Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Blended Learning Revolution: Tech Meets Tradition in the Classroom

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Blended Learning Revolution: Tech Meets Tradition in the Classroom

Article excerpt

Fourteen-year-old Gabi Directo is technically in the middle of her freshman year. But in bursts of learning, hunched over her laptop in her Summit Shasta High School classroom, she has managed to zoom at her own rapid pace to the completion of all of her ninth- grade English, history, science, and math classes. By February, she was digging into her sophomore year Advanced Placement biology, physics, and Algebra II classes.

But in her school's "blended learning" program, Gabi has had as much face-time with teachers and classmates as solitary face-to- screen time. The serious and soft-spoken teen is able to "blend" the best of online learning (progress at her own pace through subject content) with the best of classroom work (practicing new knowledge with peers and teachers). For example, her whole math class is working on projectile-motion models. But while some of her classmates' models involve basic graphing to predict where an object will travel, Gabi's factor in parametric equations and map time with distance.

Gabi says she thrives on the traditional classroom group work everyone does at the same time - but she also appreciates that she can use her more advanced skills gained in the independent work she does online, shooting ahead rather than waiting for her classmates to catch up. Likewise, she observes, classmates who struggle with a concept get to take the time they need to master it rather than get left behind.

"In regular high schools, you have to go at a certain pace," says Gabi as she takes a break from typing an essay on her laptop to take a quick glance at her online "playlist," which lists what material she's completed and what she still has to do, along with her weekly goal. "Here, if you excel, you can go at your own pace.... I'm all done with ninth grade."

Gabi's remarkable progress is not unusual at Summit Shasta, a charter school created this school year here to specifically use the blended learning model. The model being pioneered at Shasta - part of a network of five high schools and one Grades 6-12 school - tailors education to each student's needs by offering high-quality teaching with cutting-edge online programming.

Blended learning is spreading rapidly, say education experts.

"Most American kids are going to be in an environment that is predominantly digital before the end of the decade," says Tom Vander Ark, chief executive officer of Getting Smart, an education firm that focuses on innovation and technology. "Most learning resources are digital instead of print.... I think we'll be able to call most of those environments 'blended' in terms of combining online experience with face-to-face instruction."

But Mr. Vander Ark and other advocates of the new model say that using blended learning to transform education and the traditional classroom means more than just incorporating an online element into instruction, giving kids tablets, or having students supplement class material with courses from Khan Academy (the popular nonprofit interactive education website that allows the teacher to "flip the classroom": Students learn a concept online at home and apply it in class with a teacher).

Advocates of blended learning say that, when done well, it is as much about the time kids are off-line as the time they're online - delegating more rote concepts to online instruction so that teachers can better use class time for small-group discussion, one-on-one check-ins, group projects, or targeted tutoring if students are struggling.

And making it work involves far more than coming up with the money to offer every student a tablet or laptop and selecting good software. Good blended learning programs blow apart the traditional school program, reconfiguring classrooms and school days so that learning can be as personalized as possible. Myriad models to accomplish this are being pioneered nationwide.

It's "a reflection of finally realizing technology's promise to disrupt and transform education in the ways it has disrupted and transformed nearly everything else we do," says Andy Calkins, deputy director of Next Generation Learning Challenges, which gives grants to blended learning programs. …

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