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Wed, Jan

As I travel throughout the country and the world, I am excited by the work of a few tireless education pioneers and innovators who are shaping future education to transform learning for future generations of students through a focus on student outcomes, measuring outcomes and performance by how well students demonstrate high levels of knowledge and skills through personalized pathways and their ability to show what they know in performance-based assessments.

The three areas that intersect to create the perfect storm for this education transformation are: personalization, blended learning and competency education. The power of each moves us away from the monolithic, industrialized factory model of schooling and toward a rich, flexible learning environment in which students move through advancing mastery along learning pathways, grounded in curricula designed with strong standards and required skills but with the flexibility of personalized experiences and heightened student voices and choices.


Personalization theory pushes educators to think outside the box by emphasizing the need for learners to be involved in designing their own learning processes (Campbell & Robinson, 2007). In a personalized learning environment, learners have agency to set their own goals for learning, create a reflective process during their journey to attain those goals and be flexible enough to take their learning outside the confines of the traditional classroom.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (2006), there are five phases of personalized learning:

  • Assessment: Teacher and students work together in a formative manner to identify strengths and weaknesses.
  • Teaching and learning: Teachers and students select learning strategies.
  • Curriculum choice: Student chooses the curriculum, creating a pathway for student choice.
  • Radical departure from typical education models: Built on student progress, this phase provides teachers the flexibility to choose their own teaching strategies.
  • Education beyond the classroom: Using social and community connections, students personalize their surroundings (with the help of the teacher, when needed) to create their ideal learning environment.

Many educators surveyed for a recent report from the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) shared their understanding of how personalization can transform learning:

  • Personalization is an understanding that tapping into unique interests, individual styles and specific needs can make work and learning meaningful and authentic.
  • Personalization is asking each student, “What is best for you?”
  • Personalization is about relationships, knowing each individual student based on his or her academic and personal interests.
  • Personalization is students accessing a curriculum that meets their individual needs, reflects their zones of proximal development and gives them the opportunity to access resources to progress at their personal rates of learning.
  • Personalization is engaging students with personal learner plans in which contributions from students, parents, support staff and teachers provide a path for ubiquitous learning to address students’ individual needs, interests and learning styles.
  • Personalization is all students learning at their own individual paces using the tools that help them learn and augment their strengths.
  • Personalization is meeting learners where they are, determining where they need to be and finding and scaffolding the right zones of proximal development to get them there.

As can be seen by some of the responses from the field above, differentiation is part of personalizing learning, and it is essential in education. Many practitioners look to meet each student’s needs via his or her zone of proximal development. Research supporting personalized learning includes Bloom’s classic 2 sigma learning studies, in which students who were tutored at a one-to-one ratio achieved scores two standard deviations above those of students who had learned in a traditional school setting of a 30-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio (Bloom, 1984). The implications of the 2 sigma learning studies push educators to think about the shifting role of the traditional teacher from provider of knowledge to a group of students to tutor of each and every student, offering personalized learning to each learner based on his/her mastery-learning trajectory.

Without personalization, there is a gap between the individual student, his or her learning and the support students need to succeed in a way that makes sense to their interests. Personalization allows students to take ownership of their learning, giving them the opportunity to feel valued, motivated, in control. It also changes the dynamic between the teacher and the student.

What does personalization look like? Personalized learning…

  • Is an education full of variety and choice.
  • Always involves a relationship between the teacher and the student, as well as a strong sense of community within the class as a whole.
  • Is a space where students have access to a wide range of subjects that meet their pathway needs and interests.
  • Is, within each subject, students’ right to access learning experiences that enable them to progress according to their ability levels.
  • Is an opportunity for students to make decisions about the direction of their learning; for example, they can pick the topic they are going to research for an assignment, the book for their book chats and how they want to write the procedures for their lab work.
  • Is a dynamic learning opportunity that provides students with content that addresses their personal learning needs based on their interests, parental input and teacher observation as well as assessment data, which is the most important element.
  • Is students managing their own work calendars and daily schedules to stay on track, so they are free to move through courses at their own paces and have individualized learning paths and intervention plans.
  • Is students using personal learning tools, such as mobile devices, to individualize their learning and improve communication within the school community.
  • Is the school community’s inclusion of multiple layers of support.
  • Is students interacting and collaborating with each other and with the content.
  • Emphasizes teachers interacting with the content, with students and with other teachers.
  • Necessitates social-emotional connections built between students and teachers as the foundation of their work together.
  • Means various starting points within content, varied amounts of guided practice and independent practice as needed.

Personalization is about many ideas. It is about…

  • Discovering students’ prior knowledge of and experience with the content they are about to learn and meeting them where they are.
  • Guiding students to make healthy academic decisions.
  • Developing learning communities that celebrate the individuality and contributions of each student.
  • Consolidating forms of student learning data so that they are useful for planning for personalized instruction.

To personalize learning is to encourage students to develop clear goals and expectations for achievement and to support them to make good decisions in a challenging and rigorous learning environment. It’s a space where teachers are allowed the time they need to work with students; design instruction that is rigorous, flexible and adaptable; and focus on critical thinking and meta-cognitive practices to develop stronger, deeper, independent learning.

Blended Learning

It is difficult to imagine being able to implement personalized learning without technology. The tools in blended and online learning can support flexible pacing, differentiated instruction, immediate interventions and anywhere, anytime learning.

What is most important is to understand the nuanced differences between blended learning models and the instructional designs that can enable personalized learning and how personalized learning itself can be a driving concept for new learning models. Blended learning is a combination of face-to-face learning experiences and online learning platforms, content and tools for personalizing instruction. True blended learning is a modality for realizing a fundamental shift in the instructional model toward personalized learning.

