SMARTER SCHOOLS | by Michael Spencer

Education no longer comes in rows and textbooks, but from a combination of sources.

Let’s start with a definition. What exactly is blended learning? Here’s a great, generally useful definition found on the City Prep Academies website that clarifies the term: “[Blended learning] integrates face-to-face classroom time with online learning (facilitated at all times by a classroom teacher), combining the effectiveness and socialization of the classroom with technology-enhanced online materials.”

What makes blended learning especially appealing is that it provides students with courses that wouldn’t otherwise be available; teachers get near-instant student assessments and the opportunity to provide their students with individualized instruction. It gets students up to speed and on track, challenging talented students and engaging individual learners in differentiated instruction. What’s more, the technology component inherent in a blended learning environment isn’t merely an attractive distraction, but an integral approach to acquiring knowledge and engaging in curriculum that’s simply second-nature for today’s 21st-century learner.

Now, with some general idea of what blended learning means—essentially a blend of the best of in-classroom and online, technology-enhanced learning—let’s look at several different specific areas of rapid change in education and see what they add to the mix.

1. SaaS, or “School as a Service”. Yes, normally this acronym means Software as a Service. But apply it to schools and some of the key elements include: an engaging media library of learning objects and experiences, instant feedback from lots of content-embedded assessment, enhanced student profiles, customized learning experiences driven by “smart recommendation engines” and online student support services tailored to individual student needs. School as a service? Sounds like a great mindset and model and it certainly only adds to improving our schools by ensuring student-centric learning.

2. Apps. There are literally thousands of educational apps for the iPod, iPhone and iPad available on the Apple site. Some states are launching digital curriculum aligned to history textbooks. Students can use apps to learn about the National Gallery in London, they can watch and learn with mini-movies from BrainPOP apps, do battle with an app called Multiplication, use Netter’s Anatomy Flash Cards, or even improve on their important test terms with the SAT Vocab Challenge. With apps perfectly suited for bite-sized, handheld learning experiences that connect students to the real world, we’ll begin to see what digitized textbooks, and digitized learning really means for students.

3. Edmodo. This learning platform feels a little like—and could easily be positioned in one’s mind as—the Facebook of Education, with some Twitter elements thrown in. Brilliant, and probably why Edmodo is growing at a phenomenal rate: in the 2009-2010 school year, Edmodo experienced 10X growth to outpace all other players in its category. With several thousand sign-ups per week, the company projects they’ll hit the 1 millionth-user mark by December 2010. That’s 499 million to go and not bad for an education-specific platform directed mainly at students and teachers.

4. Credit Recovery. Using online learning to assist at-risk students to recover missing or flunked credits that would otherwise impede them from graduating with their cohorts is a great idea, and there are several companies that have not missed targeting this segment. The main concern here is rigor. Do the online courses have the rigor offered by something on the order of a small-class sized, intense summer seminar at a well-regarded university? Or are they a diploma-mill style money machine for capitalizing vultures? The truth lies closer to a positive outcome when students and schools use known or trusted entities that show results.

5. City Prep Models. City Prep Academies is a blended learning service provider to schools and districts. You might think of it as a hands-on consulting firm to “21st-century-ize” a school district, they offer help with education management, operations human resources, budgeting and finance, compliance and accountability. As other education consulting firms assist in developing next generation secondary schools, more in-class and online learning blends will follow.

6. Content Going Mobile and 1 to 1. An interesting trend: content companies such as Discovery Education are increasingly branching out into the mobile learning arena, creating apps that take direct advantage of the mobility of cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices. For example, the U.S. Geography by Discovery Education app is designed for middle and high school students. With videos, interactive games, a global competition and sharing, users can explore various regions of the country and learn about different aspects such as bodies of water, cultures and major cities. But think about it: this is 1-to-1 learning at its best. The learning goes to the student, the learning is personalized, the learning is tailored to what the student wants to know and where that student wants to click. All of this can be tracked and assessed.

7. Deeper Learning. Are we really dumbing down our kids with video games and increased Internet time? Student can drill down on a subject and come out an expert; a mom can educate herself and know more than her child’s doctor might know, a teacher can present the world to his students—quite literally.

If we’re excited and responsible in how we use technology for learning—then, like never before—the future of education is ours to create. And with blended learning helping to individualize a student’s learning experience, it all makes sense.

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Michael Spencer is senior vice president of American Education Corporation. An education and technology industry veteran, he is the former president and founder of One2OneMate and several other startups all of which have received multiple awards for innovation and product development.