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Get Out the Blender, Kids

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As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

I think I have just glimpsed the future, or at least what could be the future, of public education. I'm talking about the effective use of today's technology to enhance learning, or what insiders are calling 'blended education.' Michael Horn, a co-author of Disrupting Class, provided a definition: 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, place, path, and/or pace.

Some, including Michael Horn and his colleagues at Innosight, are predicting that by 2019 50% or more of high school classes will be delivered online, a staggering concept until you consider that in 2007 only one million students were taking courses online, and today four million are. 'Virtual classes' qualify as blended learning, because most of those kids are enrolled in traditional high schools.

That's a growth industry: Just a few years ago only eight states allowed virtual courses or schools; today, nearly 40 states allow it -- and a few require students to take at least one virtual class. The best-known virtual school, Florida's Virtual High School, now enrolls over 100,000 students.

I spent Tuesday watching and listening, first at a school in Mountain View, California, where sixth graders were using iPads to work through mathematical lessons, a curriculum created by Sal Khan and his colleagues at the Khan Academy. Some were working together, some were online, some were doing paper-and-pencil problems, while the teacher monitored their progress on her own iPad or helped kids who asked for assistance. These teachers did not seem to be either 'the sage on the sage' or 'the guide on the side', as the jargon has it. In fact, one teacher likened herself to 'an education designer.' The image of a conductor came into my mind -- of an orchestra and a train.

Someone else compared teachers in blended learning situations to today's doctors, who do not sit by the side of their patients until they recover. Instead, much of the care is provided by nurses (classroom aides), and the doctor is called in only as needed.

Loaded onto the sixth graders' tablets was a curriculum that covers math well into high school, well over 200 'lessons' that the teacher admitted she herself had not completed. Think about that for a minute -- and contrast it with today's approach, where sixth graders and their teachers have a 'Sixth Grade Math Book' as their starting and stopping places.

This approach -- again, blended learning -- has no such borders or border guards, meaning that kids in 6th grade can move on up. (The curriculum includes lots of 'refresher' points, we were told, to insure against 'learning and forgetting.')

Later that day the group of about 30 journalists convened at Google to hear from school leaders about their own embrace of technology. Karen Cator, who is Education Secretary Arne Duncan's chief advisor on technology, told us that it was time for the US to 'ratchet up.'

"It's an inflection point," the former Apple executive said, because our children are digital natives, because most teachers are now using technology in the own personal lives, and because we all recognize that our schools are failing too many kids.

That said, Cator and others acknowledge that major obstacles stand in the way of widespread adoption of blended learning. One is textbooks, which are, as noted above, divided by grades. Textbooks reflect our slavish devotion to 'seat time' as the measure of accomplishment -- fifth graders have to spend one year doing fifth grade stuff, and so on. Another obstacle: school funding and graduation credit hours are based on 'seat time,' not competency -- except in Florida's Virtual School, where state funding only arrives after a student completes a course successfully. That means that schools don't have a strong incentive to allow kids to move along at their own pace.

This new educational world of 'high tech' will demand 'high teach,' former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise noted. Places that train teachers need a major overhaul, and that could be the weak link in the chain.

Today's bubble tests are a gigantic barrier, because they are 'dumbed down' and are not likely to reward those who move ahead. One school leader told us that, before his state tests, he had to 'ratchet back' his 9th graders, because most of them were doing 11th grade math. What a message to send to students!

It's an absurd situation, Michael Horn said.

"We spend about $10,000 a year on each student but trust evaluation to a $5 instrument." He spends $200-300 a year 'evaluating' his $15,000 car. When he said that, I saw heads nodding in agreement.

We also have a long tradition of using schools as a sorting mechanism to identify those who are 'college material' and weed out those who are not. That has to change.

And blended learning faces another challenge: because we all went to school, we are experts and know how school is 'supposed to be.'

Quite by chance, I had spent part of the previous day talking education with a friend who works in an entirely different field. When I told him about the next day's 'blended learning' agenda, he laughed. "My son did that 18 years ago," he said and proceeded to tell me the story of his 7th grader who, stuck with an uninspiring math teacher, signed up with a new program at Stanford, EPGY, for 'education program for gifted youth.' Via computer and with occasional meetings on the Stanford campus, the young man moved through math classes and levels at his own pace. By senior year in high school he was taking advanced calculus at Stanford. There is no new thing under the sun, it's fair to say, but today's students should not have to search outside the schools for opportunities to learn. It's time for them to step up -- or fade into obsolescence.