It is important to examine blended learning models to evaluate the extent to which high-quality implementations create major shifts in the instructional design—from the differences in educator roles in traditional, one-size-fits-all classrooms (one teacher, one textbook, one pathway to learning objectives)—and transform learning experiences to result in personalized learning opportunities to optimize teaching and learning. Thus, blended learning is about the transformation of the instructional design toward personalized learning with teachers and students harnessing advanced technological tools to accomplish the shift toward personalization by design.

Blended learning instructional designs leverage the strengths of both the classroom and online modalities. The blended learning instructional model shifts have the potential to result in “learning optimization” to create more personalized learning opportunities.

Additionally, these blended learning designs should allow for greater interactions throughout the learning process between students and teachers, students and other students, students and increased content resources and pathways and students and outside resources (experts, courses, community resources, etc.), which occur at any time and place and provide greater access to data about real-time proficiency levels for students, teachers, parents and administrators.

Blended learning should focus across students’ personalized learning maps (in K–12 education) on what they have demonstrated they know, what they can do and where they are going, in a student profile—and work to fill in gaps and accelerate learning opportunities to keep every student on pace toward an on-time graduation. This student profile is an important cornerstone for blended learning environments to be able to examine how students are moving along in their progress toward achieving standards and also where the gaps are in their knowledge that must be addressed. Blended learning instructional designs should require every student’s progress to be closely monitored and any gaps to be filled upon their identification. Understanding exactly where a student enters the program through a benchmark or entry assessment to determine progress on mastery is a key design element for student-centered blended programs. As students move through the learning progressions and standards, their student profiles will indicate their mastery levels and provide evidence of how they demonstrated competence based on a performance or project. Thus, student profiles also include evidence of the work, usually captured within an electronic portfolio (e-portfolio) system that showcases examples of the student’s projects, writing and demonstrations. When students have gaps in proficiency across the learning progressions, it is important to address these so that they have the foundations for moving ahead and staying on track for future learning. Building on competency-based instructional designs, blended learning should ensure that failure is not an option and offer immediate interventions when a student is not demonstrating mastery.

There are operational implications of blended learning instructional models, including structural changes that can explore more effective use of human capital/talent, facilities, time, resources and technology to support personalized learning. When implemented effectively, a blended learning program can make better use of instructional resources and facilities and increase content and course availability, thus speeding up students’ pathways to graduation ( EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2004).

Horn and Staker’s definition expresses that “blended learning is any time a student learns, at least in part, at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and, at least in part, through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace. The modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience” (Clayton Christensen Institute, 2013, p. 9).

The most important component of the definition is the element of student control, which highlights that blended learning designs need to shift instructional models to enable increased student-centered learning so that students have increased control over the time, place, path and/or pace of their learning pathways.

The key to ensuring that blended learning is beneficial to students is to focus on how it enables personalized learning and instruction. Blended learning is not teachers simply putting lesson plans or content resources online. It is not just having teachers recording lessons so that all students do the exact same lesson in the same format with the same pacing each day. One-to-one laptop or tablet initiatives or students using the latest technological devices, software or digital content alone does not equal a blended learning model. While there may be certain educational benefits to these examples of integrating technology into education, such as increased learner engagement (Taylor & Parsons, 2011), the concept and definition of blended learning is more focused on transforming instructional models toward student-centered learning.

Blended learning involves an explicit shift of the classroom-level instructional design to optimize and personalize student learning. Blended learning implementations should provide greater student control and flexibility in pathways for how students learn, where and when students learn and how they demonstrate mastery.

In this way, blended learning optimizes teaching and student-centered learning. It is learning beyond a single textbook. Think about how difficult it is for a teacher to try to personalize learning without the underpinning technologies to support the data-driven instruction required for differentiated strategies. It is very difficult for a teacher to personalize instruction for each individual student in a class of 25 students in a brick-and-mortar classroom using only a single textbook. It can be done, but it is incredibly demanding and challenging. The technology itself is not a silver bullet.

In blended learning environments, the educator optimizes learning for students by assessing progress and providing supports. In these new models, students are supported and interventions are wrapped around the student-centered instructional models at every point along the learning trajectories. All of these things can be done in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, but one of the great benefits of blended learning is that the technology helps to provide teachers with data, expand student choices for educational resources and learning materials and provide opportunities for students to practice and to demonstrate high levels of performance. However, blended learning isn’t about the technology; rather, it is about empowering educators to better understand how to support and differentiate instruction for kids and make their learning experiences engaging and meaningful.

In blended learning, it is the magic of optimizing the face-to-face classroom with instructional models for personalized learning for teachers who use online learning modalities and advanced technologies to accelerate and improve individualized learning experiences for each and every student, with real-time data on exactly how well each student is progressing.

A year-long study of blended learning in New York City identified the following six elements as necessary for effective planning and implementation of a blended learning program:

Leadership – Systematic, committed and supportive leadership is the first component needed for the successful implementation of a blended learning initiative in a school. Leadership is the foundation from which develop all of the other components that lead to the successful implementation and adoption of blended learning by a school’s teachers and staff.

Successful leaders collaboratively identify common goals and objectives regarding blended learning and then clearly articulate and communicate those goals and objectives with involved staff. Once the goals are written, formal and informal processes are established that track and monitor progress towards the goals both weekly and monthly.

Professional Development – A coordinated, intentional and systematic professional development plan based on stated goals should be in place for each lab school, which includes both formal and informal as well as initial and ongoing professional development.

After a definition of blended learning is agreed upon, goals are set and a blended learning model is chosen, a professional development plan for both school leaders and participating teachers should be developed. Professional development, both formal and informal and for both leaders and teachers, is a key component for ongoing goal implementation.

Teaching/Instructional Practice – The classroom teacher is essential to blended learning implementation. Teachers will need to understand and believe in the pedagogical shift in their teaching to successfully transform their classrooms and teaching to a blended model.

The blended model(s) chosen for implementation will determine how teachers organize their classrooms, schedule their days, design curricula, use digital content and data and transform their teaching. Teaching pedagogy and strategies will also change. Types of strategies may include student grouping, peer-to-peer interaction and personalizing and customizing student learning.

