Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Lots of Small Sections and Efficiency Too? The Economic Case for Building Competency in Blended Classroom + Online Learning

Guest post by Dr. Harry Bloom (hbloom1@yu.edu)

Few topics have engaged the Jewish media and Shabbos table more intensely than the day school “tuition crisis” which is jeopardizing the sustainability of our day schools by placing tremendous stress on family budgets on the one hand and on schools’ abilities to fund first rate programs on the other hand.
The pressure to reduce expenses and tuition levels is intense. Based on benchmarking analysis conducted by the YU School Partnership (YUSP) in approximately forty schools in five East Coast and Midwestern communities*, a prime source of potential efficiencies lies in making more productive use of faculty resources in our schools. After all, faculty members are the most valuable, highest cost element within our schools.  A key challenge to productivity is thinly populated class sections. By “section” we meet a course offering such as 9th grade honors Talmud or Advanced Hebrew language.
An examination of course offering and enrollment patterns at five high schools drawn from our benchmarking school sample illustrates the point. All of the schools are college preparatory in nature, all are co-ed. Enrollment ranges from about 100 to 300.
When the schools’ sections are arrayed from high to low in terms of enrollment, we see the following pattern.
Section Enrollment
School A
School Avg
Lower 1/3
Mid 1/3
high 1/3

In terms of the extent to which the schools’ are filling their enrollment capacity with capacity defined individually by each school, a picture of underutilized capacity in two thirds of the sections emerges.

The cost implications are significant since the cost of offering a section is basically fixed: teacher compensation and facilities costs.
Options to improve capacity utilization must obviously include offering fewer sections where this is possible. Schools often take the position that they need to offer a large range of sections to meet the needs of diverse learners and to be competitive in their marketplaces.
Another obvious solution is to fill seats in low capacity sections through enhanced recruitment and retention activities. This should obviously always be a priority. But in some markets the potential student populations are already saturated and retention is high.
Fortunately, another emerging powerful solution is for schools to build their competency in blended classroom instruction and online instruction to enable fewer, larger sections coincident with more individualized instruction and high quality student learning. In a blended classroom, teachers can utilize online resources in a variety of ways to complement their own teaching: to convey new concepts and/ or reinforce concepts taught in the classroom through structured exercises tailored to each individual student. Teachers can also utilize new learning management systems to monitor the precise degree of mastery of concepts by each student and group students with common learning needs in small groups so they learn together independently.
The range of online course offerings and curricular materials is proliferating. Open source learning management systems like Moodle enable faculty members to put their own blended curricula together . We are on the cusp of a golden opportunity to blend efficiency and higher quality learning experiences. Now is the time for active experimentation with blended learning by all schools.
The YUSP’s educational technology expert, Dr. Eliezer Jones (ejones1@yu.edu), is actively exploring all of the available options including commercial platforms and curricula, open source (free and ability to customize) learning platforms and curricula, as well as the creation of consortia that pool proven open source courseware and collaboratively develop affordable and high quality online curricula in general and Judaic studies. This fall, Dr. Jones will be facilitating an online certificate program for Jewish Day School educators in online/blended instruction and design in an effort to build schools’ capacity to implement these models effectively and efficiently. He is an available resource as part of the YUSP education team focused on 21st century learning in Jewish Day Schools. Interested parties can sign up at www.YUeLearning.org to follow YUSP's work in this area.

For additional information or to share your own experiences and thoughts about this topic feel free to contact Dr. Harry Bloom at hbloom1@yu.edu

High schools should also actively consider the creation of consortia of schools with similar educational aspirations and market and customer challenges. Having school 1 take the lead in subject A and school 2 in subject B is a way for schools to capitalize on scarce talent and resources while learning through active experimentation.
It is only through this kind of purposeful and collaborative experimentation that we will learn how to achieve the benefits of truly tailored instruction and learning and efficiency, both critical elements for sustainable, high quality day schools of the future. “If not now, when?”
*This work is generously supported by The AVI CHAI Foundation and federations and foundations and schools around the country

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