With blended learning—plan on change

June 24, 2016 | by Clifford Maxwell

As schools continue to join the Blended Learning Universe (BLU) school directory—the largest database of blended-learning schools—we are observing some important data trends that highlight how schools are approaching the blended-learning implementation process. In the past six months, we have seen at least a dozen schools that have shifted from using a single model of blended learning to using multiple models either join the BLU or update their BLU profiles. In total, 81 of the now 364 active schools in our database use a combination of two or more blended-learning models in their classrooms.

A few things to bear in mind in light of this data: First, this isn’t a new trend. Many schools have been using multiple blended-learning models for some time now, the BLU is simply confirming this as the database scales. Second, it’s not necessary to use multiple models of blended learning to address students’ needs—this data is simply an indicator that schools are modifying their blended programs over time.

What the trends suggest is that schools are using blended learning to solve discrete problems. Blended learning has the potential to personalize learning for individual students at scale, but the degree to which that potential is realized will depend on how educators adapt, iterate, and improve blended programs over time to address particular student needs.

Here are two examples of schools featured in the BLU school directory that have approached the use of blended-learning design as a process aimed at addressing specific problems in order to allow students to accomplish goals:

SPARK Schools, an independent school network in South Africa, uses the Lab Rotation and Flex models to help drive student success. Founded in 2013, SPARK Schools originally implemented a Lab RotSparks School profilesation model, where all students rotated between classroom instruction and a computer lab for online instruction for math and reading. Eventually, the school started observing that older students were demonstrating personal responsibilityand autonomy over their learning time and that teachers were naturally grouping students by skill level. What resulted was a shift to the use of a Flex model for students in 4th grade and up (students in grades K–3 still use the Lab Rotation). In this new model, students, grouped by skill level, move to various “learning modalities” for math, literacy, Zulu, and creative problem solving time.  Students also have two learning modalities a day where they are free to work independently on online content and assignments according to the goals they set with their teachers on a weekly basis. These Flex stations give students more autonomy and leverage online learning so that students can access what they need, when they need it.

Important to observe at SPARK is the willingness to redesign the program around student and teacher needs instead of being wedded to what worked in the past. Indeed, their adaptive approach to blended design embodies the customization and individualization that online learning aims to provide.

At Piedmont Middle School, a 6–8 public school in Piedmont, Ala., school leaders were struggling to figure out how best to differentiate instruction to meet individual students’ needs. They had observed that advanced students were not being challenged enough and struggling students were not receiving sufficient help from teachers to make meaningful progress. Although it  was a 1:1 school at the time, and several teachers were implementing a Station Rotation model, school leaders were not seeing the growth they desired in student achievement. To address this challenge and to give students a greater degree of ownership of their learning, starting in 2014 Piedmont worked with NGLC and shifted to using a combination of the Station Rotation, A La Carte, and Flex models to provide a learning environment that allowed students to progress at their own pace and gave teachers ample time to work with students individually and in small groups. In this new model, students spend their time in three blocks each day: Class Time, Team Time, and My Time.

  • Class Time is a rotational learning period during which students work independently and at their own pace on online content for math and reading and then apply the concepts and skills they gained from the online content in project-based assessments.
  • Team Time gives students an opportunity to work with teachers as mentors to set goals, build relationships, and explore personal interests. Teachers use formative data assessments to monitor and focus students’ efforts. During this time, students also have the opportunity to take A La Carte online high school courses to work on content above their grade level.
  • My Time is a self-directed Flex block that enables students to drive their learning and apply the self-directed learning strategies developed during Team Time. Students use adaptive online curriculum to progress independently and collaborate with a teacher, a tech-student intern, or their peers to improve their learning. Students’ work in My Time is driven by action plans created during Team Time. Teachers are given extra time every week by combining groups of students in My Time, and they use this time to reflect on students’ data and provide targeted instruction.

Piedmont, like SPARK, assertively made changes in response to challenges and modified their use of blended learning to meet student and teacher needs. With Flex stations and A La Carte offerings, students now have a higher degree of autonomy during the school day, which aligns with the school’s vision of advancing mastery and helping students have ownership of their own learning.


As my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher has written, The efficacy of blended learning greatly depends on its specific implementation and the particular problem it is designed to solve.” Educators must recognize the advantages and disadvantages that each model or combination of models offers and be willing to adapt and iterate over time as students’ needs change. SPARK Schools, Piedmont Middle School, and dozens of other schools in the BLU are doing just that, and school leaders across the world can now collaborate on the BLU to discover and share similar success stories.


One Response to “With blended learning—plan on change”


July 05, 2016 at 1:05 am, Mark Jacobs said:

I read the book “Blended Learning” in which there are many online resources mentioned. It would be really helpful to be able to see a list of different online resources, those that are complete programs, those that provide A La Carte options, etc. Do you know if that list exists anywhere?

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