Each blended learning model will require all teachers to make a shift in their teaching and instructional practices. The adopted pedagogical approaches and the classroom teacher’s practices will be the most important pieces to the successful implementation of blended learning.

Operations, Administrative Systems and Policies – Successful implementation of blended learning requires the use of digital learning systems that provide teachers, school administrators, students and parents with real-time student progress information and the ability to easily adapt content and instruction based on student performance.

Administrative systems include learning management , content management and student information systems.

Additionally, new educational models such as blended and online learning options require the review of existing teaching and learning policies and, potentially, revising existing policies or creating new ones, to foster innovation, teacher empowerment and successful implementations. Examples of policies that may need to be addressed include but are not limited to: seat-time as a measure of student performance and funding; length of time that a student has to complete required courses; scheduling availability of courses; instructional credentials; professional development to support blended and online teachers; and access to required technologies.

Content – The decision to buy or build digital content is essential in the implementation of online and blended learning programs. Teachers may use content from an online provider, create their own or use a combination of both.

Technology – Reliable technology infrastructure is required for the successful implementation of blended learning. This includes a dependable telecommunications network and both software and hardware that can be accessed and utilized by students and teachers. In addition to the technology infrastructure, educators and students need effective technology support to maintain positive momentum in teaching and learning in a digital environment.

Competency Education

Competency-based learning is a system of education, often referred to as proficiency- or mastery-based, in which students advance and move ahead on their lessons based on their demonstration of mastery. In order for students to progress at a meaningful pace, schools and teachers provide differentiated instruction and support. People across the field of K–12 education are using the terms competency-based, proficiency-based, mastery-based and performance-based interchangeably in their own contexts—however, I use the term competency education.

In 2011, 100 innovators in competency education came together for the first time. At that meeting, participants fine-tuned a working definition of high-quality competency education:

  • Students advance upon mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and is a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include the application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Competency education builds upon standards reforms, offering a new value proposition for our education system. Frequently, competency education is described as simply flexibility in awarding credit or defined as an alternative to the Carnegie unit. Yet this does not capture the depth of the transformation of our education system from a time-based to a learning-based system. Competency education also hold promise as districts explore new ways to expand and enrich support to students, challenging the assumption that all learning takes place within the classroom. Competency-based approaches are being used at all ages from elementary to graduate school level, focusing the attention of teachers, students, parents and the broader community on students’ mastering measurable learning topics.

It is vitally important for our country to move away from the restrictions of a time-based system. The reasons are many:

  • To ensure that all students succeed in building college and career readiness, consistent with the common core of world-class knowledge and skills;
  • To take advantage of the extraordinary technological advances in online learning for personalization, allowing students to learn at their own paces, any time and everywhere.
  • To provide greater flexibility for students who would otherwise not graduate from high school because they have to work or care for their families;
  • Many states are adjusting their state policies to allow for competency education innovations. Ohio’s Credit Flex policy requires districts and schools to provide different ways to earn high school credit. New Hampshire is implementing sweeping reforms to make all high school competency-based.

In a competency-based education system, students understand learning objectives and also know what they must “know and show” to be proficient. If students do not demonstrate adequate proficiency to advance, they must be provided with supports and interventions that help them fill the gaps in their knowledge and skills.

When we think about the traditional time-based system, students essentially have variable amounts of learning in fixed amounts of time, quite simply allowing for them to pass through systems with varying levels of gaps in their knowledge. For example, in a time-based system, even a B average in a course assumes that the student is possibly missing 15 to 20 percent of the content knowledge. Students are passed with Cs and Ds who are then unprepared for their next courses.

Competency-based models rely on students’ demonstrating their competencies toward the attainment of a degree or diploma, in both K–12 and higher education. Students may take multiple pathways to acquire competencies. Competency education supports new, student-centered learning models that bridge formal and informal learning, allowing students to demonstrate competency in a wide variety of ways by learning content through different modalities, experiences and methods both within and outside of school walls. The same high standards that exist for graduating are set for all students in order to maintain rigor, but students have greater voices and choices in how, where, when and what they are learning to achieve competency (aligned to the standards) and how they demonstrate mastery through their performance.

Competency education models challenge a key policy issue: awarding credit based on the amount of time a student is in a seat, or seat-time, for each course, regardless of what was learned. Most blended learning models occur within classrooms. However, there is a need for blended learning using competency-based approaches to provide flexibility for learning to take place both inside and outside of the school building to give students control and flexibility over learning path, place and pace. Right now, seat-time policies at the local and state levels may limit a student’s ability to engage in an internship while attending a blended learning high school or to earn credit while learning outside of the traditional school day. If the learning were based on students’ demonstrated competencies—with adequate policies for quality, accountability and assessment of learning—students could acquire knowledge from both formal and informal settings and demonstrate the required knowledge for school credits. Competency education models are a foundation for transforming and opening anytime, everywhere learning that enables personalized learning in powerful ways.

New Designs Require New Performance Metrics

Systems of assessment are needed to understand quality assurance based on outcomes. These would provide data upon each student’s entry into a school system through adaptive assessments that showed gaps in or mastery of proficiencies across the K–12 continuum; ongoing performance-based assessments through which students would demonstrate mastery as exhibited in their work products; formative assessments that would reflect student proficiency and skills; and summative end-of-unit or end-of-course validations assessments that would provide a much more comprehensive set of data and information for understanding student learning outcomes and growth trajectories. Rolling up students’ individual proficiency- and standards-based outcomes data to the school level could provide a better way to assess how well students are served by a school or program.

