By Every school day, 112 kindergartners log themselves on to a bank of computers for two half-hour tutorials at KIPP Empower Academy in Los Angeles. Their simple activities with words, shapes, animals, and counting herald technological changes that could save schools millions of dollars while personalizing educations in a manner rarely possible within the typical classroom.
KIPP Empower uses an emerging model called “hybrid learning”—also known as “blended learning”—where kids learn both from teachers and from computer programs. A recent report by the Innosight Institute, a Massachusetts-based think tank specializing in “disruptive innovation,” predicts the blended learning model will transform education in coming decades.
Online Learning ‘Liberates Choice’
Anthony Kim, president and founder of Education Elements, a startup company in San Francisco that helps schools integrate technology into instruction, says learning technologies offer unprecedented flexibility for teachers, parents, and children.
“One of the reasons I enjoy working in education and in particular with charter schools is I firmly believe that families should have choice in where they get educated, and online learning seems to liberate that quite a bit more,” Kim said.
Hybrid learning offers several attractive possibilities, says Kim, who served as executive vice president in charge of online development at EdisonLearning before launching his new venture last year. The use of technology allows for smaller class sizes with fewer staff members because the computer lab occupies rotating groups of students all day long.
Educators can personalize education to each child because the daily interactions offer instant, targeted feedback on the day’s lesson. The technology also seamlessly aggregates student testing and learning data, Kim explains.
‘Going Hybrid’ Saves Money
Kim and his team designed two separate systems to connect teachers and students at KIPP Empower with computer-based learning. The one for teachers allows them to track student progress easily and in one place, and the one for students gives them a single portal to access those same programs from the learning side.
Kim’s team created something similar to an Internet browser—one location for accessing many separate education programs and bits of information.
“We weren’t expecting to go hybrid,” said Mike Kerr, KIPP Empower’s school leader, a position similar to a principal, “But we lost about $200,000 [this school year] due to cuts in California, so we had to radically expand our class sizes. Going hybrid has allowed us to stay afloat and still have the instruction important to learning.”
Transformation Kept at the Fringes
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy, is helping fund
Education Elements’ work with KIPP Empower next year “because they see the development of this launchpad platform as something that could benefit the charter school movement and education as a whole,” Kerr said.
Kim said Education Elements is working with six more schools this fall and talking with several other schools and districts.
Early hybrid learning is still in its nascent stages, said Michael Horn, executive director for education studies at Innosight, “so it’s dangerous to extrapolate too much.”
Displacing current education models will take a long time, Horn said, which is why most schools add online or computer-based classes at the “fringes,” such as advanced classes, those not already offered at the school, or components such as science labs.
“I think you’re likely to see a lot of elementary schools grab on to the technology to radically improve the current model rather than fundamentally transform it,” Horn said.
Middle, High Schools Leading
Online curriculum options for middle and high school are much broader right now than those for elementary schools, Horn says, partly because the idea is just starting to catch on and partly because computers don’t work as well for teaching young children. At that age, kids haven’t learned to study alone and aren’t absorbing as much concrete or advanced information, he explained.
It will take many more years for hybrid learning to become established in American education, Kim says. Budget savings and tailored flexibility, however, are likely to sell well to both students and administrators in years ahead, and Kim and his team expect to see the demand for their services grow.
‘Means to an End’
Parents like hybrid learning, Kerr said, because they want their children learning “21st century skills” and appreciate the personalized feedback. Kids like it because computers attract them like a light to bugs, Kerr noted.
Educators like the new technology, too, he said, because it allows them to spend more time one-on-one with kids and they can get basic data all from one spot.
Early test scores among hybrid learners look good. Although results can’t be attributed entirely to using computers, this year KIPP Empower’s students moved from 9 percent proficient or advanced on the University of Chicago’s STEP assessment to 78 percent proficient or advanced by midyear.
Kerr says he expects even better scores overall by the end of the year. The Innosight white paper shows positive data-driven results overall in the 40 blended learning programs it reviewed.
“It’s not a panacea, not a silver bullet,” Kerr said, “but the way we did it makes sense for us because our culture was preserved. The computers are a means to an end.”
Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.
Education Elements: http://edelements.com
Heather Staker, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning,” Innosight Institute, May 2011: http://www.innosightinstitute.org/innosight/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/The-Rise-of-K-12-Blended-Learning.pdf