By: Mickey Revenaugh
- School Choice. Back in the day, "school choice" meant either going to your zoned public high school or forking over tuition for a parochial or private school that differed mainly in uniform color. But choice in education is now a many-splendored thing, with a myriad of different school sizes, themes, designs and philosophies available for selection. In states with public e-schools, even students in the smallest and most remote communities can choose from among as many as 10 different virtual programs, each with its own curriculum and platform. The emergence of blended schools adds another suite of options. These programs actively compete against each other, and all report high levels of "churn" as students move fluidly among them.
- Course-Level Choice. Part of the appeal of online/blended schools is the breadth of curriculum options. No course is too obscure to offer when the teacher can be located almost anywhere and can serve students across multiple schools and programs - hence the availability of Latin IV, AP Calculus BC and Advanced Medical Billing among the 500+ courses in the Connections catalog. But even students in traditional high schools are now gaining access to the entire universe of online offerings through the emergence of state "course choice" programs, which allow students to pick any course from any approved online provider, who then collects a fraction of their per-pupil school funding.
- Personalized Learning Plans. Before online/blended learning, the only students who had documented learner profiles were typically those in special education. Mainstream students basically were handled as one-size-fits-all within an age/grade cohort, with the only differentiation being the kind of tracking that sent some students down the path to college while others dead-ended at Metal Shop and Consumer Math. But because these new forms of technology-facilitated schooling allows for mass customization, every enrolled student now has a personalized plan that takes into account his or her learning style, goals, strengths and weaknesses to drive program level and pacing in a flexible way.
- Role of Data. Though the Target breach and the NSA have made "data" a bit of a dirty word, online/blended learning relies on the constant flow of detailed information about student performance to personalize and individualize for each student. Based on this data flow, students are grouped and regrouped for extra help or extension activities, teachers intervene one-on-one, and school leaders reach out to parents for deeper concerted action to get a student back on track. The students themselves are the biggest data geeks of all, watching their online dashboards like hawks and knowing exactly what score they need to get on the next quiz or essay to bump their running GPA up to the next level.
- Advanced Digital Tools. Online and blended learning by their very nature require deep use of technology. Students in such programs typically haveat least one dedicated, school-provided computing device and access to many others, especially in programs with a "Bring Your Own Device" or "BYOD" policy. Students cycle rather nimbly from smartphone to tablet to laptop to flat-screen as they interact with curriculum, communicate with teachers and peers, read texts and present their work. Some blended programs are pushing the technology envelope even further, integrating telepresence robots that look like a cross between a Segway and a vacuum cleaner. They can be driven remotely by a virtual teacher and can bring web conferencing with students to a whole new eyeball-to-onscreen-eyeball level of intimacy.
- Coaching Models. In online and blended learning, the availability of a digital curriculum that students interact with directly means that teachers are no longer the sole deliverers of content. Their role shifts toward personalizing, tutoring, intervening and accelerating for each student based on his or her individual learning needs, as documented by data and observation. To free teachers to go even deeper within specific subject areas, some online/blended high schools have designated "coaches" on staff whose job it is to know their assigned students in a 360-degree way, monitoring their performance across the curriculum and helping them develop the time management and self-advocacy skills they will need for success in college and beyond.
- Blurring of Boundaries. With a personalized learning plan for every student, a digital curriculum that each student can access and work through directly, and teaching/coaching resources devoted to individual student success, online and blended high schools can blur the lines between levels of education to extend each student's path up and down. The freshman who's reading at the 6th grade level can get the remediation she needs while surrounded by peers. The ambitious sophomore can knock off high school credits by the end of junior year and get a year of college under their belt before graduation. School can be integrated into the workplace, the hospital, and the tour bus.
Young people are taking control of their own pathway to careers, college and contribution. Powered by digital learning, "GenDIY" is combatting
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