School accountability that judges students by age-based cohort groups, or by meeting percentiles of proficiency rather than demonstrating proficiency at a standards-based level, makes it very difficult to understand the success of schools that are moving students toward proficiency and mastery at accelerated levels of individual student growth, especially for students who have historically been behind or ahead of grade level. Systems of assessment, understanding proficiency levels upon student entry, identifying gaps, measuring real progress over smaller increments of time and collecting standards-based data on proficiency toward college and career-readiness through performance-based assessments, along with validating data, are all essential to knowing how well a student is doing in a more holistic way—and to providing robust accountability based on student outcomes.

Recognizing the limitations of the current accountability model based on a single assessment and using age-based cohorts, an increasing number of states are considering and moving towards new models of accountability that are focused on measuring student growth—how much a student has learned over a period of time. Still, the usual time period is the year between annual state assessments. Ideally, these growth models would measure real learning by individual students in a way that is easy to explain and analyze. The limitations of today’s state systems mean that this ideal is rarely achieved. The result is that the information we have for evaluating schools does not paint a complete picture in most states.

Education leaders in numerous states are considering better approaches to evaluating student performance outcomes. A key starting point for evaluating online schools’ effectiveness is measures of proficiency. Beyond proficiency, or how much a student knows at a distinct point in time, there are other measures of student learning that examine students’ growth in knowledge, skills and deeper learning to prepare them for college and careers over time. Many states are moving toward formally using multiple measures of student learning in assessing outcomes and performance.

Ongoing investigation in this area by iNACOL has identified multiple outcomes-based measures that should be explored more closely when moving toward quality assurance and evaluations of schools:

  • Proficiency
  • Individual student growth along a trajectory
  • Graduation rates
  • College and career readiness
  • Closing the achievement gap
  • Fidelity to a student’s academic goals

How can educators and policymakers address quality assurance by understanding these issues and mitigating risks? To address these quality assurance questions requires collecting and reporting more transparent data, implementing multiple measures of student performance, rethinking school evaluation and clarifying which performance metrics are most important for creating a more robust benchmarking picture of performance.

A Vision for Tomorrow's Schools, Today

Central to my work—and the work of colleagues across the field—is the transformation of K–12 education into a student-centered learning system to level the playing field for students through the creation of new learning models and to ensure that students everywhere have access to a world-class education that prepares them for a lifetime of success, no matter their geographic location or economic situation.

And what does this vision look like?

New learning models personalize learning using competency-based approaches supported by blended and online learning modalities and environments.

Teachers use technology daily to analyze and utilize real-time data to differentiate instruction, customize learning and engage students in deeper learning. All students are responsible for their own learning and work at their own paces by demonstrating mastery of required concepts, resulting in higher achievement and ensuring that all students are prepared for both college and careers.

The ultimate power of blended and online learning lies in their potential to transform the education system and enable higher levels of learning through competency-based approaches. Technology-based models can allow for the rapid capture of student performance data and differentiated instruction tailored to the specific needs of individual students. By adapting instruction to reflect the skills and knowledge students have mastered, blended and online models have the potential to keep students engaged and supported as they learn and to help them progress at their own pace, leading to dramatically higher levels of learning and attainment.

To pave the way for a truly student-centered future for our schools, it is imperative that policymakers work to remove barriers to innovation and remain focused on doing what is right for kids in order to make certain that they have access to world-class education. Five steps that must be considered as we move forward in creating or adjusting policies and legislation governing our schools are:

  • Shift to competency-based education from seat-time.
  • Increase access for each student and permit the entire continuum of student-centered online and blended learning.
  • Design outcomes-based accountability and funding incentives.
  • Increase access to excellent, effective teachers.
  • Provide room for innovation.

We are only just beginning to see what is possible when schools are established to provide their teachers and students with tools and systems that can remove barriers to the ultimate success of both for all. Encouraging innovation and supporting the work of the pioneers who are creating next-generation learning environments for our kids will strengthen not only our schools but also our communities and states as we move toward a more global workforce and society.

We must transform our education system to become student-centered and competency-based such that ultimately, success will be the only option.


Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 Sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4–16.

Campbell, R. J., & Robinson, W. (2007). Personalised learning: Ambiguities in theory and practice. British Journal of Educational Studies, 55(2), 135–154. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8527.2007.00370.x

Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. (2013). Is K-12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction of the theory of hybrids. San Mateo, CA: M. Horn, & H. Staker. Retrieved from

EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. (2004). Research Bulletin: Blended Learning, 2004(7). Louisville, CO: C. Dziuban, J. Hartman, & P. Moskal. Retrieved from

Miliband, D. (2006). Choice and voice in personalised learning: Schooling for tomorrow. In OECD (Eds.), Personalising Education (pp. 21-30). Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. Retrieved from

Taylor, L. & Parsons, J. (2011). Improving student engagement. Current Issues in Education, 14(1). Retrieved from

Susan Patrick is the president and CEO of the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL). iNACOL is a nonprofit providing policy advocacy, national quality standards, research on best practices, next-generation learning model professional development and networking, driving the emerging field of competency-based online and blended learning forward. Before joining iNACOL, Susan Patrick was the Director of Educational Technology at the US Department of Education.

Blended learning—formal education programs that combine online learning and brick-and-mortar schools—is emerging rapidly in K–12 schools across the country, with the potential to reshape America’s factory-model education system into one that can personalize for different student needs.

As blended learning continues to grow, what has become apparent is that there are several different types, or models, of blended learning emerging as well. Fundamentally, there appear to be four overarching models of blended learning emerging, with a variety of sub-models:

The Rotation Model

The Rotation model is one in which within a given course or subject (e.g., math), students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion between learning modalities, at least one of which is online learning. Other modalities might include small-group or full-class instruction, group projects, individual tutoring and pencil-and-paper assignments. The Rotation model has four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom and Individual Rotation.

