Blended Learning & Student Achievement: What Really Matters

Technology might actually have a negative effect on student learning. Or, more specifically, using technology in the classroom isn’t a guarantee that students will become better readers or develop stronger math skills, or go on to graduate. Brookings looked closely at achievement data and concluded what many educators have already understood:

Teachers matter. High quality instruction matters. Technology tools help, but only as supplements to support and enhance instruction.  


Blended Learning

One method that’s become popular these days is blended learning. There are many approaches to teaching and learning, but the blended learning model makes a lot of sense for students in 21st Century schools. With blended learning, students receive face-to-face instruction from their teacher(s), which is then supplemented by some type of technology-based or online learning. This approach is sometimes referred to as hybrid learning, but the two really are not necessarily the same. Sometimes, hybrid learning represents a mixture of on-site instruction and field-based experiences and could even be part of an apprenticeship model. Technology certainly plays an integral role within a hybrid model when students complete on-site simulations such as in a healthcare field experience, or gain practice working on a computerized numerical controlled (CNC) machine as part of an apprenticeship.

Using Blended Learning in School

Sometimes using labels as personalized learning, blended learning, hybrid learning, and others, elementary school officials are starting to rely heavily on technology to boost students’ learning. When used as a supplement or an extension to teacher instruction, it can be an effective tool. Parents report their students are more eager to attend school and they seem more excited about learning. This increases daily attendance rates which in many states, supports the funding schools receive each year.

High schools and universities have also been experimenting with infusing technology into instruction for several reasons. For example, technology can be a great way for small or rural schools to provide their students with a teacher who has expertise in a foreign language or some other specialty that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Likewise, advanced learners often benefit from taking online courses for college credit while still in high school.

However, the adoption of blended learning is sometimes driven by economics—with an eye on the bottom line, administrators have figured out that it’s possible to increase teaching loads when inverting the ratio between on-site and web-based instruction, thereby saving the institution considerable money in the short term. A typical classroom can hold approximately 25-30 students, but an online classroom could theoretically hold an unlimited number. In a school that’s operating on a razor-thin budget, an administrator could easily determine that it costs less to hire one teacher as opposed to three or four and temporarily choose to place ethical practice on a shelf. It doesn’t take long, however, for the impact of those poor choices to be realized and the practice is quickly abandoned.

Setting the Stage for an Effective Blended Learning Experience

Front-Load a Successful Outcome: Designing effective blended learning experiences that involve online instruction require up-front work. It’s relatively quick and easy to build an online course but it’s essential to create one that will provide a substantive, meaningful learning experience for students. This means that special attention must be given to curriculum development, instructional methods, assessment design, user-friendly learning platforms, and of course, faculty training. Powerful online teaching and learning doesn’t just happen by itself, which is why many institutions have elected to partner with Quality Matters, a non-profit quality assurance organization that guides schools in their web-based instruction development.

Professional Development is Essential: Effective instruction doesn’t just happen. Teachers must be properly trained in using technology effectively within the blended learning model, and due to the nature of constant change within the field this training must be ongoing. Schools of education must prepare future elementary and secondary teachers to use current technology as instructional tools, and then once in service, school districts must take on the responsibility of providing high-quality professional development, peer coaching, and mentoring to ensure that technology tools are being used effectively. Likewise, while their faculty members hold advanced degrees and are experts within their fields, colleges and universities must also provide high-quality professional development to support excellence in teaching and learning.


As evidenced by the data, Brookings concluded:

It’s not what technology you use; it’s how you use it that matters.

In other words, simply having technology in a classroom does not guarantee that students will learn. Cutting-edge technology tools in and of themselves just aren’t enough to drive achievement. However, when used to supplement high-quality direct instruction, the use of web-based applications and courses can be effective for many students.


Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design.  Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site ( 





Looking for Innovation? Think CBE.

