Blended Learning: A Paradigm Shift?

by Krista Sobel

Krista argues that Florida was the first to launch into online learning in any significant way with the Florida Virtual School (FLVS).  This is true.  It is also true that Florida had significant growing pains. In 2013, enrollment in the virtual school dropped 32 percent and funding reductions caused serious layoffs.  It seems that FLVS was allowing students enrolled full time in public schools to take multiple online courses at the same time.  They made a lot of money using that policy.  The legislature stepped in.  There must have been a quality gap somewhere.

Quality gaps of other online companies reached national attention as well. 

FLVS filed a 2014 lawsuit and won against K12 Inc., the mega online course management company, over copyright infringement.  The State of Florida filed a suit against K12 Inc. for falsifying teachers who were assigned to courses.  Many local districts countered the practice by negotiating their own online academies taught by local teachers.  The districts also kept the records of student progress.  They might purchase rights to online course content, or they may develop their own courses, but they control the process.

Problems with for-profit online companies are everywhere.  Politico published a series on the academic failure and profiteering of the online charter schools.   They may advertise blended learning experiences, but the reality is too often a computer or two in a corner.  What is clear is that citizens have a duty to be wary but an obligation to recognize the opportunities new technologies can bring.   Read Krista’s vision for change.

How Innovation Breaks a Paradigm in Education

Rarely do people question our model of school.  School has been the same way for the last 100 years and has rules that can’t be broken.  Many education experts, school researchers and scientists agree to understand what school is based on a paradigm that best describes what is happening in the field.  We come to understand the paradigm as a standard. We measure, group and compare everything we know about school by this paradigm.  But on occasion a phenomenon from outside begins to take hold which challenges the deepest believers of the paradigm. In many respects, the way that we have been conditioned to understand a paradigm, does not give us the tools to see a paradigm as it is toppling down.

 The design of school as we know it entailed making a series of trade-offs.  The original designer’s had to make strategic choices between those trade offs.   Trade offs in education may include having to make decisions about teaching by the batch versus personal tutoring; one way lectures versus two-way discussions or large schools with economies of scale versus small schools with fewer teachers.  Sometimes when a strategic choice is made, educators focus on sustaining innovations—which are incremental improvements in the existing system. In making these strategic decisions, paradigms are rarely broken.  Paradigms frame trade offs like student-teacher ratios or trade-offs between project based learning and lecture base learning in ways that are rarely questioned.

 But occasionally an entrepreneur introduces a disruptive innovation that breaks the mold.  An innovator figures out how to break a trade off by giving more of one thing without requiring less of another.  It is a breakthrough that initiates the toppling of the paradigm.  The entrepreneur may see that the technological improvement is faster than what the customers are able to use as the performance of the technology dramatically improves.   The designer, identifies the opportunity and builds a unique solution. The improving technology then breaks the constraints that limited the old paradigm. 

 Theories about disruptive innovations predict that changes tend to follow an uphill trajectory. In other words, the new technology enables designers to fill a void with simple applications at the bottom of the market and then moves relentlessly up market as they strive to win the business of increasingly demanding customers. Innovations define quality differently and have to compete against old definitions of performance.  Innovations must get better and better than the old definition, while retaining advantages such as affordability, accessibility and convenience.

 It may surprise you to know that the state of Florida was the first state in the nation to break down our traditional notion of school through funding the development online education. Many experts consider it to be the most successful online K-12 school in the nation. Disruptive innovation in education followed this simple pattern of offering educational options to students where there was no alternative, and then steadily improving as course design and technology improved.  In 1996, the state legislature awarded $200,000 dollars in “Break the Mold” grant money to two counties, Orange and Alachua, to experiment with an innovative teaching model.  Six months later the state had established Florida Virtual School, the nation’s first online public high school with just 77 students and 5 courses.   By 2003, the school had 24,000 semester enrollments. By 2012 Florida Virtual School offered 120 courses.  In 2014 the school reached a milestone of 2.000,000 million completed semester credits and was considered a global model.

 Online learning in Florida was an experiment that began in areas where there was non-consumption.  In other words, providing access to advanced courses to students in small, rural and urban schools; remedial courses and homebound students; was better than nothing at all.  But following the pattern of disruption,  online learning dramatically improved.  Internet communication is faster and more accessible. Virtual communication tools such texting, emailing and Skype enable direct, synchronous communication with teachers. Content is more engaging. And most students have access to an internet connected device.

As virtual learning has improved, online learning has been able to attract increasingly demanding consumers in mainstream pubic schools who adhere to demanding definitions of performance.

 For many years now, students in Florida have been able to blend online learning with the brick and mortar school experience.  Students are still batched in groups and migrate from classroom to lab and back again.  Students experience classroom teaching and online learning labs, still using the same organizational devices that where put in place over a hundred years ago. But today, we find ourselves on the brink of even greater transformation.  Schools are preparing now to blend supervision, face to face mentors and fun with friends for children who need schools for these jobs—with learning knowledge and skills through online learning.

 You may be wondering if online learning is better than the traditional classroom? And—what exactly is “blended learning” and why do we need it?”

 

 

Posted in Achievement, blended learning, Florida, Funding, Lawsuits, Public Education, Reform, Teachers.

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