What Do Rhode Island Parents and Families Know About Blended and Personalized Learning in Their Children’s Schools?
By Marie A. Lynch and Thomas E. Malloy, Rhode Island College
Rhode Island’s Strategic Plan for Public Education prioritizes the use of blended learning and personalized learning in the state’s schools in order to ensure that every student is enrolled in a rigorous learning environment that meets their individual needs. Personalized learning is an effort to tailor education to the needs of individual students. Research suggests that differentiating instruction with authentic and personally relevant content can increase student ownership, engagement, and agency. Blended learning combines online learning with face-to-face instruction, allowing for some degree of student control over the time, place, or pace of their learning. Both these practices rely on the use of technology in the classroom and at home.
The effort to implement these practices in Rhode Island schools involves collaboration between school administrators, teachers, students, and their families. Personalized and blended learning work best when families understand and support the teaching practices and goals. To evaluate the success of Rhode Island’s efforts, this research explores what families know and understand about personalized and blended learning, whether they accept the use of these techniques in their children’s schools, and whether they see these techniques as beneficial for their children’s educational development.
To learn what families know and understand about blended learning and personalized learning efforts in their children’s schools and districts, this research explores the following questions:
- What information has been shared with parents and families about blended and personalized learning and what do parents and families know about these practices?
- What experiences have parents and families participated in related to blended and personalized learning efforts at their children’s schools?
- How do parents and families define blended and personalized learning given their children’s experiences?
- What feedback can parents and families provide to schools, districts, and researchers about how to best engage them with these efforts going forward?
This research was conducted in partnership with the North Providence School Department (NPSD) in Rhode Island, which has a student body of 3,500 and includes eight schools: five elementary, two middle, and one high school. A variety of blended learning and personalization efforts existed across the district. For example, the district has prioritized learning technologies such as Chromebooks for students and Eno Boards, a type of interactive whiteboard, for teachers. Students at several schools in the district use the online Summit Learning platform, a tool designed to help students learn at their own pace with support from their families and teachers.
The research team created a 40-question Family Personalized Learning Online Survey that was distributed to families by all NPSD school principals. All written materials, including the survey, invitation letter, and consent forms, were sent to NPSD families in English and Spanish via email. The survey was conducted in October and November 2019 using the online platform Qualtrics.
The survey included background questions about participant demographics and multiple-choice and open-ended questions about blended learning, personalized learning, and technology. One hundred and five people consented to participate and completed the survey. The vast majority were parents of children in Rhode Island schools, but 4% were grandparents or other family members or guardians.
Survey participants were disproportionately college-educated and white, and reported higher levels of engagement and involvement in their child’s school than in surveys of NPSD parents from Rhode Island SurveyWorks. This suggests that the survey sample may not be representative of all Rhode Island families and the results may not generalize across the state’s school population.
Figure 1: Are Families Aware of Blended Learning and Personalized Learning?
Awareness of Blended Learning: Approximately 68% of respondents were familiar or somewhat familiar with blended learning. Half of respondents (51%) learned about the concept from the school or their child’s teacher. About 11% learned about it from other families or from their children. When asked to identify the features of blended learning, 30% of respondents reported that it entails the use of choice centers, the same proportion identified the use of computer stations, and 35% reported it involves online learning (respondents were allowed to select multiple answers for this question).
Awareness of Personalized Learning: Three-quarters (77%) of respondents were aware or somewhat aware of the concept of personalized learning. Around half (54%) of respondents learned about it from the school or their child’s teacher, while 10% learned of it from their child or other families. When asked about the features of personalized learning, 23% of respondents reported that it involves self-paced learning, 25% selected individual learning opportunities, 14% identified student choice, 18% reported it is based on student needs or interests, and 12% reported the Summit Learning Platform is involved (respondents were allowed to select multiple answers for this question).
Figure 2: How Do Families Know About Blended Learning and Personalized Learning?
