Carpe Diem Collegiate High School in Yuma, Ariz., looks more like a call center than a high school. It features a huge room full of rows and rows of cubicles where students, who attend classes four days a week, work for half a day at computers that track their daily progress. Teachers lead other instruction in small groups, according to a recent story in the Hechinger Report.
Carpe Diem is perhaps one of the best examples in America of a new teaching phenomenon that could change the face of public education, especially at the K-12 level. It's called "blended learning," which combines face-to-face time with teachers with online instruction.
More students are taking blended courses than ever before, but because so many students are in programs that aren't tracked, exact numbers aren't known, according to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning. iNACOL estimates that two-thirds of school districts offer some online or blended programs, and that a large majority of those have relatively few students involved in online or blended learning, and rely on content providers outside their school systems, such as Khan Academy or online courses from colleges or training programs.
Students in online learning environments perform modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction, and blending online and face-to-face instruction increases that advantage, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education's analysis of several studies.
Recent data — with greater detail about learning gains in K-12 settings — isn't available, because there is little standardization in the ways blended learning is popping up at schools across the nation, said Michael Horn, co-founder and education executive director of the Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank. For now, innovative new schools experimenting with blended learning offer the best snapshot of the model's promise, he said. But critics charge that blended learning also has its problems.
Blended learning is set apart from other styles of computer-aided learning by specific elements, said Horn, whose think tank applies theories of disruptive innovation to solve problems in the social sector.
Horn says blended learning is happening at least partly in brick-and-mortar locations under teacher supervision, but also through online delivery of courses that give the student control of when, where, how, and at what speed learning happens. That means one student might use an iPad to move ahead through several units of a history course during vacation time and another might spend extra time at school to fill in gaps in algebra understanding, allowing her to move ahead faster in the future. Students who surge ahead might choose to take college courses through concurrent enrollment.
Blended learning is centered on the needs of each student, and — when implemented well — can meet those needs in a precise and personal way, said Susan Patrick, president of iNACOL. She counters questions about kids being stuck behind computers all day by saying blended learning models actually increase student involvement with other students, and their teacher. That's because there is no need to spend class time listening passively as teachers lecture, so students spend their off-computer time working in small groups, getting coaching from teachers, hearing from outside experts and doing hands-on activities in groups, Patrick said.
"If we are honest, we have to say there are blended learning implementations that are not that good," he said. "With the good ones, you might spend and hour or two on the computer, but the magic is happening off the computer, through peer tutoring, small-group instruction, projects, tinkering — all those things you would hope students would do. In many ways, the biggest surprise for me as I go into blended schools around the country is how much peer-to-peer interaction there is."
Horn likes what he sees at Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School. Because students at the school can progress at their own pace, many are moving years ahead in the curriculum, he said, accumulating college credits while still in high school. And attending the school only four days a week frees up the students to work in career apprenticeship programs, he added.
Carpe Diem's math and reading scores outpace averages for Arizona schools, even though 46 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a poverty indicator. However, achievement test data from the Arizona Department of Education shows that after good results in 2010, achievement slid downward in 2011 and 2012. Math percentile scores dropped from 89 to 70 over the three years, and writing percentiles plummeted from 84 to 53. The principal at Carpe Diem told the Arizona Republic in spring of 2011 that the dip resulted from the school switching to a different reading curriculum and taking in an unusually large influx of new students who were struggling.
Plans are underway to replicate the Carpe Diem model at six Indiana charter schools over the next several years, and that worries David Safier, a former teacher who writes about education politics for the blogforarizona.com news outlet. The lack of up-to-date research on blended learning's efficacy in K-12 settings is one of Safier's concerns. The idea of using computers to justify increasing the ratio of teachers to students is another.
At Carpe Diem, for instance, five teachers and four teachers' aides work with 226 students. Patrick says blended learning creates a fundamental shift in instruction practices that makes it workable.
"We've seen some models where they have bolstered class size, and the teachers say they can teach more students, and get paid more," Horn said. "That could work in many cases, but it's dangerous to universalize."
"The idea of using computers as a substitute, as opposed to a supplement, for teacher-led education is really immature at this point," Safier said. He believes online education is a good way to give students in isolated areas access to academic courses they would otherwise miss out on, but sees no benefit in large numbers of students learning from computers instead of teachers.
Michael Barbour, a professor at Detroit's Wayne State University, has raised concerns that Carpe Diem's curriculum is designed to get kids to do well on standardized tests, but doesn't foster critical thinking skills. School administrators responded that they are working on creating more projects that promote critical thinking as teachers adjust to their new roles.
Developing blended programs is expensive, and expecting positive student results without the necessary investment is unrealistic, said a report by Evergreen Education Group, an online education-consulting group based in Colorado. To achieve the benefits of blended learning, states must make large investments in computer hardware and software, including data systems and student tracking software. Those investments vary dramatically according to school circumstances, and so far it isn't clear whether they will save money in the future, said a report in thejournal.com, an online magazine about education technology.
"I don't think (blended learning) will cost more, but it's not clear that it will save more, either," Horn said. But, blended learning models offer districts the possibility of paying for students' mastery of material, instead paying upfront for learning that doesn't happen. Horn cites Utah's Electronic High School, which ties performance to paychecks. If students don't complete a computerized course successfully, the for-profit companies that provided the content gets a 50 percent deduction to its paycheck.
At this point, though, "the real reason to adopt blended learning isn't to save money, but because of the benefits for students," Horn said.
Changing teachers' roles
Blended learning changes the way teachers spend their time, how much they know about each of their students' progress, and when they know it. Ideally, the new model allows teachers to spend less time on mundane tasks like lesson planning and correcting daily assignments, freeing up more time to work with small groups of students who need special help and instigate collaborative projects that encourage critical thinking skills. With appropriate tracking software, teachers can see the mastery level of every student, every day.
"You don't get kids who are bored, and kids who are woefully behind, and will continue to have a gap in learning," Patrick said. "You can catch kids up, and keep them on their learning edge."
Teachers may be responsible for a much larger swath of content, because some students are well below grade level and some are well above, Horn said. The online piece of the blended learning model exposes that, and let teachers design ways to address learning gaps through peer tutoring and small-group instruction.
"The computer does the 'know' and 'do' part," Horn said. "The teacher can focus on understanding, analyzing and applying. It puts the deeper learning into the teacher's bailiwick. We weren't able to get there in the past because teachers were stuck in the 'know' and 'do' part."
To capture the benefits of blended learning, careful professional development for teachers will be needed, and those teachers will need accurate reporting tools, said a report by K12 Inc., a technology-based education company that provides online curricula.