The road to a blended learning utopia
Oliver Sabot is the co-founder of Kepler and Spire, sister organizations working to transform higher education in Africa and around the world. MediaCore supports their work and is providing the technology platform for the initiative.
Oliver was previously an Executive Vice President at the Clinton Health Access Initiative and is the author of a range of articles on global health and international development. His passion for education began during a stint as an ineffective teacher in rural Namibia – a failure from which he learned much.
The flipped classroom is one of those ideas that is obvious yet agonizingly elusive. Like many, I suspect, reading Sal Khan or Clay Christensen immediately led me to reflect on the inefficiencies of my own education experience. How much more could I have learned in the combined months I spent half-awake in dull lectures if I had been absorbing the stream of facts in the evening and actively working to put them in practice with peers and teacher guidance? Why was I – and many millions of others – subjected to a model that must have been clearly sub-optimal even in the increasingly bygone era when I was in school? It is not that my teachers were all feckless and complacent. Nor was it that the technology was not yet available – blended and flipped classrooms have existed for decades in various forms.
The short answer is that blended learning is hard; harder than current models. It is harder for the student, it is harder for the teacher (as a classics professor recently articulated), and it is harder for the institution. This can be counterintuitive. Wouldn’t it be easier for a teacher to put in some extra effort to record their lectures once and not to have to deliver them day after day. But taking advantage of the class time that approach frees up is inherently more taxing than lecturing each day. Effective active learning methods (e.g., projects, discussions, etc.) need to be designed and closely facilitated. And those methods need to be carefully integrated with the content now punted to the evening if the benefits are to be realized. The recent experience of the pioneering Rocketship schools highlights both the promise and challenges of blended learning.
As Atul Gawande reminds us in his recent New Yorker piece, changes that require more effort but little or no immediate visible impact are slow to spread. Combined with the deep systemic hurdles to innovation in most school systems and institutions, that likely explains most of the glacial adoption of blended learning models. We may now be at a tipping point as more experiments like Rocketship emerge and spread and broader policy momentum builds through the steady urging of the Clayton Christensen Institute and others. But there is a long road ahead and there are many diversions and potholes along the way that could limit the impact of blended learning.
These risks are constantly on our mind as we build Kepler and Spire to spur a revolution in blended higher education across Africa. We are at the start of journey and have much to learn through our inevitable failures as well as successes. But here are some of the principles that I expect will underpin many of our decisions as we build our own blended learning programs over the coming years.
- Make it easy – In the end, our teachers and academics will have to carry most of the burden of making blended learning work. It is the job of the rest of us to enable them to focus on that work. That means seamless technology and streamlined operations. We have been fortunate to have a partnership with MediaCore and the guidance of its CEO, Stuart Bowness, who has been indispensable in helping Kepler build a technology platform that will allow students and teachers to easily access content despite the often maddening internet in Kigali, Rwanda. We now need to build a similarly strong operational foundation – every minute an educator thinks about something other than building and delivering a world-class experience for our students is our failure. That will be difficult, but we do have a great and growing team who will be pouring themselves into building this foundation brick by brick.
- Content imagination – Great blended learning will be more than watching talking heads at home. Many online courses and materials are currently just copies of their in-person equivalents, just like the first movies were recordings of stage plays. The real breakthrough in learning will come when the online ingredients in the blend go far beyond what is possible in the physical classroom. This is part technology, but it is mostly imagination and experimentation. The field needs its Hitchcocks and Kubricks who will stretch the core boundaries of the medium, not Camerons who will attempt to mask hollow content beneath technical chicanery. I for one would like to see a public speaking online course that has students synchronously debating others from around the world as their peers analyze and provide feedback on the nuances of their performance.
- Start fresh – The magnitude of change and effort required to drive great blended learning will be hardest for individuals and institutions that are entrenched in the current field. That is why we are starting with totally new programs and will be rigorously screening all candidates for their willingness and ability to experiment well outside the proverbial box. We are open to anyone, but this likely means we will primarily hire teachers right at the start of their careers who can grow along with us.
- Patience and introspection – We are going to get things wrong. Frequently. Our ambition for systemic change cannot and will not waver, but we also do not expect to immediately realize that vision even within our first schools. The recent, often wickedly gleeful reports of the failure of Udacity’s partnership with San Jose State shows the impatience in much of education dialogue. In fact, the Udacity experience should be heralded as a valuable contribution to the future of education, particularly by advocates of blended learning since the poor results seem mostly attributable to the lack of in-person support to complement the online courses.
I am sure these principles will expand and evolve as we get deeper into the crucible of testing our ideas. But regardless of the hurdles that we and many others will continue to face, it is clear that blended learning is one of the best tools we have to fix the massive squandering of human potential that occurs in schools around the world every year. Nobody yet knows how to best get to a future with ubiquitous blended learning, but we must get there.