Nearly a decade ago, a drumbeat began for public schools to improve and transform by moving to innovative instructional models that promote personalized learning. This model enables every public school student to blend high-quality digital content with traditional learning. The movement was seen by many as the key to better preparing students for success in the modern world. It continues to grow, as U.S. students have shown no progress in 2019 in both the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Today, this education transformation movement has become particularly urgent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the lack of high-speed broadband and technology for many students has made it difficult to provide this type of modern learning across the nation. Recent data show that school districts are being challenged to provide high-quality remote learning during COVID-19.

  • One-third of districts have been unable to provide instruction for two months after the shutdown, according to the Center for Reinventing Public Education.
  • One-fourth of students went absent without a trace when schools closed, according to an Education Week poll of teachers.
  • Fewer than half of schools had any real-time online instruction, according to the American Enterprise Institute.
  • Blended learning changes pedagogy from teacher-centered to student-centered. In blended learning, high-quality teachers are crucial. Technology is used as a tool to boost learning and provide students the flexibility to customize their learning experiences. It also provides ways to personalize learning for each student because it offers multiple options and types of programs.

Flipped classrooms

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently provided a “schools decision tool” to assist administrators in making (re)opening decisions regarding K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this tool, the CDC encourages social distancing through increased spacing, small groups, and limited mixing between groups. Encouragingly, many blended learning approaches support social distancing and can be used creatively by educators.

In a survey conducted by the Cincinnati Public School District in early June, 71 percent of parents and 82 percent of school employees expressed concerns about whether their students were able to learn efficiently in a remote environment. To meet the demand for efficiently and effectively learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders are considering some blended learning strategies for school reopening in the fall. One option for the district is the Flipped Classroom.

The Flipped Classroom is a blended learning strategy of flipping the traditional relationship between class time and homework. Students complete basic instruction at home through online course work and lectures and then use regular class time for teacher-guided practice and projects. This model is feasible for schools practicing social distancing. However, districts need to redefine regular class size and regular class time and solve issues related to at-home device access, internet access, and technical support.

Four rotation strategies

Station rotation, lab rotation, individual rotation, and flex are four blended learning strategies that educators can use to accommodate social distancing in the school setting. More importantly, these strategies help create a culture for students to collaborate, communicate, and personalize their learning.

While these strategies differ from each other, they share three key elements—small groups, diverse teaching and learning methods, and embedded online learning.

  • Station rotation—students can rotate through stations on a fixed schedule, where at least one of the stations is an online learning station. This strategy is commonly used in elementary schools because teachers are already familiar with rotating in “centers” or stations.
  • Lab rotation—like a station rotation, students can rotate through stations on a fixed schedule. However, in this case, online learning occurs in a dedicated computer lab. Schools can use this strategy to make flexible scheduling arrangements with teachers and other paraprofessionals.
  • Individual rotation—students can rotate through stations but on individual schedules set by a teacher or software algorithm. Unlike other rotation strategies, students do not necessarily rotate to every station; they rotate only to the activities scheduled on their playlists.
  • Flex—students can move on fluid schedules among learning activities according to their needs. Online learning is the backbone of student learning. Teachers provide support and instruction on a flexible, as-needed basis while students work through course curriculum and content. This strategy can give students a high degree of control over their learning (https://www.blendedlearning.org/models/)

The rotation blended learning strategies allow academic instruction and social-emotional learning to work in tandem with one another. When a big class is divided into small groups for specific learning objectives, educators have more time to connect with each student, and students have more opportunities to communicate with their peers and develop self-management skills. 

When students can move from one learning activity to another based on their progress and interests during a school day, both teachers and students are liberated from the traditional lecturing model.

Dashboard data

COVID-19’s disruption to schools may potentially cause widespread learning loss among students. Educators, particularly teachers from schools predominantly serving students from low-income households, worry about students who might not be academically prepared for the next grade in the fall. Researchers even have suggested that students might return in the fall of 2020 with about 70 percent of the learning gains they have already achieved in reading and less than half of the learning gains in math. In some grades, the loss could equate to almost a full year behind what they would have had in normal times.

Blended learning is not a panacea. However, the strategies, such as the Flipped Classroom and the various types of rotation, create opportunities for teachers to collect data on each student’s learning progress. Using the data, teachers can place each student at the right level in one class.

Meaningful changes

Blended learning does not mean simply moving parts of instruction online. In blended learning, educators intentionally integrate teaching and technology to boost and personalize learning.

According to a guidebook published in 2018 by Future Ready Schools, blended learning strategies allow school districts to schedule and use traditional and online resources creatively. In the context of COVID-19, moving to a blended learning environment empowers districts to leverage personnel, time, and coursework in a creative manner.

In the long run, the challenges created by the pandemic could lead to transformation in public schools by employing strategies such as blended learning that promote personalization and 21st century skills.

Jinghong Cai (jcai@nsba.org) is senior research analyst at NSBA’s Center for Public Education. Chip Slaven (cslaven@nsba.org) is NSBA’s chief advocacy officer.

Around NSBA

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Black Students in the Condition of Education 2020

The Center for Public Education selected relevant data from the Condition of Education to help school leaders not only monitor the educational progress of Black students, but also rethink what public schools can do better for Black students.