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Chapter 1: What Exactly Is Blended Learning?

According to a summary by the Innosight Institute, a California think tank founded by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Jason Hwang, there are several crucial elements that combine to comprise “blended learning.” They define the practice this way:

A formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace, and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.

This definition is loose enough to leave room for many different kinds of programs.

It can encompass a teacher experimenting with fresh methods on his own. Harsh Patel, a Teach For America corps member assigned to a charter school on the south side of Chicago from 2010 to 2012, learned about Khan Academy (which we’ll discuss in detail later) when he was a college student. Patel then used it in his own math classes. He had kids watch Khan’s instructional videos at school and at home, then rotate through stations where they put in computer time doing Khan problem sets, undertook group projects, or experienced small-group instruction with the teacher.

The Innosight definition can also encompass a whole-school model of blended learning, of the sort we’ll look at more deeply in the next few chapters. Rocketship Education, some of the Summit Public Schools, some of the Alliance College-ready Public Schools in Los Angeles, KIPP Empower Academy in Los Angeles, and other places are transforming entire schools into blended-learning institutions.

Different observers use different descriptions and breakdowns, but four basic strands of blended learning are often identified:

  • Group Rotation: Students move, in groups, between different learning stations (e.g., teacher-led sessions, solo work online, small-group collaborations), either on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion. Example: KIPP Empower Academy in Los Angeles serves about 40 students per class.Individual Rotation: Most instruction is delivered online in an individually customized way, with teachers’ aides circulating to offer help. Teachers hold small tutoring sessions. Students rotate when the teacher or their computer results call for a new learning mode.

    Example: Carpe Diem School in Yuma, Arizona, serves approximately 300 students in grades 6-12.
  • Self-mixed: Students attend traditional classrooms with conversational teacher-led group instruction, but supplement this with one or more courses online, taken either during school or outside of school. Example: Growing numbers of public schools.
  • Online + Enrichment: Students are enrolled in a full-time virtual school, with options to meet with instructors periodically for tutoring, exams, or enrichment. Example: Florida Virtual School. Nationwide, 250,000 students were enrolled fulltime in online schools during 2010-2011.

Educational entrepreneurs are still trying to figure out what works best for different kinds of students, and in which settings. The growth of blended learning over the past few years has taught reformers a lot, and given them glimpses of the possibilities yet to be fully realized.

online learning

school + online learning

The language is changing as the field develops. Even pioneers aren’t sure that “blended learning” is the right umbrella description. “Personalized learning” better captures the way that the new technology can transform instruction from one-size-fits-all mass lecture to individualized lessons that let all pupils find the pace and style of instruction that helps them to their best results. Diane Tavenner, head of the Summit Public Schools, prefers “optimized learning.” She says it “captures what’s missing with ‘blended’ and ‘personalized’ . . . the power of data and analytics and feedback.” Another common shorthand is “digital learning,” but some proponents worry that it puts too much emphasis on technology as a good in itself. Technology is simply a tool to achieve a different, and better, interaction between pupils and teachers.


This is an ongoing discussion. In this guidebook, though, we will use the term “blended learning,” and follow the basic definition from the Innosight Institute outlined above. In plain English, blended learning involves using technology and human teachers in combination to achieve better results than either could produce on their own. Both technology and teachers can play to their strengths. Computerized instruction delivers individualization and immediate feedback. Teachers turn into tutors and mentors, producing in one-on-one moments with students those insights that make teaching the rewarding career it can and should be.

Why Technology Hasn’t Changed Education Yet

You can forgive experienced educators for being jaded when they hear talk of revolutions. Schools are full of expensive knick-knacks that were going to change everything. Plenty of schools have high-tech white boards, closed-circuit TV, projectors, laser disc players, and ever since the early days of computers there have been rows and rows of them in schools, sitting in separate labs, or the library, or in sets of three in the back of classrooms, often looking forlorn and two years behind whatever commercial models kids are using at home. Lots of schools convinced themselves that simply giving every child a laptop was going to supercharge their pace of learning—which was both fruitless and expensive as educational mistakes go. According to Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson’s Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, the U.S. spent $60 billion up to the time of their book’s 2008 publication—and doubtless a lot more since—putting computers in classrooms, without any discernible breakthrough in student performance.

Even savvier ways of turning kids’ love of staring at things on screens into learning quickly reached natural limits. Most 30-somethings can recall doing writing exercises on early Apple desktops in the 1980s, playing Oregon Trail on rainy elementary-school days, or drilling on MathBlaster. Many of these software packages were great products, but they didn’t turn out to be transformative in the sense of changing how school worked.

As the internet became a part of everyday life, people became interested in online learning—how lessons could be delivered remotely, in an updated version of the correspondence courses students have always taken. Many of these courses have become quite advanced and interactive. Coursera, a company founded by two Stanford professors, now offers lectures from top universities to thousands of students for free. Courses include fantasy and science fiction from the University of Michigan, and quantum mechanics and quantum computation from the University of California, Berkeley. Far from offering simple video versions of live presentations, these courses flit between demonstrations and lectures, and ask students frequently for updates on their comprehension.

