Friday, November 16, 2012

Innovations in Education Culture Needed to Scale Blended Learning Adoption

This has been a breakthrough year for blended learning models.   Innovation in supporting technologies, policies, and economic/market change agents have pushed the virtual/blended agenda.  With all of the investment and innovation around blended learning, one might expect wider adoption.

A recent comment posted on Tom Vander Ark’s Education Week blog about adoption of blended learning got my attention:

“We implemented a rotation style blended learning program this year at our high school. The biggest challenge that we are overcoming right now is that students aren't ready for taking ownership of their own learning. We didn't realize how conditioned they are to sit, listen, and regurgitate facts back.

(emphasis added, accessed on 15 November 2012 from:

This rings true with my observations in schools/classrooms implementing several different blended learning models.  The biggest challenges have to do with changes in practice, both personally for students and teachers, and organizationally. 

When blended learning pilots fail to gain traction or fail to deliver the expected outcomes, it is easy to look to imperfections with the virtual technology, with the methodologies being used, or teacher preparation as the root causes. However, these are often only the scapegoat for a deeper root cause, i.e. resistance to change.  When individuals and organizations try to adopt new practices and encounter challenges, they have a proclivity to revert to more familiar patterns of behavior.  

Vander Ark’s blog listed some of the challenges that have slowed district adoption of blended learning including weaknesses in platforms, models, staffing and development, and district capacity.  These more visible factors create the “friction” for the organizational behavioral changes needed for people to put blended learning into practice.

I used the term “cultural inertia” in a session I co-presented at the National School Boards Association annual conference in 2009 to describe this phenomenon in education organizations. “Culture” can be thought of as shared habits of believing and behaving.  Habits are difficult enough to change in individuals…How is your 2012 New Year’s resolution working out?  Changing the culture of a school or district requires changes in the habits of many people.

Change is Worse than Pain

In another blog post I opined on how the education profession is like the medical profession of the early 19th century, when after the invention of anesthesia it took over 40 years for surgeons to see past preconceived notions about pain.  It took more than 40 years for them to accept that pain was not necessarily a good thing.  It is well known that the way things are done in schools is not working for many students, but many educators, students, and parents cannot image it working any other way.  As the 19th century surgeons demonstrated, sometimes having the right technology and knowing how to use it is not enough.  It takes something more for people to embrace a new professional practice.  It takes a change in what the professional and professional community believes about themselves and their professional purpose as it relates to the innovation. 

I cannot help but wonder what might have accelerated the timeline for anesthesia adoption by the 19th century surgeons.  Moreover, I wonder what “soft innovations” might accelerate professional adoption of blended learning practices.

Blended Learning is an Out-of-Comfort-Zone Experience for Most People…at first.

I have had the opportunity to observe at the classroom level and at different stages of adoption for a couple of different blended learning models.  It was apparent that there were some students and teachers that were energized by the change to more individualized learning, some that felt uncomfortable, and some that had a real struggle with the changed model.  In the models I observed, teachers needed to change from being “sage on the stage” to being “guide on the side.”  Students also need to take on a more active role in their own learning.   Teachers often felt less in control when first implementing the new model and student self-efficacy was challenged.

In spite of the very human nature to resist change I've been able to observe some successful educators and students that have worked within the blended learning model long enough to reach an “aha moment”, realizing that teaching and learning under the blended model is better than the old way of doing things, and adopting new habits of behavior.  However, there are many more who have started down the path to blended learning adoption but who have never make it to the “aha moment”.  There are many schools in which one or two teachers embrace the new model, while the rest of the school continues with the status-quo.

Innovations in Education Culture

I see a great opportunity to accelerate adoption of blended learning models by addressing the human aspects of adopting.  Innovations that matter most are often not the technological innovations.  We need better understand of the human and organizational behavior aspects of blended learning models, the “soft” innovations that catalyze changes in organizational culture and professional practice.
Just by paying attention to this aspect of the problem uncovers some potential solutions.  A while ago, I was chatting with a teacher implementing a blended model.  She was telling me about issues faced in her classroom and some solutions that work.  She talked about the blended model requiring her to make a significant change in professional practice, and that took time.  By enduring frustrations, daily problem solving, and coaching she made the transition.  While we were talking, she reflected on struggles that some students had with the new model.  It occurred to her that students also must adopt new practices and that some of the challenges could have been avoided if more time were spent up front preparing students for the new role.

Thanks to the Innosight Institute  and others, in 2012 we understand at a high-level HOW various blended learning models work.   In 2013, I hope to see organizations take a deeper dive into the processes and human interactions contained within each model and the evidence of learner outcomes, i.e. WHY the model works or does not work.   I also hope to see a deeper dive into the organizational change and professional practice models, and discoveries of soft innovations that catalyze accelerated adoption.    

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