  • The Station Rotation model—or what some refer to as the Classroom Rotation or In-Class Rotation model—is one in which students rotate within a contained classroom.
  • The Lab Rotation model is one in which the rotation occurs between a classroom and a learning lab for online learning.
  • The Flipped Classroom model is one in which the rotation occurs between the school for face-to-face teacher-guided practice (or projects) and the home or other off-site location for online content and instruction.
  • The Individual Rotation model differs from the other Rotation models because each student in essence has an individualized playlist and does not necessarily rotate to each available station or modality.

The Flex Model

The Flex model is one in which online learning is the backbone of student learning, even if it directs students to offline activities at times. Students move on an individually customized, fluid schedule among learning modalities, and the teacher of record is on-site.

The A la Carte Model

The A la Carte model is one in which students take one or more courses entirely online with an online teacher of record and at the same time continue to have brick-and-mortar educational experiences. Students may take the online courses either on the brick-and-mortar campus or off-site.

The Enriched Virtual Model

The Enriched Virtual model is a whole-school experience in which within each course (e.g., math), students divide their time between attending a brick-and-mortar campus and learning remotely using online delivery of content and instruction.

Analyzing the emergence of these models reveals that some are classic sustaining innovations to America’s traditional classrooms, whereas others are disruptive innovations that do away with the notion of a classroom entirely and will likely have more transformational potential in the long run. Understanding the difference is important to helping school leaders plan for the classrooms of today and the schools of tomorrow.

Introduction to sustaining and disruptive innovation

There are two basic types of innovation, sustaining and disruptive, that follow different trajectories and lead to different results. Sustaining innovations help leading, or incumbent, organizations make better products or services that can often be sold for better profits to their best customers. They serve existing customers according to the original definition of performance—that is, according to the way the market historically has defined what’s good. Since the publication of Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class, a common misreading of the theory of disruptive innovation has been that disruptive innovations are good and sustaining innovations are bad. This is false. Sustaining innovations are vital to a healthy and robust sector as organizations strive to make better products or deliver better services to their best customers. Airplanes that fly farther, computers that process faster, cellular phone batteries that last longer and televisions with clearer images are all examples of sustaining innovations.

Public agencies consistently pursue sustaining innovations as well. They are motivated by political and social priorities instead of by profit, but they engage in the upward march nonetheless. Sustaining innovations have left a profound mark on postsecondary institutions, which compete to deliver better sports teams, publish more acclaimed research and recruit the most elite students. K12 public schools have likewise pursued sustaining innovations aggressively. Today public schools deliver countless programs and services that rarely existed before the mid-20th century, including physical education, health education, summer school, school lunch programs, counselors and medical and dental care.

Whereas sustaining innovations help established organizations improve their ability to serve mainstream customers, another type of innovation—disruptive innovation—presents an even more powerful force in transforming industries. Disruptive innovations, in contrast with sustaining, do not try to bring better products to existing customers in established markets. Instead, they offer a new definition of what’s good; typically they are simpler, more convenient, and less expensive products that appeal to new or less-demanding customers. This allows them to take root in simple, undemanding applications within a new market or arena of competition. Little by little, disruptions improve predictably. At some point, disruptive innovations become good enough to handle more-complicated problems—and then they gradually take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The personal computer is an example of the power of disruptive innovation. Prior to the introduction of the personal computer, the least expensive computer was the minicomputer. It cost well over $200,000, was the size of a filing cabinet and essentially required an engineering degree to operate. The personal computer entered the scene in the 1970s and 1980s, but mainstream customers, as well as minicomputer companies, paid little attention to it because its processing power was so inferior to that of minicomputers. Apple, one of the pioneers in personal computing, originally sold its early computers as a toy to children. Children had been nonconsumers of computers before, so they did not care that the product was not as good as minicomputers.

But little by little the disruption improved. Apple, Dell and other personal computer makers introduced what for them were sustaining innovations, and eventually the personal computer became capable of doing work that had previously required minicomputers. This made computing widespread and cheaper. It left almost everyone—except minicomputer companies—better off.

To return to the topic of K12 blended learning, is the appearance of blended learning across the K12 landscape indicative of a sustaining or a disruptive innovation? If it’s sustaining, then blended learning will bring helpful improvements and efficiencies to traditional classrooms but not transform them. But in contrast, if it’s disruptive, then blended learning is on a trajectory to replace traditional classrooms with an entirely new learning model in the future. The answer to this question is important, and it emerges from understanding one more piece to the theory.

The theory of hybrids

Often industries experience a hybrid stage as they are in the middle of a disruptive transformation. A hybrid is a combination of the new, disruptive technology with the old technology, and it represents a sustaining innovation relative to the old technology. Whenever a disruptive innovation emerges, the leading firms in the field often do attempt to adopt it, but they do so as a sustaining innovation, generally by creating a hybrid solution.

The history of excavators provides an illuminating example from a very different industry. Prior to World War II, huge excavators that dug holes and trenches relied on a system of pulleys, cables and drums to manipulate their big buckets. But in 1947, a new mechanism emerged for extending and lifting the bucket: hydraulically actuated systems. The first hydraulic excavators had limited power and strength, they could only move a limited amount of earth with each scoop and they had minimal reach. Because their capacity was so small and their reach so short, hydraulic excavators were of no use for general excavation and mining. As a result, the entrant firms had to find new applications for their products. To their delight, they found that small residential contractors actually preferred the new machines. The smaller machines allowed them to dig narrow ditches for water and sewer lines for houses under construction. Cable-actuated excavators were much too large and imprecise for the job, so before the arrival of hydraulic excavators, residential contractors had to dig trenches by hand. The hydraulic excavators offered a welcomed solution to nonconsumers.

Meanwhile, Bucyrus Erie, the leading cable shovel maker, was aware of the emergence of the hydraulic excavating technology, but he faced a predicament. Its most important mainstream customers, the general excavators and miners, had no use for a weak, low-capacity, short-reach hydraulic excavator. Bucyrus’s response was to try to offer the best of both worlds: the power, capacity and reach of a cable-actuated system blended with the precision and maneuverability of a hydraulic excavator. In 1951, it introduced the “Hydrahoe.” This new machine featured hydraulic cylinders to curl and draw the shovel and at the same time, a cable mechanism to lift the shovel. The Hydrahoe was a hybrid of the two technologies.

