Blended learning is a method of classroom instruction that combines elements of traditional, teacher-led, face-to-face instruction with personalized digital platforms. The stated goal of the methodology is to enable greater opportunities for student differentiation, both because the digital tool is individualized and because this affords teachers more time to work in rotating small groups and one-on-one with students.
While this tool can certainly be used to the benefit of students and teachers if implemented well, a worry is that this is a very slippery slope. Concerns – both real and predicted — include much larger class sizes, greater numbers of students on screens for a longer period of time (the last thing our youth need is added screen time) and situations where classes are run entirely online without or with limited access to certified educators.
Another potential benefit is the potential to expand course opportunities, especially in rural areas or schools with hard-to-fill positions. For example, blended learning has seen success in the capacity for dual credit offerings.
In response to the School Finance Commission’s recommendation that blended learning models are worth the investment, the Legislature set aside $6 million in House Bill 3 to support the implementation of high-fidelity blended learning programs in Texas schools. In Texas’ new Blended Learning Grant Program (BLGP), TEA has outlined the process by which districts can apply for grants that would fund and support the design and execution of blended learning models.
The BLGP is a 4-year process to design, launch, and implement high-quality blended learning programs within a single feeder pattern K-8. In the first cycle, as many as 25 planning grants will be awarded to select districts for a year of strategic support and planning toward an effective data-driven execution of a blended learning program. In addition, 10 self-funded districts will be selected to participate in the same planning supports. All 35 participating districts will then be eligible for the execution grant, which will fund up to $100,000 to support launching the programs over the next three years. Some of the BLGP program supports include targeted professional development, technology infrastructure, software vendor approval and alignment. The deadline to apply for the fall 2019 planning grants is Nov. 4. TEA will release a new round of planning grants in fall 2020.
In their applications, districts can choose either to implement math blended programs or non-math pilot programs. Because a nationwide RAND study has determined that blended learning enjoys the most significant gains in mathematics, two-thirds of the grant recipients will be districts planning to implement math models, specifically Math Innovation Zones (MIZ). MIZ are blended programs that focus on K-8 mathematics aiming for Algebra I readiness by 8th grade. TEA also is eager to reward districts that are committed to exploring the potential for scaling blended learning into other disciplines and grades and so promises one-third of funds to districts willing to pilot non-math blended programs.
Although all school districts in the state can apply, districts with a high proportion of economically disadvantaged students and those in which a majority of students are approaching — and at least 15 percent are meeting — grade level standards will be given priority.