With a recent Oxford University study predicting that an astonishing 47 percent of today’s jobs could be automated in the next two decades, how might educators better prepare their students to secure promising long-term careers? For some, blended learning, whereby students learn through online delivery of content and instruction, with some element of student control over time, place or pace as well as face-to-face interaction, is seen as one way to support flexible teaching alternatives given ever-increasing budget constraints. Laurada Byers , president and CEO of the Byerschool Foundation; Otis Hackney, principal of the South Philadelphia High School, and Mary F. Seppala, Head of School of The Agnes Irwin School were interviewed for their perspectives on blended learning and its potential impact for their respective charter, public and private school students.
Q. While blended learning has been around for decades, why do you think it is gaining greater attention today?
A. O. Hackney: People are looking towards technology as potential ways to support job prospects. As a Generation Xer, I recall how my generation were sometimes coached on “safer” careers like accountants and auditors. Still, I recall a recent Economist article where I saw how this career path now has something like a ninety-four percent probability where computerization will lead to job losses for this sector in the next twenty years. As such, we need to figure out a way that best prepares our kids for a future with so much uncertainty. Blended learning offers one way to provide cost-effective means to educate kids at their own unique pace of learning. For example, schools might offer language instruction in not only Spanish and French but also others like Mandarin and Hindi.
Q. So, it sounds likes blended learning is a no-brainer and all schools (regardless of charter, private or public) should have it as a key target outcome in their annual remits?
A. L. Byers: Actually no, it’s one of many tools that schools have at their disposal and in my mind, the leadership team needs to formulate a strategic approach that makes sense for their own unique situation. For example at our school, expeditionary learning is one of our five distinguishing characteristics. It’s predicated upon an innovative teaching approach based on the guiding principles of the famed outdoor educational program Outward Bound. As such, given limited resources, our school has elected to prioritize people, time and dollars to existing efforts versus just reallocate them to areas that might be considered hot at the moment.
Q. It is interesting that you mentioned Outward Bound, as I interviewed Professor Allen Grossman, a professor at the Harvard Business School, who also served as president and chief executive officer of Outward Bound USA for a different article at the PSIJ. He mentioned that “…with federal investments in youth employment programs decreasing from $1.5 billion in 1984 to $924 million in 2010, initiatives need to be able to demonstrate quantifiable value in order to compete for shrinking government as well as private funding.” As such, I am wondering how schools are considering the value of such programming.
A. M. Seppala: Blended learning is one of many options that The Agnes Irwin School considers, and we look holistically at the value equation. For example, we consider how will different learning options (be it blended learning and others) help support our students in the near term (e.g., college and graduate school) as well as long term (entry-level as well as sustainable career progression). As such, The Agnes Irwin School provides opportunities for our students to sign up for low-incidence courses (macro-economics and genetics to name a few) that are of deep interest to them and are not on the current curriculum. This flexibility enables the school to craft a core curriculum with face-to-face instruction as well as instruction that addresses the specific interests of our young women.
Q. So, given your experiences with blended learning, what are your words of wisdom for the PSIJ community?
A. M. Seppala: Regardless if you're a nonprofit or a Fortune 500 entity, an organization needs to provide flexible and agile options for one's students/employees so that they will have the critical skills needed to compete with their peers. For example, when Bryn Mawr College was founded, AIS's founder revised the curriculum so that students could be better prepared for potential admission to this highly selective school. And now looking forward, the demands of the twenty-first century require that we emphasize a common set of core competencies (critical thinking, strong communication skills (written and spoken words) and collaboration) for today's students. Blended/online learning is a tool that we're leveraging to better prepare our student body and it's one that could be of value for your PSIJ community.
A. O. Hackney: It’s not just about financial resources to support blended learning. Of equal or perhaps even greater importance is the existing core competencies that your teachers possess to effectively and efficiently engage with the students and their families. For example, even with all of the hype around various MOOC (massive open online courses) initiatives, unless you’re able to have teachers who can instruct in a way that motivates students to truly engage with the content, you won’t deliver the target outcomes that you are striving for in a timely manner.
A. L. Byers: I’ve been reading articles on how Big Data and computers are increasingly able to take on not only jobs that require routine/repetitive tasks but also more complicated areas that are based upon “learning” steps and predictive analytics. Still, if students focus too much time sitting alone in front of their digital tools, their social skills are going to be severely limited. We should strive to help find that healthy equilibrium of tools that can position our kids to be successful, no matter what their ultimate career choices might be.