Special Report

The Rise of Blended Learning

How a new trend in education rethinks the role of computers in the classroom and lets each student learn at a different pace

(© Diez, Cherie / ZUMA Press/Corbis)

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“What I want [people] to think of is students having online learning for part of their day and brick-and-mortar school for part of their day, where the student has some personalization,” says Michael Horn, a blended learning expert with the Clayton Christensen Institute.

At the Christensen Institute, formerly the Innosight Institute, Horn and his team have evolved from mere advocates for blended learning to catalogers of its trends and commonalities. In May 2012, the organization released a white paper that broke blended learning into four categories: rotational, flex, self-blend and enriched virtual.

Stanton and many other elementary schools fall into the rotational category, where students alternate between working online and working in a traditional classroom during the same course of study, usually math or English/language arts. High schools are perhaps the most likely to operate a self-blend model, where a student takes one or two online courses—often Advanced Placement or credit recovery courses—to supplement their in-class education.

The other two categories are a bit more specialized. The School of One math program in New York—which gives each student a uniquely tailored schedule of online lessons, group work and traditional classroom lectures—was an early example of a flex model. Enriched virtual models include any school where students get most of their instruction online, but periodically meet with a teacher or teacher aide.

While there are subsets within those four variations, Horn believes that as blended learning continues to popularize, educators will gravitate toward one or two most-familiar models, likely rotational and self-blend.

Already, there are some titans in the field, like Rocketship Education. The nonprofit educational management organization currently operates seven rotation model charter elementary schools in Silicon Valley, and is also set to expand to Milwaukee and other cities across the country. Big-name philanthropies have also taken an interest. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has devoted millions of dollars toward promising secondary education blended learning models via portions of its Next Generation Learning Challenges grant competition.

Supporters also note that that a blended learning model might be of great benefit in a school where layoffs have boosted class sizes, or where demographics lead to wide disparities in student abilities in each class. 

“To be able to help a teacher serve a student at a first-grade level and a student at a fourth-grade level at the same time, that's what we're excited about,” says Mieka Wick, the executive director of the CityBridge Foundation, which helped to bankroll technology purchases related to Stanton Elementary's blended program, in addition to several other uniquely structured blended learning efforts in D.C.

That said, even blended learning's most ardent proponents warn that the field is too new to know everything that works and everything that doesn't. That need to gather more information is one reason CityBridge is supporting a range blended efforts in D.C., including an algorithm-driven program called Teach to One at Hart Middle School, created by School of One founders Joel Rose and Christopher Rush, and a blended learning fellowship that is giving 12 teachers training to launch blended pilot programs at their respective schools.

One approach most agree is bound to fail, however: focusing on the hardware or software.


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