K-12 Online Education Is Increasingly Hybrid Learning

Article excerpt

Over the last decade, growth in K-12 online learning has exploded. Online enrollments - any instance of a student taking a half-semester course - have soared, and the total number of students taking online courses, either part time or full time, has climbed rapidly (Adkins, 2009; Picciano & Seaman, 2009; Watson, Gemin, Ryan, & Wicks, 2009).

The growth has been so rapid in high school that in the book Disrupting Class, the authors project that by 2019, 50% of all high school courses will be online. Ambient Insight projects that by 2014, 10.5 million pre-K-12 students will attend classes online (Christensen, Horn, & Johnson, 2008; Adkins, 2009).

Along with its rapid growth, online learning bears other hallmarks of a disruptive innovation. A disruptive innovation is one that transforms a sector characterized by expensive, complicated, inaccessible, and inconvenient products or services into one where the products or services are far more affordable, simple, accessible, and convenient (Christensen et al., 2008). It is this transformative potential that is increasingly catching the eyes of policymakers, including leaders at the U.S. Department of Education and some governors, and foundations, from Gates to MacArthur, as having the potential to not just change the medium of learning but to change schooling itself from the present monolithic, factory-model system into a far more student-centric one.

Online learning, like all disruptive innovations, has begun small by serving those who are unable to consume or access the mainstream product or service. In the case of online learning, this has meant it has begun in advanced courses that many schools are unable to offer; in small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer breadth; in remedial courses for students who must retake courses in order to graduate; with home-schooled students and those who haven't been able to keep up with the regular schedule of school; for students who have not been able to take a class because of a scheduling conflict; and for dropouts (Picciano & Seaman, 2009; Watson et al., 2009).

And as with all disruptive innovations, online learning is predictably improving, which is allowing it to grow in places where a mainstream and traditional faceto-face educational system often readily cedes ground.

One dimension of this improvement can be seen in the changing assumptions and definitions for what online learning means. Increasingly the growth in online learning is less and less of a fully distance phenomenon and more and more of a blended or hybrid one in which students combine elements of online learning with elements of a face-to-face learning experience (Picciano & Seaman, 2009; Watson et al., 2009).

These hybrid or blended arrangements take a variety of forms, and there is still no agreed upon set of definitions in the field for the various terms in use (Watson, 2008). Some make distinctions based on the percentage of content that is delivered online versus face-to-face (Allen, Seaman, & Garrett, 2007). Others have drawn the distinction that there are hybrid or blended programs and hybrid or blended courses - and use the words hybrid and blended interchangeably (Patrick, 2010). There are several other definitions and taxonomies in use as well.

Either way, the hybrid models in particular have drawn the interest of many foundations. There is some sense to this attraction. Over the last decade, aided by online learning, home schooling has grown extremely fast as well. There are disagreements about the numbers, but all estimates have the same trajectory; the number of home-schooled students has grown from roughly 800,000 in 1999 to anywhere from 1.5 million to just over 2 million today. When one plots this growth on a substitution curve to determine if the home-schooling movement is growing in accordance with an S-curve pattern - as online learning is and a disruptive innovation does (Christensen et al. …