva University’s Open Day School said that “schools exploring ways to be affordable should be supported as long as teaching and learning is the main driver and affordability is the passenger.” While some people mentioned that there may be an issue of teacher quality in some schools, Tzvi Pittinsky, of the TechRav blog and The Frish School in Paramus, New Jersey, noted that “the answer to this issue of some bad teachers is not to replace them with computers. It is to get better teachers. Blended learning when used to enhance pedagogy can be quite powerful. Blended learning used to replace teachers is a different story.” Nancy Josephs Edelman looked to expose a risky strategy: “Proposing blended learning to cut costs is merely code for cutting teachers and creating impossibly large classes.” Pittinsky spelled it out bluntly: “Bottom line, in education, is the teacher, stupid….”

Dr. Joshua Gutoff, from Gratz College, highlighted the critical role teachers play in building Jewish identity:  “[W]hile technology may—repeat, may—be useful as an aid to the transmission of information, or the development of certain formal skills, much of Jewish education, (supplementary ed. in particular, but day school as well) is concerned with the development of attitudes and dispositions. Identity development is formed through connections with both peers and adult role models, and an educational strategy that focuses on reducing the amount of human contact will invariably fail at that.”

Blended Learning: Gimmick or Game Changer?

Blended learning itself was picked over, as well. Is it the elixir parched day school parents are looking for, or is it just more snake oil, sold in a fancy bottle by some smooth-talking hedge-fund managers?

Russel Neiss said that “Far too many schools try to use technology as a gimmick to make parents BELIEVE that they’re getting more value their tuition dollars or to make some other cost savings benefit more palatable….  I think it’s little more than a marketing smokescreen to obfuscate changes to education that parents would otherwise be yelling and screaming about…. To continue pouring copious amounts of cash to subsidize something that the best research to date says doesn’t really get you the most bang for your buck isn’t the model of efficiency that we allegedly hope for re: day school affordability.”

But Rachel Abrahams, from the AVI CHAI Foundation, wondered whether the student-teacher ratio is the best metric for evaluating blended learning. “I’m curious why everyone is stuck on number of kids in the room and not on the number of students interacting with the teacher at a time. Blended groupings are smaller than most classes now. Other students are working independently—do we not believe that can happen?”

And what if blended learning is not meaningfully connected to any cost savings? Tzvi Pittinsky said that blended learning is “an interesting model that needs to be explored for its value for teaching and learning. What if blended learning was an excellent model but only in a regular sized class? Would people be embracing it in the same way they are now?”

Notwithstanding the educational benefits, Isaac Shalev, Principal of Sage70, Inc., and former CEO of Storahtelling, warned against discounting the potential cost savings. “Even stipulating that the last word on blended learning and costs savings is that it adds up to $1,000/pupil, that’s a pretty significant number—something in the neighborhood of 5-10% of tuition. Why would we turn our noses up at these savings? For a school with 500 students, that’s half a million dollars of community and philanthropic money saved!”

Blended Learning Is Part of a Broader Affordability Picture

But what was so great about these conversations was that so many of our day school leaders and educators understand the complexity of the affordability challenge.

Russell emphasized the need for multiple funding streams: “I’m totally open to experimenting, but frankly, I rather see our energies and monies go toward pushing the limits on the revenue end and pushing our community to lobby our politicians to embrace school choice initiatives at the local governmental levels and to setup community day school endowments. Those two initiatives have a significantly higher impact on the affordability of day schools than anything technology could ever accomplish.”

Tikvah Wiener, who runs the RealSchool project at Frisch, spoke to the systemic nature of affordability. She preferred to discuss blended learning in the context of sustainability, “because to me it speaks not only to a school’s financial plans but to how those plans serve the overall mission of an institution. Since I favor the inquiry-based learning approach, I’d add to a sustainability plan involvement of the teachers and students in making their school financially sound. Financial health, in other words, should be part of the school culture, just as spiritual, emotional and physical health are.”

The conversation ranged from pedagogy to government advocacy, from technology to governance. High school students, teachers, administrators, and lay leaders all spoke up. It was truly a communal conversation, and displayed the range of perspectives that make up the affordability ecosystem. Stephen Kepher, development director at Seattle Jewish Community School, summed it up well: “My favorite Director of Finance would always point out to the Board that there are three basic factors at independent schools: class size, faculty salaries and tuition. A school can have any two of the following: small classes, high faculty salaries and low tuition—but not all three. If you want small classes and high (i.e. a living wage) salaries and benefits, then you have to have a high tuition. If you want lower rates of tuition then you have to have either large class sizes or low faculty salaries. This, of course, raises questions about your core values as well as what the market may allow (e.g. is there enough interest in your program to allow for a pool of applicants that will lead to full enrollment at any class size…etc.) Somewhere in the midst of all this is the intersection of affordability and sustainability.”