Other excavator companies also experimented with using hydraulics to serve their existing customers. Over the long term, however, the new entrants who developed pure hydraulic excavators for residential contractors improved upon their technology enough that the hydraulic excavators were able to address the needs of mainstream excavation contractors. The established firms and hybrid machines lost the contest. Today, hydraulic systems have replaced cable-actuated excavators entirely.

Bucyrus had two options when it wanted to participate in the hydraulics opportunity. The sustaining option was to invent a hybrid product that would allow it to market hydraulics to its existing customers while continuing to deliver the performance that cable-actuated machines offered. The disruptive option was to find a new market that would value the pure-play hydraulic technology for what it was—smaller, simpler, and more maneuverable. Bucyrus chose the sustaining, hybrid strategy. As a result, it missed the larger disruption that eventually occurred in the industry as pure hydraulic technology became good enough to meet the needs of mainstream general excavators and miners.

The automobile industry is likewise on its own hybrid journey at the moment: it has developed several hybrid cars along its way to transitioning from gasoline-fueled engines to engines with alternative power sources. The leading companies want the virtues of both, so they have developed a sustaining innovation: hybrid cars that use both gasoline and electricity. Other industries, including steamships, photography, retail and banking, have experienced a hybrid stage on their way to realizing the pure disruption.

We are learning that hybrid innovations appear to follow a distinct pattern. These are four characteristics of a hybrid:

  1. It includes both the old and new technology, whereas a pure disruption does not offer the old technology in its full form.
  2. It targets existing customers rather than nonconsumers—that is, those whose alternative to using the new technology is nothing at all.
  3. It tries to do the job of the preexisting technology. As a result, the performance hurdle required to delight the existing customers is quite high because the hybrid must do the job at least as well as the incumbent product on its own, as judged by the original definition of performance. In contrast, companies that succeed at disruptive innovations generally take the capabilities of the new technology as a given and look for markets that will accept the new definition of what’s good.
  4. It tends to be less foolproof than a disruptive innovation. It does not significantly reduce the level of wealth and/or expertise needed to purchase and operate it.

A situation is now confronting those who are interested in bringing online learning to the schoolhouse that is similar to that confronted by Bucyrus Erie. The analogy goes like this: online learning is like hydraulics and the traditional classroom is like the old cable-actuated system. The sustaining option is to invent a hybrid solution that gives educators the best of both worlds—the advantages of online learning combined with all the benefits of the traditional classroom. The disruptive option is to deploy pure-play online learning in new models that depart from the traditional classroom and target nonconsumers who value the new technology for what it is—more customizable, affordable and convenient. The decision is important because in the end, disruptions almost always become good enough to meet the needs of mainstream customers. In other words, the disruptive models almost always overtake the sustaining models over the very long term.

In this context, we’re able to see that some models of blended learning are hybrids—sustaining innovations to the traditional classroom—whereas others are disruptive.

Blended learning hybrids

The models that fall within the hybrid zone of blended learning bear many of the traits of both online learning and the traditional classroom. When viewed through the lens of disruptive innovation theory, the models in the hybrid zone appear to be sustaining innovations relative to the traditional classroom.

Most of the Rotation models fall within the hybrid zone because they continue to do the job of the traditional classroom. They help to keep students in their seats in the classroom for the prescribed number of minutes, and they preserve the general structures of facilities, staffing and school operations.

For example, the Station Rotation model uses the same concept of station rotation—or centers—that has existed in primary schools for decades, and then merely adds an online station. At KIPP Empower, blended learning facilitates a marginal increase in the student-teacher ratio, but the traditional structure of age-based cohorts, the number and size of classrooms and the role of face-to-face instruction remain largely intact. Similarly, the Lab Rotation model starts with the traditional classroom and then merely adds a rotation to a computer or learning lab. The Flipped Classroom model also continues to do the job of the traditional classroom. Although teachers are implementing it in different ways, in general the Flipped Classroom is emerging as a technique that traditional teachers can use to improve student engagement rather than an innovation that upends the traditional classroom.

Indicative of their sustaining natures, the Station Rotation, Lab Rotation and Flipped Classroom models can all be implemented without major revisions to the resource allocations or processes already in place at a school. None of the models requires significant changes to physical facilities, staffing or scheduling (several do use the models to make some significant changes to these elements—it’s just not a requirement). Each introduces a hybrid solution that marries the traditional classroom with a new technology—online learning—to create something that performs better along the initial definition of what a good classroom is meant to do.

In contrast, the Flex, A La Carte and Enriched Virtual models, as well as the Individual Rotation model, each have the potential to be disruptive relative to the traditional classroom. They come at blended learning from a fundamentally different vantage point. Instead of beginning with the basic classroom and then asking how online learning can improve it, these models do the reverse. They start with the online courses and then look at how classroom experiences can enhance the virtual. Many of the traditional constructs of schooling are irrelevant in these models. Students in Flex programs have no need for age-based cohorts because all are moving through courses and modules at their own paces and on their own schedules. Students in Enriched Virtual programs divide their time between learning at a brick-and-mortar location and learning remotely online. They seldom visit the classroom every weekday, and that untethering from their seats has all sorts of implications for facility and faculty utilization. Students who are taking A La Carte courses dispense with the traditional classroom altogether for certain courses. Theirs is the clearest case of pure disruption.

The Individual Rotation model is the one Rotation model that has disruptive rather than sustaining characteristics. It differs from other Rotation models because students do not necessarily rotate to each available station or modality. Some students might learn completely online if that method works best for them. To implement an Individual Rotation model requires a fundamental redesign of staffing, facilities and scheduling. Interestingly enough, two of the most visible Individual Rotation models, those used at Carpe Diem schools and in School of One (now called New Classrooms), literally do away with the traditional classroom altogether and create a significantly larger open learning space as the main room for students.

