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Identifying the Good Kind of Disruption in (Colorado) Blended Learning Innovation

When is it okay to be disruptive in class? Most teachers rightly would frown on the idea of little whelps like me acting out or speaking out of turn when a lecture or other class instructional activity is taking place. But disruptive innovation via the blended learning strategy is an entirely different matter. I’m talking about the future!

In recent weeks I’ve introduced you to an innovative idea to provide oversight of expanded access to digital learning opportunities in Colorado, explained why the school finance tax proposal coming to a ballot near you missed the chance to break out of the 20th century, and highlighted how blended learning models can benefit teachers. But as usual, the good folks at the Clayton Christensen (formerly known as Innosight) Institute now have me thinking even a little more deeply how technology, policy, and practice very well could merge to transform the way learning takes place.

Hats off to Christensen, Michael Horn, and Heather Staker for their new paper, Is K-12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction to the theory of hybrids. And I’m not talking about cars that can run on different types of energy. The authors make an interesting case for two different kinds of blended learning models, based on their potential to foster long-term change:

The models of blended learning that follow the hybrid pattern are on a sustaining trajectory relative to the traditional classroom. They are poised to build upon and offer sustaining enhancements to the factory-based classroom system, but not disrupt it. The models that are more disruptive, however, are positioned to transform the classroom model and become the engines of change over the longer term, particularly at the secondary level. Any hybrid variety of blended learning is likely to fall by the wayside as the pure disruption becomes good enough.

The hybrid version, mainly the various Rotation models of blended learning (like at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Prep), try to take the “best of both worlds,” build new technology atop the old, and try to serve the same students or solve the same problems in a somewhat different way. On the other hand, the paper identifies the Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual models as being of the “disruptive” variety.

In the Christensen Institute’s ever-expanding Blended Learning Universe, two Colorado programs — one the GOAL Academy charter school and the other at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada — represent disruptive models. (Who knows? Georgia’s free virtual courses might qualify, too.) The report suggests it’s this type of program that will ultimately transform learning at the middle and high school level to better address students’ personalized learning needs and to use resources more productively. They don’t see elementary schools as likely to move beyond the hybrid stage.

But how to make the transformative leap more quickly and more effectively? For school leaders who want to craft truly disruptive innovations, the authors highlight five different steps to take:

  1. Create a team within the school that is autonomous from all aspects of the traditional classroom.
  2. Focus disruptive blended-learning models initially on areas of nonconsumption.
  3. When ready to expand beyond areas of nonconsumption, look for the students with less demanding performance requirements.
  4. Commit to protecting the fledgling disruptive project.
  5. Push innovation-friendly policy.

I might also add that state leaders could help facilitate the needed transition by subscribing to Colorado’s digital learning policy road map, and more particularly moving toward a course-level funding system that gives secondary students more choices.

My Education Policy Center friends also tell me they have a new paper highlighting blended learning innovations set to come out before too long. In a good way, I hope it ends up being quite — ahem — disruptive!