School-Family Engagement: About 71% of respondents reported feeling welcome in their child’s classroom, while only a small number (7%) feel unwelcome. Families reported varied levels of engagement with their children’s schools through activities such as parent-teacher meetings, the school’s parent group, volunteering at the school, and attendance at school events and meetings. Only 30% of respondents said they had ever taken part in any events or activities focused on blended or personalized learning in their child’s school. 68% of those who participated in such events said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the experience. Only 4% said they had even participated in a “technology night” at their child’s school.
Figure 3. What Do Families Think About Technology for Learning?
Perspectives on the Importance of Technology: Respondents generally had positive perceptions about the concept of using technology for learning. Nearly three-fourths of respondents agree or strongly agree that technology is important for learning (72%) and that technology creates learning opportunities (70%). Respondents were more mixed on the question of whether technology was helping their child. 45% agree that technology helps their child learn more, while 38% are neutral about this question and 17% disagree. 48% believe that the technology provided at their child's school is what they need for learning, while 35% are neutral about this question and 17% disagree.
Using Technology at Home: About 43% of family members reported that their child uses technology regularly at home to learn, 37% said this occurs sometimes, and 20% reported their child does not use technology at home. Technology used at home includes computers (27%), tablets (24%), and smartphones (16%). Three-quarters of respondents said the technology used at school can be used at home when needed, while 17% disagreed.
Lessons & Recommendations
This research provided several helpful insights about the understanding Rhode Island parents and families have of blended and personalized learning in their children’s schools.
- Families are generally aware of the concepts of blended and personalized learning.
A majority of families were at least somewhat aware of blended learning and personalized learning and some of the teaching practices used in these approaches. Most learned about these models of learning from their children’s schools and teachers. Schools and educators may want to continue expanding their outreach to raise awareness about blended and personalized learning among parents and families.
- Families could benefit from more information about blended and personalized learning practices.
Open-ended comments provided a range of responses indicating that more information about blended and personalized learning practices would be helpful for many families. Responses indicated that families need clear definitions from teachers and schools, as well as specific examples of how these techniques work in practice.
- Some families confuse personalized learning and special education.
Some survey comments indicated confusion among family members that personalized learning is equivalent to special education and therefore not all children are eligible. Schools should work to clear up this confusion and increase families’ understanding of how all children are participating in and benefiting from these practices.
- Families generally accept the role of technology in their children’s learning but have mixed feelings about whether it benefits their children’s educational experience.
Families are aware of the role technology plays in learning and able to name specific programs and tools being used in their children’s classrooms. The use of technology seems to be accepted in school and at home. However, there is a discrepancy between families’ abstract perspectives on the value of technology, which are largely positive, and their opinions about whether their children are benefitting from technology, which are more mixed. Schools and teachers may want to provide families with more information about how technology is being used and how it is benefitting their children.
Conclusion: Blended and Personalized Learning Are Gaining Momentum and Awareness in Rhode Island
Though more could be done to raise families’ awareness of blended and personalized learning methods and practices, this research documents the positive momentum generated from recent work to implement these approaches in schools throughout Rhode Island. A majority of families are aware of these learning strategies and have some familiarity with the practices they entail. In addition, families are generally aware of and accepting of the use of technology in education, although less clear on the benefits for their own children.
This research suggests that schools and teachers can build on the existing momentum by continuing to educate families about blended and personalized learning. Most respondents reported positive interactions and engagement with their child’s school and it is where the majority of respondents learn about blended and personalized learning. Schools can build on these relationships to share more about specific practices and technologies and how they benefit students, and clear up confusion about issues like the difference between personalized learning and special education.
It is important to note that our sample of survey participants was located in one district, NPSD, and was disproportionately white, well-educated, and possibly more engaged with their children’s schools than the overall population of Rhode Island families. Future research could help shed light on how blended learning, personalized learning, and technology are perceived by all Rhode Island families. An explicit focus on minority, low-income, and non-English-speaking families would help us better understand how awareness of these teaching methods varies by region, across racial and ethnic groups, and by socioeconomic and educational status. In this way, we can identify gaps in families’ understanding of and engagement with the techniques being used to teach their children.