Blended isn’t just about online learning—it’s making space for real-world relationships

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by Julia Freeland Fisher & Jenny White

This blog post is a re-post of a post featured on the Christensen Institute blog. We are grateful for the permission to re-post.

Blended learning is helping to unshackle schools from the one-teacher one-classroom model and usher in more creative and diverse instructional approaches. Beyond just restructuring the classroom, blended-learning models are starting to open up new connections and diversify students’ networks. This has huge potential to address not just achievement gaps, but opportunity gaps.

Over the years, we’ve seen many blended-learning classrooms leverage software to differentiate and personalize learning pathways with greater precision and flexibility. Blended learning can be an engine that accelerates data-driven instruction to new heights. But a less-talked-about phenomenon is the possibility of blended learning multiplying the sources of content and experiences students turn to, including adults and experts beyond the four walls of the classroom. In these models “school” is not just a building anymore and teachers are not the only adults with whom students can learn.

Redefining how schools provide value to students

Behind this shift is a fundamental rethinking of the business model of teaching and learning. The rise of online learning marked the first phase of disruptive innovation relative to traditional classes. In that phase, seat-time-based models of teacher-led whole class instruction were disrupted by virtual or blended-learning models. But as Disrupting Class predicted, online-learning offerings will over time give rise to the second phase of disruption. This second phase will yield a new business model of teaching and learning.

Schools currently have a value-adding process (VAP) approach to acquiring curriculum and delivering instruction. To provide some context, a VAP model, like that practiced by a manufacturing company, brings inputs of materials into one end of the premises, transform them by “adding value,” and then delivers higher-value products to customers at the other end. By policy, schools have long been charged with “adding value” to young people by delivering content and skills to meet standardized goals.

But thanks to online learning, the new business model for teaching and learning won’t end with a VAP approach. Instead, it will be a facilitated network. In a facilitated network model, customers exchange with one another. Facilitated networks prosper by enabling connections between users. For all schools, moving from a VAP to facilitated network model means opening up time and space for more varied sources of learning beyond just online content or teacher-led lessons. For blended schools that are using online learning to increase flexible pathways, this can mean unlocking various online curriculum and lessons, and multiplying offline experiences and projects—such as collaborative projects, one-on-one coaching and tutoring, and out-of-school learning alongside non-teacher adults.

In offering offline, networked experiences, blended schools can ultimately evolve from a model that has closed students off from the outside world to one in which students have unprecedented opportunities to connect with experts and mentors. A few examples illustrate this profound shift in architecture.

Going online to get offline

In one example of the facilitated network model, Summit Public Schools students cover core content knowledge online from a “playlist” consisting of a mix of teacher-created lessons and third-party content from providers like Khan Academy. The playlist lives on Summit Learning Platform, developed in partnership with Facebook engineers. While online learning is the backbone of Summit’s playlist model, it is certainly not the school’s only component. In fact, in addition to online learning’s ability to open up more room for personalized, face-to-face instruction, it has unlocked a range of offline experiences: 70% of a student’s grade depends on her performance on numerous team projects, through which students develop higher-order skills like problem-solving and creative thinking. Summit’s online playlists make it more feasible to flexibly deliver these experiences at scale.

Summit also offers opportunities for students to connect with the world outside the classroom. Every year, Summit students spend a total of eight weeks on “expeditions” that run the gamut from internships to wilderness travel. Instructors leading expeditions range from Summit teachers to professional tutors to local nonprofit leaders and industry experts.

Summit’s model is deliberately opening up a diverse set of learning pathways. Online learning is one pathway. But online learning makes possible an array of experiences, featuring projects and out-of-school learning, that most schools struggle to deliver at scale to each and every student, usually due to time constraints.

Awarding credit for real-world experiences

On the other side of the country, in a town that couldn’t feel further from Summit’s Silicon Valley corridor, sits the Virtual Learning Academy Charter Schools (VLACS) headquartered in Exeter, New Hampshire. VLACS is a fully virtual, public middle and high school where students can earn credit through five “pathways”. The school takes out-of-school learning a step further than Summit by awarding core academic credit for some out-of-school activities.

VLACS has long been a strong exemplar of a competency-based model in which students advance upon mastery, rather than based on a class- or school-wide schedule. But VLACS’ latest model offers students flexibility in both pace and path: VLACS students can learn not just through online modules but also through projects, experiences in their communities, team-based activities, or dual-enrollment in local colleges. From these five distinct “pathways”, VLACS students can mix and match content and experiences to create a customized school experience that fits their needs and interests. As a result, like Summit students, VLACS students graduate having interacted not just with their teachers and technology, but with a bevy of industry experts and mentors beyond the school.

We’ve long written about the potential instructional benefits to blending online and face-to-face instruction. But examples like Summit and VLACS show how the upside can go beyond instructional breakthroughs to social ones. Blended-learning schools that are pursuing facilitated network learning models mix and match online content with offline learning experiences. In turn, these models are opening up the possibility for students to forge relationships beyond school as we know it.

To read more about making space for relationships in schools, check out our new book, Who You Know.

About the Authors

Julia Freeland Fisher is the Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.

Jenny White is the K-12 education research associate as well as content manager of the Blended Learning Universe, a comprehensive online hub filled with blended-learning resources and a dynamic directory of blended-learning programs worldwide.