The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning

01/28/2011 07:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Online learning is sweeping across America. While roughly 45,000 K-12 students took an online course in the year 2000, more than 3 million K-12 students did in 2009. What was originally a distance-learning phenomenon no longer is, as most of the growth is increasingly occurring in blended-learning environments in which students learn online in an adult-supervised environment at least part of the time.

As this happens, online learning has the potential to transform America's education system by serving as the backbone of a system that offers more personalized learning approaches for all students.

This week, Innosight Institute released a report about this phenomenon and opportunity titled "The rise of K-12 blended learning".

Written in conjunction with the Charter School Growth Fund and Public Impact, my co-author and colleague Heather Staker and I use the report to try to bring clarity to a field that has had multiple definitions over what blended learning is. Ours is an overarching one:

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.

We purposely made this definition, not one that says blended learning is always good or bad, as there will be some programs that do great things and others that do not. We also specified that online learning must have some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace, as this definition then excludes examples where the teacher uses an electronic white board with online curriculum to lecture to a classroom of students or instances where students use online textbooks instead of hard-copy ones, which are not really different from today's traditional K-12 system.

In the research for this report -- which will culminate in a second, significantly longer report in a few months -- we surveyed roughly 40 different blended-learning programs, which helped us determine this definition, as well as develop a categorization scheme for six different models that emerged again and again. What readers of the report will take away is that there is a great variety of programs, as well as room for significantly more innovation.

We profile two blended-learning schools as well that are helping students achieve stellar results with models that increase productivity (a novel concept in education) and personalize learning. One in particular, Carpe Diem, is well-worth checking out in this video to start to imagine the possibilities.

And to make those possibilities a reality, we talk about the technology gaps that still exist in the marketplace, according to the blended-learning operators that Heather interviewed. Remarkably, there is much consensus that things like integrated systems, hundreds of hours of high-quality dynamic content, simple analytics and automation and tools that enhance student motivation are still needed.

Lastly, as online learning grows and students and school operators create blended-learning environments, policymakers must adopt the right policies for this to transform the system into a student-centric one. There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed, monolithic model -- and, just as is the case now, too few students will receive an excellent education.

In essence, policymakers must create zones of autonomy for these new models where they free them up from regulations that are prescriptive around the inputs, but are ruthless with holding providers accountable for the student outcomes. The recent Digital Learning Now report on the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning guides our recommendations in this section, as we strive to make them even more specific to the exciting blended-learning environments that are emerging.