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The rise of K-12 blended learning
Online learning is sweeping across America. In the year 2000, roughly 45,000 K–12 students took an online course. In 2009, more than 3 million K–12 students did. What was originally a distance- learning phenomenon no longer is. Most of the growth is 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.
In Disrupting Class,* the authors project that by 2019, 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online. This pattern of growth is characteristic of a disruptive innovation—an innovation that transforms a sector characterized by products or services that are complicated, expensive, inaccessible, and centralized into one with products or services that are simple, affordable, accessible, convenient, and often customizable. Think personal computers, the iPod and mp3s, Southwest Airlines, and TurboTax. At the beginning of any disruptive innovation, the new technology takes root in areas of nonconsumption—where the alternative is nothing at all, so the simple, new innovation is infinitely better. More users adopt it as the disruptive innovation predictably improves.
Online learning fits the pattern. It started by serving students in circumstances where there is no alternative for learning—in the advanced courses that many schools struggle to offer in- house; in small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer a broad set of courses with highly qualified teachers in certain subject areas; in remedial courses for students who need to recover credits to graduate; and with home-schooled and homebound students.
Nearly all of these instances tended to be in distance-learning environments initially—outside of a traditional school environment and removed from an in-person teacher. A simultaneous explosion in home schooling—from roughly 800,000 students in 1999 to roughly 2 million today—was fueled by the rise of online learning and full-time virtual schools.
In classic disruptive fashion, online learning is expanding beyond distance learning. Educators and entrepreneurs are increasingly creating blended-learning environments—where rather than doing the online learning at a distance, students learn online in an adult-supervised school environment for at least part of the time. At the outset, this occurred in areas of nonconsumption, such as credit-recovery labs and dropout-recovery schools. A small but growing number of schools, however, are now starting to introduce blended learning into their core programming for mainstream students.
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Policymakers and education leaders must adopt the right policies for this to happen. There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed model—and, just as is the case now, too few students will receive an excellent education. State elected officials, districtsuperintendents, and school principals must act now to prevent the cramming of online learning into the traditional system and to foster its transformative potential. As policymakers open the gates for innovation by creating zones with increased autonomy, they must simultaneously hold providers accountable for results so that the adoption of online learning leads to radically better outcomes for students.