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What is a hybrid school anyway?

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By Linda Jacobson

How hybrid schools work

“Students love being able to work at their own pace,” said Susan Patrick, the president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, in the same webinar. “The fact that we have designed most schools to keep them at a single pace, with a single textbook, with a single teacher really limits their ability to have that flexibility.”

Not all blended models, however, require students to attend class everyday.

At the Riverside Virtual School in Riverside, CA, which serves sixth through twelfth graders, students are enrolled in online classes they take at home but meet together on campus for lessons in science labs, to participate in PE classes, or to work together on long-range projects.

Phil van Haaster’s two boys — eleventh grader Michael and ninth grader Joseph — typically spend one day a week at the campus, which is 25 miles from their home. They’ll meet with their advisor and take any tests they need to complete. Other students, however, spend more time on campus, especially if they are struggling in any subject areas.

Some students using this approach might still allot an hour a day for each subject area, while others might spend one day on a certain subject and shift to another subject the following day. The students find out what works best for them.

Depending on the student, time spent with teachers can be used for evaluating progress, getting extra help, or reviewing materials. At home, students are doing what would typically be considered classwork. “What is special, from my perspective, is the focus on the student,” Haglund says, adding that the education system has to “reshape itself” to respond to students’ individual needs.

Some schools using blended learning were designed specifically for elementary school students, such as Rocketship Education, a network of K-5 charter schools serving children from low-income families in the San Francisco Bay Area. Students still attend traditional classrooms but spend a quarter of their day in “learning labs” working with online programs that are customized for their level.

Hybrid learning going mainstream

While the numbers of students taking advantage of the blended or hybrid model is clearly growing, firm figures are not yet available. In its 2011 report, "The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning," Innosight noted that in 2009, three million students were taking an online course — up from 45,000 in 2000. Observers say blended models have in part emerged because schools are being forced to meet higher expectations at a time when education funding is shrinking.

Schools are also finding that the technology allows them to meet students’ needs for Advanced Placement courses and credit recovery even in the midst of teaching shortages.

Online learning “has moved from being a kind of side activity, to being very mainstream,” Patrick says.

Indeed, outside forces contributing to the increase in blended learning include 24-hour access to information and learning through sources such as K12 and Khan Academy, as well as the growing expectation that people should be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want.

With technology becoming more affordable, schools are also now able to institute one-to-one laptop programs at much lower costs that in previous years.

The advantages of hybrid learning

Clearly, the strongest benefit associated with blended learning is that it allows the learning experience to be customized around the needs of students. A child can either work ahead or spend more time on a lesson in which they need extra help.

Describing a large classroom organized into workstations in a Minnesota blended learning school, Patrick said, “No two of these students are at exactly the same place in the curriculum.”

If students don’t have to be on campus every day, blended learning can also provide flexibility for parents to take care of appointments such as their children’s doctor’s visits or short trips without having to worry about losing a day of school. The van Haaster family originally pursued the combined approach because Michael played tennis competitively and tournaments would sometimes be held on weekdays.

Contrary to what some parents might believe, learning online may actually increase interaction between students and teachers instead of reducing it. A survey by the nonprofit organization Project Tomorrow showed that 26 percent of interviewed parents one of the benefits of online learning was an increase in their child’s engagement in school. And 17 percent of parents said a benefit was more individualized attention from teachers.

Patrick points out that blended models also provide the assurance that learning can continue even if there are reasons why students can’t come to school. She notes how so many schools closed in 2009 for days or entire weeks to head off the spread of the H1N1 flu. “They were physically stopping learning while blended learning can allow it to continue,” she says.

Linda Jacobson is a freelance education writer who lives in Southern California.