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eLearning Update: Blended Learning Key for Growth

A new white paper contends that the blended learning approach—which mixes online learning components with face-to-face classroom teaching—is the reason online learning will eventually become as commonplace as "the iPod and mp3s, Southwest Airlines, and TurboTax."

The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, authored by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker of the Mountain View, Calif.-based Innosight Institute, goes on to define blended learning, extrapolate six different blended learning models, identify technological innovations needed for blended learning to evolve, and list policy barriers preventing that evolution.

While the body of research on online learning has increased exponentially in the last few years, this report is one of the first devoted exclusively to blended learning. And while its authors concede blended learning is inherently variable in quality, financial feasibility, and format, they argue it will be the vehicle that pushes the proportion of high school courses offered online to 50 percent by 2019, while the percentage of K-12 students who study fully online flattens at around 10 percent.

The 50-percent prediction comes from the 2008 book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, which Horn co-authored with Clayton M. Christensen and Curtis W. Johnson. Horn co-founded the Innosight Institute, a nonprofit devoted to promoting Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation, which says large-scale reform to transform a complicated and unproductive sector comes through a set progression; first the reform serves those who have no alternative, then others observe how the reform is preferable, and slowly adapt until it is a norm.

Ed-tech experts have pointed to blended learning as the area where they expect massive growth in online learning. A primer released from the International Association for K-12 Online learning, or iNACOL, identified blended learning as an emerging trend in 2010. But even those well versed in virtual education have struggled to define the word "blended". And this report's definition is perhaps purposefully expansive:

Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, path, and/or pace.

The definition implies simple remote correspondence—like online videoconferencing or web chatting in a real-time environment only—does not qualify as blended learning, and perhaps points to a theoretical division between the labels of "online" and "distance" learning.

The report then labels six types of blended learning approaches:
face-to-face driver programs where teachers deliver most instruction in a live classroom and use online activities to supplement or remediate what goes on in the brick-and-mortar school;
rotation models where students follow a schedule that alternates between face-to-face class sessions and in-person instruction;
flex formats where most of the curriculum originates online, but an on-site instructor provides instruction as needed in individual and small group sessions;
online lab sessions where students do work online, but in a computer lab at a brick-and-mortar school with aides who offer supervision but little subject guidance;
self-blend schools where students may take online courses a la carte to supplement their brick-and-mortar school's curriculum; and
online driver constructs where students receive most of the course online and independently, but participate in required or optional face-to-face meetings.

Blended learning carries the potential to both increase academic achievement and decrease costs, the report contends, but only when implemented smartly. Blended learning that is formatted to conform to traditional educational structures like seat-time and grade levels will be both more expensive and less effective, it says.

Expect to read more about how policy shapes and impedes the creation of online and blended learning programs that offer students a more personalized approach to education in our annual Technology Counts report, which comes out in print this St. Patrick's Day.

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