Seeing what’s next with blended learning

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 to 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.

There are a few nuances to this prediction. One is that it applies to high school and, to some extent, middle school classrooms but not necessarily to the elementary school level. High schools and middle schools have rampant nonconsumption in areas such as Advanced Placement, foreign language and credit recovery courses, but these pockets of unmet demand are not prevalent—or at least have not yet been discovered in a way that stretches across the jobs that both students and schools or districts have to do—at the elementary school level. Furthermore, high school and middle school design typically features course-by-course modular architecture, which allows for modular online courses to substitute into the system more readily.

In contrast, the future of elementary schools at this point is likely to be largely, but not exclusively, a sustaining innovation story for the classroom. Outside of families that educate their children in a home-school environment, the closest that elementary schools come to presenting a disruptive path for online learning in schools is in the area of extended school hours and after-school programs. For example, Chicago Public Schools implemented a Flex model after-school program called the Additional Learning Opportunities Initiative to extend the school day using laptops and paraprofessionals for grades 1−8. If elementary schools continue to face budget cuts and need to reduce the number of traditional minutes in the school day, this could create a sizable nonconsumption opportunity and disruptive foothold. But this scenario has not yet played out at this point, and so for now, the prediction at the elementary level is unsure. Tutoring, in everything from speech therapy to English language learning as well as foreign-language learning, presents other possible areas of nonconsumption to drive the disruption of elementary school classrooms.

The prognosis for the disruption of the classroom at the high school and middle school levels appears clearer. It likely strains conventional wisdom, and predictably so. Whenever a disruptive innovation arrives, the established system usually views entrants in the emerging disruptive market as irrelevant to its well-being. The K−12 education sector is following suit. Flex, A La Carte and other disruptive blended-learning models appear as only small line items on a long list of education trends and possibilities. Indeed, as the theory would predict, in core academic subjects in traditional high schools that are blending, schools are largely implementing sustaining innovation models, mainly of the Station Rotation and Flipped Classroom varieties. The focus of these efforts seems to be on co-opting a potentially disruptive technology to apply it in a sustaining way to the existing system rather than to disrupt the system so that it becomes simpler, more accessible and more student-centered. But bit by bit, in areas of nonconsumption, the disruptive models are improving steadily and will, over time, replace the factory-model classrooms.

As this happens, the fundamental role of brick-and-mortar schools will pivot. Although traditional and hybrid classrooms are poised for disruption, we do not see brick-and-mortar schools as falling by the wayside any time soon. This is because although many areas of nonconsumption exist at the classroom level—particularly in secondary schools—little nonconsumption exists at the school level in the United States. Almost every student has access to a government-funded school of some sort. We predict that hybrid schools, which combine the old architecture with new learning models, will be the dominant model of schooling in the United States in the future, which is a good thing because the majority of students in America need school, or at least a supervised place to learn. Various societal stakeholders “hire” schools to do many things for their children, just one of which is learning. The custodial task—keeping children safe—is equally important for many. Schools provide important social services that range from counseling and mentoring to health services and free meals, and in the years ahead, schools will likely provide more of these services, not fewer, for some students. From the perspective of children, having a place to have fun with friends is vital. As a result, schools will likely focus more, for example, on providing well-kept facilities that students want to attend, face-to-face support, high-quality meals and a range of athletic, musical and artistic programs and will leverage the Internet for instruction.

Within those schools though, the disruptive models of blended learning will substantially replace traditional classrooms over the long term, particularly in secondary schools, because the importance of the traditional classroom will likely diminish. Schools will still play an essential function though in performing other important jobs. And over the long term, they will have the luxury of focusing their resources on truly nailing those jobs while online learning takes on more of the responsibility of delivering content and instruction.

Heather Staker is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute and has authored several significant white papers on the rise of K–12 blended learning. Michael Horn is the co-founder and executive director, education of the Clayton Christensen Institute. He is the coauthor of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

The history of education reform is littered with “new, new things.”  Innovations masquerading as panaceas have distracted leaders and decision-makers for decades. TV? Whole language? The first-blush promise of computers? At the same time, student performance in the United States has largely stagnated, and the so-called agrarian, industrial model of schooling has proven resilient.

The School District of Philadelphia (SDP), like many districts around the country, is at an inflection point. Funding available for the classroom is decreasing—in part due to reductions in federal and state contributions, and in part due to legacy costs—while families and students choose viable alternatives, mostly charter schools, which themselves constitute a significant structural innovation. With dwindling resources and a diminishing student population, an operational imperative to change joins the undergirding moral imperative to provide decent schools for all children.

In this context, the innovation that is truly improving student outcomes is as much innovation in how we operate as what we implement. Developing new and innovative ways to develop, sustain and support schools is more important than the models themselves, as any student of the relentless momentum of bureaucracy can attest. As Tim Brown writes in Change by Design, “What we need is an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective, and broadly accessible…”

To this end, the SDP leadership has invested in innovative processes alongside innovative school models. Put simply, the district’s job is to create the conditions and spaces whereby school leaders and teachers can be successful in educating children, each and every one.

What follows is a quick roadmap with brief signposts describing a sampling of our current efforts to become innovative in our way of doing as well as in what we do.

New ways of doing and being

Cross-functional Action Teams

Calling on several of the practices of “design thinking,” we have built out a number of cross-functional “action teams” focused on our most important and intractable problems. One, for example, has been addressing the question of “How do we get more students into good schools?” Calling on the expertise of colleagues from all parts of the organization including facilities, academics, finance, parent engagement and school safety, as well as parents and students, we have identified a set of creative actions that we are implementing. Similarly, when we wanted to understand what we need to do to improve “customer service” at schools and within central administrations, we pulled together a team including private- and public-sector customer service experts, education experts, parents and school-based staff to engage creatively around solutions.


