By Steve Rowley, a former public school superintendent in Washington and California
In the prophetic Disrupting Class: How Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2008, 2011), Clayton Christensen argued that innovations in technology will proliferate in the 21st century, generate “student-centric” forms of digital learning, create customized learning for the individual, and provide innovative alternatives to traditional teaching and learning tools. Christensen also predicted that while schools will continue to make steady progress in adopting various forms of digital learning over time, the use of these innovative technologies will mirror a pattern similar to the evolution of the Apple Computer: a lazy J-curve – a slow, if unnoticeable or flat curve over several years, followed by a rapid, exponentially-shaped upward curve at the time of widespread adoption.
What seemed to be a wild prophecy only a few years ago, is now a vision come into focus, at least from the vantage point of the explosion of digital learning products and services. Coupled with this rapid marketplace expansion is the evolving field of “blended technology,” to which a new framework and typology of schooling models has sprung up. Classifying K-12 Blended Learning identifies an array of new models of how learning is being designed in both online and brick-and-mortar settings; and where students are exposed rotationally to various combinations of traditional and technology rich instruction.
The extraordinary advances in interactive software programs has revived the dusty learning station or lab format, which peaked and faded a generation ago. Innovative interactive learning and adaptive looping have necessitated new “algorithms” for organizing and sequencing digital learning activities, within and between various software programs, in the daily schedules for both students and teachers – the hallmark examples being Rocketship Education school labs and the School of One’s organization of instructional modes during the day and week.
The poster boy (aka Geek Celebrity) for the digital learning revolution is Sal Khan and the Khan Academy (see Time, June 9, 2012). In the Khan model, instruction is not just blended, but “flipped,” meaning that the digital format for instruction provides both curricular content and instructional sequencing, in which the role of teacher has shifted from the purveyor/controller of knowledge to the guide of individualized student learning. Given that the Khan program provides online access to the same content at home as it is offered at school, some argue that the importance of direct teacher-student interaction is greatly diminished in the context of digital learning. The early Khan pilots in Los Altos, California, however, reveal a different story. The “flip” of instruction has lessened the burden on teachers to meet the unrealistic demands of differentiating instruction across wildly mixed ability levels and learning styles. Instead, teachers have found more time and freedom to spend time with individual students for tutoring and intervention.
One curious feature of the digital learning revolution is the serendipity or irony (take your pick) of the timing of it in the early 21st century education reform. To some, the vast horizon of learning solutions to chronic dilemmas (e.g., the achievement gap; disengaged learners) could not come at a more opportune time. After decades of lackluster results from traditional reform efforts at the national and state level, digital learning and new schooling models have broken open the logjam of tired and turgid approaches for making learning more engaging and authentically productive across the demographic spectrum. The traditional boundaries between teacher and content, home and school, student and teacher have been shattered like a glass windshield with the cracks growing and more observable everyday.
But at the same time, the traditional policy and political machinations of reform have upped the game of improving the American educational system as whole. Badly needed systemic remedies to the achievement gap and the challenges of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies often have commandeered the attention of school leaders in a non-digital direction. Many legislatures, school boards, and superintendents have invested enormously in solutions related more fundamentally to the core of traditional instruction: teacher training and evaluation, standards-based curriculum, intervention methodologies for struggling students, college and workplace preparation programs, and most recently the adoption of the Common Core State Standards.
These new systemic challenges and solutions have on one hand, rekindled traditional tensions: inadequate budgets, teacher union pushback, implementation overload, partisan gamesmanship, etc. On the other hand, policy and non-profit leaders and key commercial interests have begun to forge new partnerships that marry digital innovation with needed systemic reform. For example, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia recently unveiled plans to provide an online assessment systems starting 2014-15 that is affordable, gives immediate feedback to teachers, and is directly aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Race to the Top funded states like North Carolina just reviewed comprehensive plans for Instructional Improvement Systems. Nine states have joined together in a Shared Learning Collaborative with common data achievement data and content warehouses and open application programming interfaces will enable hundreds of powerful tools for teachers and students.
The digital learning revolution is at the heart of the most exciting evolutionary transformation in American education in a century. There can be no question that the trajectory of innovation in digital learning and new school models is beginning to follow the “Christensen Curve” of innovation – still a little slow in our time, but soon, exponentially up. As such, it is for most educators and parents a phenomenon that has yet to learned first hand. For our Millennial Generation students, the digital learning revolution is already here. So what’s the big deal anyway?