In a lower-budget vein, former hedge-fund employee Sal Khan in 2004 began producing what eventually became thousands of videos on math, science, and now humanities topics, originally for his young cousins. He posted them online, where anyone can view them for free. To date, Khan’s lessons have been screened more than 230 million times—though his real innovation may be his problem sets, which we’ll discuss later in this guidebook.

Online and virtual learning has been a boon for a number of different constituencies:

A careful mix of digital and human elements—advanced computerized instruction linked to the best of traditional teaching—is what makes the “blend” in blended learning.

Families that are home schooling. Millions of American children are now educated at home rather than in an institution. Just from 1999 to 2007, this form of schooling increased its market share from 1.7 percent of K–12 children to 2.9 percent. If mom or dad need help explaining a topic, they just summon up Sal Khan or some similar curriculum for a different take.

Children who can’t or don’t want to attend a traditional school full-time. The majority of states now offer virtual schools for kids who want or need to learn this way for some reason: the child is an Olympic-caliber gymnast who’s training eight hours per day; the child is hospitalized long-term after a car accident; the household is located in a remote region; a family wants their child to go to school part-time and learn at home part-time.

Florida Virtual School, which we’ll explore later in this guidebook, is a leader in this field, offering K–12 classes ranging from Latin and Chinese to art history and forensic science. The school is compensated in an innovative way: it gets paid if and when a student completes a course, a concept that on its own could spark new motivation in education. An amazing 40 percent of Florida children now take at least one class through Florida Virtual School, and virtual schooling is also growing fast in other parts of the country. The International Association for K–12 Online Learning, known as iNACOL, reports that 275,000 students were enrolled full time in online schools during the 2011-2012 school year.

Children getting left behind. There are promising applications of online schooling for “credit recovery”—the educational euphemism for when students fail a class and need to take it again. Many of today’s options for repeating a class are very low in quality, so there is big potential upside here. State virtual schools are getting into this area, as are some commercial operators.

Children who want more variety or challenge. Online learning means that students can take courses that a local school doesn’t offer. This is certainly beneficial for students in rural areas or small schools who otherwise wouldn’t have access to a full suite of Advanced Placement classes, or foreign languages beyond the ubiquitous French and Spanish. Some teenagers are ready to pursue college credits online at the same time as they are finishing their high school degrees.

Today’s newest technology allows dramatically personalized solutions to evolve quickly.The era of one-size-fits-all education is over.

This ability to enrich educational programs is one factor driving the growth of state virtual schools. Several Philadelphia-area Catholic schools have combined forces to offer advanced math to their students by broadcasting a teacher from one school into the others. The teacher can see all the classes on her dashboard, and the camera pans immediately to any student who speaks up with a question. The 2012 Keeping Pace report estimates that more than 5 percent of all K-12 students in the U.S.—several million children—now take at least one virtual course on line in the course of a school year.

Many of these virtual-learning options have face-to-face components: Florida Virtual School students can go on field trips, and talk by phone with their teachers. With enough face-to-face interaction, some virtual schools might qualify as blended-learning programs, and students enrolled in online courses as a supplement to traditional ones fit into the “self-blend” model. But pure online learning bumps into the question of whether technology is simply using new piping to further the existing model of teaching, or whether it’s changing how content is delivered and assessed in a way that is more effective than what isn’t working now.

In theory, online learning is revolutionary. Lectures on any topic can come from the very best teachers. The Civil War was better explained by Shelby Foote than by your high school history teacher who took one class on the topic 20 years ago. An online lecture on the quadratic equation, or the Mona Lisa, can be tested for effectiveness by hundreds of thousands of people before you watch it, so you’ll know for sure that it’s good.

Technology democratizes access to excellence. A high-school student, a prisoner, a displaced auto worker brushing up to go back to school, and a kid in the Australian outback can all hear the best lecturers. It’s much like the way recording technology gave everyone access to the opera singers and symphonies that you once could hear only if you lived in a big city and had the money for concert tickets.

On the other hand, listening to a lecture—in whatever form it comes—is not all that innovative. Yes, even the most average online lecture will generally be better than what the bottom half of America’s classrooms feature. Schools are rife with stories of teachers simply writing bullet points on a board for students to copy down, or teachers having students take turns reading aloud from the text book, paragraph by paragraph, for mind-numbing weeks. But the high-quality teachers that do exist in schools have a lot to offer beyond what a student could get by watching a lecture and then answering questions about it.

Pure online learning also bumps into logistical issues when it comes to children. While online learning means there’s less necessity to go to a school building to get an education, most parents want to send their kids to a physical school. School serves a social and child care function apart from pure learning. Parents want their children somewhere safe and staffed by competent adults while they’re at work. Since schools are paying for physical space and competent adults, they figure they should use those competent adults to offer something more than the modern equivalent of correspondence classes.

So that raises the question: how can technology augment what good teachers do? How can technology help teachers get better results and make their jobs more satisfying? If blended learning can combine the best of online and in-person education, it will be something new and powerful. And that is why knowledgeable observers are so excited.

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