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

Blended-learning-methodologyby Charles Cohen

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.

Charles Cohen is the manager of the Jewish Day School Affordability Knowledge Center.

cross-posted with PEJE blog