When Julie Young founded the Florida Virtual School in 1997, her team coined the slogan “any time, any place, any path, any pace” to describe how the school’s online courses liberate students from traditional classroom constraints. That phrase has become the mantra for people who are trying to articulate how K-12 schools need to change from a “factory-based” model, in which students progress in standardized batches with monolithic instruction, to a more personalized, student-centric model. The growing consensus is that, like it or not, digital technology is the one innovation that can bring personalized learning into reach, because it makes customized education for all students affordable.

The trouble is that digital technology is a huge category, and many do not bother to unpack it. Electronic whiteboards, iPads, student response clickers (like this), and online content get lumped together in the technology line item, and collectively promoted as the key to personalized learning. But if that were the case, why has the United States spent more than $60 billion on digital technology in public schools during the past two decades, yet most of the 55 million students in America still learn inside a factory-model classroom?

Meanwhile, a small but growing number of schools are successfully using digital technology to deliver on the idea of any time, place, path, and pace learning. These programs, including 55 (and counting) programs that Innosight Institute has profiled, represent a narrow slice of schools that are using digital technology in the classroom and allow students at least some control over time, place, path, and/or pace through online learning. (For example, some of them allow students to work online at their own pace and provide teacher intervention only on an as-needed basis. Others rotate students on a fixed schedule between online and face-to-face learning.)

Educators need more nuanced language to talk about such programs and how they differ from the larger category of technology-rich instruction. In May, Michael B. Horn, Innosight’s executive director of education, and I published a report titled “Classifying K-12 blended learning” to try to help that effort. The report focuses on the definition of blended learning, meaning formal education programs that combine students learning online and in brick-and-mortar schools, and specifies how blended learning differs from other forms of technology implementations. We identify four models of blended learning (down from the six we hypothesized in an earlier report) and four sub-models.

The idea for the research came from a story Professor Clayton M. Christensen of Harvard Business School shared. In the mid-90s, Intel CEO Andy Grove asked Christensen to train 2,000 of Intel’s senior managers in innovation theory. Christensen taught them about disruptive and sustaining innovations. He gave them a nuanced way to discuss innovation and avoid pouring all new ideas in one bucket.

A decade later, Intel shipped $16 billion in products that emerged from that training process. After learning Christensen’s language, managers realized that they had to launch the low-end Celeron processor chip and that flash memory was poised to be the disruptive innovation that would overtake disk drives. At the end of it all, Andy Grove told Christensen, “You know, your models didn't give us any answers, but they gave us a common language and a common way to frame a problem so that we can get agreement on a counterintuitive course of action.”

Many states are just wrapping up legislative sessions that included consideration of bills to advance digital learning. Colorado passed HB 12-1124, requiring a study on digital learning in public schools. Georgia passed SB 289, requiring that students be offered virtual instruction options. Virginia passed HB 756, setting up an Innovation Technology Advisory Group. Governmental and other groups have helped build the excitement. “A device for every learner!” suggests the Office of Education Technology on its homepage. “Digital Learning Now!” the Digital Learning Council has said.

Many of these efforts stem from a desire to help the education system transition from its factory-based model past to personalized learning. But the lack of clarity among some policymakers and school leaders about the vastly different implications of alternative technology strategies is concerning. For those who truly want to transform the classroom from its old model, a more nuanced, shared language to describe how online and blended learning differ from other forms of digital instruction, and how to deploy these new learning methods in a transformative way, is crucial to achieve any lasting structural change.

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