Steps and Leaps Into Next-Gen Learning

As schools across the country adopt blended-learning models, a few clear trends are settling in, and, at the same time, some groups—like the Next Generation Learning Challenges—continue to help schools push the design envelope on what’s possible for students.

First, many schools are embarking upon a variety of design processes, RFPs from vendors and the like only to arrive at the same cluster of solutions centered around the basic models of blended learning we identified here. There is nothing wrong with that per se. Entering into a design process, for example, can help gain buy in from teachers and others in the community for adopting blended learning, which is still radically different from traditional schooling. Adopting what are becoming tried-and-true blended-learning models (yes, I know it still may be too soon to use that phrase for blended learning, but I just did it) to individualize learning for students and improve teachers’ lives is better than remaining stuck in a failed factory-based model of schooling, even if the model is not the most innovative thing ever that pushes the blended-learning field forward for students. Some standardization around a select few models—and a branding of those models—will likely be necessary ultimately to scale the practice nationwide.

The downside is that the process to arrive there can waste a lot of time and energy in reinventing the wheel, when, depending on the problem a school is trying to solve, the level of freedom it has to solve it, and the type of team it deploys to attack it, there is some predictability to the blended-learning model it is likely to adopt. Heather Staker and I are working on a white paper that will have more to say on this topic soon. But by way of an example, elementary schools are most likely to adopt Station-Rotation models or, in some cases, what some call the “Rocketship” model—which tends to be a Lab-Rotation model that emulates the basics of what Rocketship Education, a blended-learning network of charter schools, does today.

Depending on the model adopted or the framing of the problem, there is also some predictability to the groups schools might then work with to implement a solution—a further suggestion that schools ought to cut to the chase and foundations and others fostering the ecosystem should help them there. If a school plans to use a Station-Rotation model for math with one curriculum provider, for example, it will likely contract with one math vendor that provides supplemental math content—like Dreambox Learning or ST Math—or use a free solution like the Khan Academy. If it wants to work with multiple content providers on the other hand, there is a good bet it might work with a company like Education Elements, which is emerging as a leader in helping schools move to blended-learning models and offering a single sign-on software solution for schools so they can easily work with multiple content vendors. Although the company helps schools enter into a design process to rethink the use of time, teacher roles, and so forth, the basic model that most schools using Education Elements adopt tends to be pretty consistent.

At the same time, we are seeing the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), a non-profit partnership, continue to push people’s imagination of what blended-learning models might ultimately look like. I’ve written previously about its role in creating proof points capable of scaling for the field that help propel the education system more toward a fully competency-based, student-centric one, and now NGLC is at it again (full disclosure: I serve as a reviewer for their grants).

On the heels of its last effort to seed 20 new secondary school models, NGLC’s Wave IV $12 million grant program has two components to it. First, it will award 20 $450,000 grants (including matching funds) to districts, charter management organizations, or partnerships to launch new blended-learning breakthrough models, and 30 $100,000 grants to planners who are at an earlier stage in developing these kinds of models. The first grant cycle deadline is April 22, and the second is December 2. Applicants can apply on behalf of a brand-new school, a restart of a persistently failing one, or a complete redesign of an existing, higher-performing school.

There are important strands in this effort. First, despite what we’re starting to see in the field as some consistent models of blended learning that can bolster student learning, we’ve yet to see anyone create “the solution”—and we’re unlikely to ever see that I suspect. Although we have a few models that have been able to personalize learning and do a better job of instituting mastery-based learning for students, no one has figured out how to do it at scale per se yet, and there is still plenty of room for growth in student outcomes. Continued innovation in education will always be critical. A major problem today is how hard it is to innovate in education, so having groups continue to push the envelope is critical. It’s why the Silicon Schools Fund, where I’m a board member, is also playing an important role.

Second, NGLC isn’t just focused on creating great one-off proof points; it’s focused on creating next-gen schools that can scale. Too often success in education doesn’t scale. By focusing not just on the learning model at hand for students in these schools but also their business and scaling models, NGLC seeks to remedy that.

Ideally, in a few years time NGLC will have seeded a series of new schooling models that other schools themselves can adopt, in much the same way an increasing number of schools are now adopting models that have proven to be successful in the field. If that happens, scale may occur in ways we can’t predict—and may look more like an awakening to the power of putting students at the center of their learning.

-Michael Horn

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