While blended learning has been an important topic for the past couple of years, these recent discussions have been a great example of how the Affordability Knowledge Center can use its research and network to engage new participants, and to give lay leaders, educators, students and advocates a means to learn from and engage with each other. Hopefully subsequent research will lead to similarly enthusiastic debate.

  • Russel Neiss

    One comment regarding why I for one am caught up in the student/faculty ratio. because it’s one of only four evidence-based reforms that have been proven to increase student achievement through rigorous, randomized experiments by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. (At least in grades K-3). See here: http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/rigorousevid/rigorousevid.pdf

  • http://techrav.blogspot.com Tzvi Pittinsky

    I recently read a long piece on the MOOC phenomenon in higher education that was shared by Shira Leibowitz and Russel Neiss: http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/zunguzungu/the-mooc-moment-and-the-end-of-reform/

    The article quotes from an open letter from the philosophy department of San Jose State University which says in part:

    “Should one-size-fits-all vendor-designed blended courses become the norm, we fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well- funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.”

    I am worried that the same hesitations about the move towards massive open online courses in higher ed could be applied to the current discussion of blended learning and Jewish Day School affordability. I hope that in the move towards blended learning in Jewish day schools with affordability as our overarching goal, we don’t create the same inequities described above.

  • http://www.frischrealschool.org Tikvah Wiener

    Thanks, Charles, for this summary of the blended learning discussion. I haven’t yet seen much talk on how students create their own blended learning environments by supplementing what they learn in the classroom with online sources by educators or experts in fields they’re studying or interested in. How can we use online resources, then, to create unique learning experiences, where students can shape their own courses of study and pursue the things they’re passionate about and/or use their own interests to study the information they “need to know for school” (if we think there is such information anymore)? A more student-centered approach to learning results, at least for me, in an interdisciplinary schedule, so students can think more deeply and richly about what they’re learning, have time to explore their own interests, and be able to use their interests in their more traditional coursework. An interdisciplinary schedule would also require fewer teachers, though those teachers would have to show a willingness and ability to learn new course material on an ongoing basis. However, wouldn’t that be a wonderful way for teachers to show students that they’re lifelong learners?

  • Avi Greene

    I have yet to see specific plans that assist in cost savings for k-8 schools that have only 1 class per grade level. If blended learning is better education then I am all for forging ahead but there seem to be limitations to the cost saving.

  • Gershon Distenfeld

    We have been misled on the whole class size issue. No one disputes that holding all other factors constant (curriculum, quality of the teacher, demographics, etc) that fewer kids per class is better. But what if the teacher was a little better or the educational methods were superior?

    The obsessive focus on this one variable of class size prevents us from exploring new and innovative educational methods that promise to improve quality and reduce cost.

  • http://www.peje.org Charles

    @Russel,
    how would you respond to Gershon’s point about student:faculty ratio not existing in a vacuum?

    @Tzvi,
    that’s a GREAT point. How would you prevent such polarization? And, given much of the excitement around blended learning is due to its potentially disruptive nature, is the lower quality a bad thing? Are there schools or communities that might settle for something less, if they had to pay half (or less) of the tuition charged by other schools in their community?

    @Gershon,
    At Yeshivat He’Atid, are your student:faculty ratios substantially different than your northern New Jersey peers? What has been the parent response?

  • http://www.practical-parent.com Joelle Kaufman

    The research is clear that the educational background (education at top schools, master’s degrees) is the highest correlating factor to student achievement. The concept with blended learning or MOOCs should be that the most exceptional master teachers in each subject are teaching that subject and that in class there are teacher/coaches who are leading group projects, providing additional support where needed and scaffolding the social-emotional development students need and Jewish Day Schools morally should optimize.

    Good blended learning should naturally create individual differentiation where students progress through content at their own pace, but apply what they are learning to student-directed projects together.

    There is scale in the blended learning model – and with scale should come savings. The experiential application of learning will have less savings, but in combination with blended learning, could result in both affordability and better outcomes for more students.

  • Russel

    @Gershon: Yeah, no. Multiple large research studies have come as close as you can to proving the correlation between smaller class sizes and higher student achievement in grades K-3. If you want to argue it makes no difference beyond that, be my guest, but you can’t just pretend that the data is inconclusive or might be otherwise skewed b/c of a stronger teacher. Project Star in Tennessee is the best example actually of showcasing that even given those other factors, that small class sizes are beneficial for all students. Read up, there’s some interesting stuff there: http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=%22project+STAR%22+tennessee&btnG=&hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C33

    @Joelle: The problem with your plan to get only the “most exceptional master teachers in each subject” to teach kids and have it supplemented by (less-exceptional?) teacher/coaches is that we tried that with radio, and television, and cd-roms and laser disks and countless other technologies and it didn’t work. I don’t understand why we think doing it from our home or in a learning lab on the ‘internet’ is going to have a different effect.