Thinking about adopting a competency-based educational (CBE) model? This can be a great, innovative way to teach adult learners at the community college or university level, but it can also be quite appropriate for youngsters at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Here are a few basic tenets of CBE to consider:

Competency-based education is not an easy way to learn or to earn a college degree. Instead, it is a different way to learn. Rather than just sitting in a class and earning attendance points, learners really have to demonstrate what they know and are able to do through a variety of high-quality assessments.

True competency-based education is standards-based education. A house must have a solid foundation in order to stand over time. Likewise, curriculum must be based on standards, and from those standards, competencies, learning objectives, and assessments are developed. As industry standards change, so must a competency-based curriculum evolve to ensure relevancy and currency.


Competency-based education is carefully planned and developed. It is not a simple matter to create or switch to a competency-based educational model. It requires a great deal of thought, planning, training, and a commitment to various resources. Simply put, it is not realistic for an institution to believe this can be created by one or two faculty members given extra teaching load pay over a semester or two. It requires systemic commitment and long-range strategic planning.

The curriculum found in a high-quality competency-based educational program comprises both breadth and depth. As previously stated, a solid curriculum must be standards-based. In addition, a CBE curriculum can’t just “cover” certain key concepts and principles—this approach will not lead to deep, sustained learning. Instead, major content must be identified and embedded multiple times within signature learning experiences; they must be scaffolded throughout a program of study at increasing levels of complexity. Learners must be given multiple opportunities to understand and apply what they are learning in various contexts.

Self-paced learning is a cornerstone of the CBE model. Rote memorization has been debunked by many over the years as an ineffective way to learn. Likewise, educators now acknowledge that lockstep teaching and learning does not meet the needs of individuals. An age-old approach known as “Teach to the Middle” is still often the norm in environments where class size is excessive and teachers need to work as efficiently as possible simply to manage their classrooms. However, this approach neglects the needs of students who are struggling, and it neglects the needs of students who have already mastered those skills and are ready to move on. One of the most beautiful aspects of competency-based education is that it is based on a self-paced learner model: Students work at their own pace, taking as much or as little time as they need to understand, apply, and demonstrate their proficiency in the stated competencies and learning objectives. Learners are less frustrated; they feel empowered and more in control of their own progress.

The competency-based model lends itself well to online learning. CBE certainly can work well in traditional face-to-face learning environments. However, it can work equally well in distance learning models. There are different nuances to consider in the planning stage, but CBE is adaptable to all learning environments. What’s important is the strength of the curriculum, the learning resources, the quality of instruction, and the support given to learners. If the curriculum can be seen as the foundation of the house, then the other instructional elements can be viewed as the walls supporting the structure.

The quality of a competency-based program is heavily reliant upon the quality of its assessments. In a competency-based model, learners demonstrate what they know and are able to do relative to specific learning objectives. They demonstrate this through a variety of high-quality assessments, frequently in the form of internally-created objective examinations, performance assessments, field-based assessments, and externally-created proprietary assessments. If the curriculum is the home’s foundation, and the walls are comprised of learning resources, instructional quality, and learner support, assessments represent the roof. There must be direct alignment between what learners are taught and how their knowledge is measured.

Continuous, critical review of assessment data is essential. Many educators throw around the term “data-driven” decision making these days, but few really understand what it means. As with curriculum development, a comprehensive assessment plan is essential to any institution, regardless whether it adheres to a competency-based educational model or not. There are many steps that need to be taken to ensure the quality, integrity, and continual improvement of the ways in which learner proficiency is measured.

The bottom line: It’s all about efficacy. Irrespective of the educational model being implemented, the strength of a program actually can best be determined by the sustained impact on the lives of learners and those they interact with in their chosen profession. For example, do graduates from an educator preparation program demonstrate a positive impact on their P-12 students’ learning and development? Do graduates from a medical school demonstrate a significant impact on improving the quality of their patients’ lives?

Competency-based education is not just about learning in the moment; it’s about learning for a lifetime to serve the greater good.