I’ve seen the future of blended learning and it is exciting. The Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust) organized visits to three cutting edge schools and Silicon Valley-based education entrepreneurs Junyo and Education Elements. The CEE-Trust contingent included 17 educators, new school developers and philanthropists from New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Denver, Kansas City, Rochester, NY and Nashville.

The group visited the following charter schools:

  • Aspire Eres Academy in Oakland. Eres operator is Aspire Public Schools. Aspire is one of the nation’s top-performing charter school operators and serves about 12,000 K-12 students in 34 schools across California. Aspire Eres is Aspire’s first foray into blended learning. The Eres Academy serves about 220 students in grades K-8. The student population is 98 percent Hispanic, 97 percent free and reduced-price lunch and 60 percent English Language Learners.
  • Downtown College Prep (DCP) in San Jose. DCP opened its first building in 2000 and currently operates a high school and a middle school serving grades 6-7. The flagship high school serves about 400 students, while the DCP Alum Rock middle school is currently serving about 180 students. The middle school will serve grades 6-8 in 2012-13 and expects 300 students at full capacity. Students at DCP Alum Rock spend 90 minutes a day in a learning lab run by the school’s blended learning wizard Greg Klein. Klein and his team have developed a blended learning program that provides students with a variety of offerings including Khan Academy (math), Teen Biz/Achieve3000 (ELA), MangaHigh (math), ALEKS (math) and Goalbook.
  • KIPP Bridge in Oakland. This school was voted as the top performing charter school in California by the California Charter School Association in 2011. It serves about 260 students in grades 5-8. The student body is 70 percent African-American, 24 percent Latino or Hispanic, and 72 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price meals. The school put in place just this year a blended-learning math program for 6th graders that utilizes Kahn Academy.

In addition to the school visits we met with leaders from:

  • Rocketship Education – the first charter school network to open hybrid schools. Rocketship opened its first school in 2007 and is now in rapid development phase. It hopes to open approximately 30 Rocketship schools in San Jose by 2020, serving 15,000 students. Each Rocketship school serves grade K-5 and enrolls about 500 students. The average student body is 90 percent free and reduced price lunch and 75 percent English Language Learners. The Rocketship model combines traditional classroom teaching with individualized instruction using tutors and online technology to meet the specific needs of each and every student. Rocketship students attend school for eight hours a day – six hours in a classroom setting and two hours in a learning lab practicing core skills.
  • Junyo – this Silicon Valley start-up is working closely with Rocketship, other schools and school systems, publishers and online learning providers to create the “Pandora for learning.” Junyo operates under the premise that the smart use of information and data should guide decisions in education. Collecting frequent, detailed data provides the foundation to effectively assess, experiment, iterate and improve student instruction and learning. By turning mountains of data into user-friendly information Junyo believes the outcomes for education will be dramatic. This effort is being aligned closely to the Common Core and expects to scale-out fast and large.
  • Education Elements – this Silicon Valley start-up is becoming a one-stop shop for schools and school districts that want to put into place blended learning models. Clients have included KIPP LA, a consortium of school districts in Pennsylvania and Memphis city schools. Ed Elements is growing rapidly and the company is headed up by the New Schools Venture Fund educational entrepreneur of the year Anthony Kim. Their Education Elements Hybrid Learning Management System promises to “pull it all together, offering schools a streamlined platform that includes a student friendly interface for instructional content, a teacher dashboard that makes it easy to monitor student progress, and simple administrative solutions.”

Observations and takeaways (in no particular order):

  • The blended learning sector is still very much in its infancy, or as Anthony Kim said when we met “you all wouldn’t have flown out here from all over the country to meet with us and a handful of charters if this wasn’t new stuff.”
  • There are myriad new products coming on-line almost daily. This sector is primed with investment capital. Or, as one person told us, “product development is speeding up. More and more tools for students and teachers alike, including instructional games.”
  • The ongoing economic crisis facing school districts and charter school operators are boons to blended learning providers. Forward thinking schools and school districts are trying to figure out how to elevate their performance while saving money. Technology offers the best hope for preserving, or even making, gains while maintain or reducing costs.
  • The Common Core offers the hope of scaling out rapidly and across many jurisdictions new products and blended learning models. Innovators and entrepreneurs are excited about the Common Core because it facilitates focused and scalable efforts across multiple states. School and instructional designs don’t need to be customized to 50 standards and accountability systems. They can now be targeted to one set of standards and an aligned assessment system. This encourages large scale investments and hopefully a race to quality.
  • The teachers we heard from were self-selected and sought out these innovative schools. They are innovators who want to teach in a blended learning environment. Or as one school leader described her team, “these are eager skeptics” wanting to push the envelope and show what’s possible.
  • Blended learning changes the nature of teaching. Or as one teacher said, “I wouldn’t say I’m doing less work; I’d say I’m doing better work. It’s about being more efficient and effective. I’ve seen kids grow a lot this year, mostly a result of small grouping, and that makes me want to stay.”
  • Teaching is moving towards tutoring here. Increasingly there is almost no direct instruction in this building. Our motto is ‘only teach the kids if there is something you can’t find elsewhere,” is what we heard in one school.
  • School leaders and teachers worry most about “tech dramas and nightmares.” A dysfunctional IT system can sabotage the efforts quickly. Technology wizards at the building level will increasingly be in high-demand for schools as they grow evermore dependent on their technology and IT systems for delivery of instruction and assessment.
  • A well-defined school culture is key to schools successfully transitioning to blended learning. School leaders and teachers made it clear to us that their blended learning models work because they have integrated the technology into strong and well-defined school culture. The technology facilitates and encourages more efficiency and effectiveness in instruction and learning, but the culture of the building is the precondition for success or failure. 
  • The kids like the freedom and flexibility of blended learning. Done well, they own their learning. We saw some kids who weren’t engaged in their learning and seemed to be staring at the screen. Most, however, were engaged and even excited about what they were doing. The data shared with us by the students themselves showed some phenomenal growth in math and reading (two or three years of growth in nine months.) When I asked one student why he was doing so much better in his work this year than last he said that his teaching was driving him hard and that he knew he had the tools to succeed.
  • Management is harder in a blended learning model. This type of innovation is high stakes. It is largely uncharted territory and everyone understands that done poorly this will be a serious waste of time and money. School management has to provide substantial support to teachers and staff during the start-up phase. We heard several teachers and school leaders say that what they were doing by the end of the year was radically different than what they were doing at the start. To implement blending learning models well demands flexibility, constant learning and smart adjustments along the way.
  • Blended learning can be a teacher-driven reform. Some schools and CMOs are rolling out blended programs by redesigning their whole school model. But other schools, like KIPP Bridge, are following the lead of one entrepreneurial teacher who learn about Kahn Academy or another tech program and start a pilot within the school. 

Terry Ryan was Vice-President for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and a Research Fellow at the Hoover Research Institution.

He is the author, with Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael Lafferty of Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).