The first-ever TechCamp held in the United States took place over the weekend of February 23–24, 2013, in Philadelphia and brought the benefits of low-cost, easy-to-use technology to the students, teachers and administrators of the city of Philadelphia. TechCamp Philly was hosted as a joint venture between the U.S. Department of State's Office of eDiplomacy, the School District of Philadelphia and the nonprofit company Technically Philly. TechCamp Philly was also endorsed by the Secretary of State's Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, in recognition of the advancement of technology in the service of civil society around the world. Two days of TechCamp collaboration among over 150 teachers and technologists, held in conjunction with a Code Across America Education Hackathon, resulted in the launch of 13 technology-enabled solutions to strengthen education in the city.

Open Data

The district is also very excited by its participation in both the national and local Open Data Initiative. Working with the city’s Open Data Philly repository ( and through the district’s website (, we have provided aggregated views of student information, such as student demographics, attendance, climate and academic performance. By June of 2014, the district plans to release additional data sets that will focus on areas outside of student-related data, such as human capital and financial data. We are encouraged by the interest throughout the city and hope that through crowd-sourcing efforts, the technology community will share this data. We believe that powerful visualizations and meaningful comparisons will foster knowledge and continued accountability at all levels.


EduCon is an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session will be an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas—from the very practical to the big dreams.

Teacher-led Convenings

In March, Philadelphia will see the first in a series of city-wide teacher convenings cosponsored by the school district, the Public Education Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Building on and borrowing from the experiences of the multiple teacher networks in the city such as Teachers Lead Philly and the Teachers Action Group, the primary goal of the series is to create space for teachers to educate and inform each other and collectively problem-solve about teaching and learning in the context of the common core. Thousands of teachers across the city have expressed interest in attending, either as co-presenters or participants, and in pitching teacher-created, instruction-focused ideas for additional support.

Innovative “whats”

Philadelphia has been home to a variety of school model innovations. Here I describe two existing schools and three innovative school models slated to open their doors in September 2014.

The Science Leadership Academy

The Science Leadership Academy is a partnership high school between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. SLA is an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st-century learning that opened on September 7, 2006.

SLA provides a vigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment in which the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

The Workshop School

The Workshop School opened in September 2013, catering to students from comprehensive neighborhood high schools looking for a new way of learning. Projects rather than subjects drive the curriculum and the schedule. Teachers work intensively with students to cultivate the habits of mind to take ownership of their work. Student progress is based on demonstration of mastery and real-world impact rather than seat time. And technology is not a subject within the curriculum; it is the means through which work gets done.

The project-based learning model has four stages: 1) make it up (envision), 2) make it real, 3) make it better and 4) make it happen. All students are expected to take at least two projects through stage four by the time they graduate. Projects are managed using an online system, Project Foundry, which allows students and teachers to align project work with state standards and track credits by subject area.

The day is divided into two large, flexible blocks of time with students working on projects in the morning and learning “building blocks” in the afternoon, by working either independently with online resources or in small seminars.

Building 21

Scheduled to open in September 2014, Building 21 (B21) has as its mission to empower networks of learners to connect with their passions, discover their purpose and build agency to impact their world. Providing the support and structure for students to develop the skills and mindsets to design their own learning is central to our vision. B21 will utilize inquiry; extended project-based learning; and online instructional approaches within a mastery-based school model that engages students directly with real-world learning opportunities both in and outside of the traditional school setting. Learning happens anywhere, anytime at B21, because we are intentional about making the boundaries between traditional and nontraditional learning far more permeable. By developing networks and learning pathways that utilize time, space, tasks, groupings and assessments in a personalized and flexible manner, B21 will provide the structures for customization and choice. In essence, B21 seeks to customize secondary education at scale through a network approach to learning for high-school-age youth that fundamentally reorients the system to place the learner at the center.

New high schools

The Carnegie Opportunity by Design Challenge presents a potent opportunity for the district to begin its new school design work in a rigorous and inventive manner as it restructures systems to bring its larger portfolio management strategy to fruition. The grant funding associated with this work will result in the creation and launch of two new high schools in September 2014 and will assist the district's Office of New School Models to initiate early exemplar design work that will help the district create basic processes for intensive research, development and
design efforts for effective new high schools. As part of this work, the district has created two school design teams to support cycles of inspiration, ideation and implementation as it develops new schools. School design teams will think like designers and transform the idea of “school” into what is desirable from a student viewpoint and aligned to Carnegie's ten research-based principles. The teams will also reflect on their research to generate ideas, prototype, test, document and revise strategies aligned to each of the ten principles listed below.

The Carnegie design principles of a high-performing secondary school are as follows; a high-performing school:

  • Integrates positive youth development to optimize student engagement and effort
  • Prioritizes mastery of rigorous standards aligned to college and career readiness
  • Continuously improves its operations and model
  • Develops and deploys the collective strengths of staff
  • Manages school operations effectively and efficiently
  • Maintains an effective human capital strategy aligned with school model and priorities
  • Empowers and supports students through key transitions into and beyond high school
  • Remains porous and connected (partnerships, access to community resources, knowledge sharing with other schools)
  • Creates a clear mission and coherent culture
  • Personalizes student learning to meet student needs

Watch this space….

These short descriptions articulate a journey more than a destination. The district is furthermore committed to a set of innovations in infrastructure and service provision to facilitate the development and sustaining of new school models that better meet the needs of all students. For example, we are figuring out with our labor partners how to collaborate on working conditions and work rules to support teachers and principals in their practice. We are investing in important technology upgrades to our learning infrastructure (including our student information system and our learning management system) to provide flexible technology solutions to schools. And we continue to look for ways to engender innovation in our practice as much as in our solutions.

Paul Kihn is Deputy Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.