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What is a hybrid school anyway?

The lovechild of online learning and traditional brick-and-mortar instruction, hybrid, or "blended" schools, is a growing educational model.

By Linda Jacobson

The term “hybrid” is now well associated with a certain line of vehicles. But it may not be long before it’s also used to describe your son or daughter’s school.

In the growing array of educational options available to students and their parents, a hybrid model is emerging that gives students both the experience of learning in a classroom and the personalization provided by online learning. Also called blended learning, think of these schools as a teacher-facilitated online school that still provide students interaction with a teacher, but allow them more room to work independently.

At San Francisco Flex Academy, for example, high school students still attend school on-site, five days a week, where they receive instruction both from teachers and work independently online on a school-provided computer. A charter school founded by a nonprofit organization, San Francisco Flex Academy uses the K12 curriculum. (K12 is a nationwide provider of online learning.)

Hybrid schools: not a traditional classroom

The SF Flex Academy resembles a large office space more than a traditional classroom. Students arrive in the morning and go to work at cubicles while an “academic coach” circulates throughout the room to offer assistance with specific questions from students. For additional help, students can meet with teachers in small classrooms.

While SF Flex is a high school, the students are not divided by grade level. Newer students tend to be given a schedule of work to follow, but after some time in the program, they make decisions about how they want to organize their days. Like traditional schools, SF Flex also offers some after-school clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities.

While students work at their own pace, they are still expected to make academic gains. Teachers track data on each student to see how each one is progressing, and struggling students can receive additional help during school or in after-school tutoring.

At a time when teachers in traditional classrooms have to keep moving ahead in the curriculum — even when students haven’t fully grasped the material — the hybrid model allows students to slow down the pace of their learning when necessary and jump ahead in other subjects when they are able. But it also counter-balances online-only schooling by keeping students in a classroom environment with teachers and peers.

Four kinds of hybrid learning

The Innosight Institute, a think tank based in Mountain View, CA, classifies blended learning models into four categories:

  • The rotation model. Students still attend school but rotate throughout the day between online learning, classroom instruction, group projects, and individual work.
  • The flex model. Students work through a program personalized for them (as with SF Flex Academy), but still have daily interaction with a teacher depending on their needs.
  • The self-blend model. Students choose to take one or more courses entirely online, either at home or in a technology lab at school.
  • The enriched virtual model. Students take all of their classes online but come to campus periodically throughout the week for “brick and mortar” experiences.

“Students aren’t looking for online classes,” said David Haglund, the principal of Riverside Virtual School and director of educational options for the Riverside Unified School District, during a recent webinar organized by WestEd, a San Francisco-based research and service agency. “I think what students are looking for is relevant learning experiences that allow them flexibility and creativity and the ability to go at their own pace.”

Haglund's own school illustrates the growing demand for the blended model. The school has experienced a decrease in students only taking classes remotely and a significant increase in students choosing the blended model.

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.

The disadvantages of hybrid learning

Blended or hybrid schools also present some challenges. Transportation is one. Riverside Virtual School, for example, serves students from inside and outside the district, so some parents need to make arrangements to get them there.

While schools such as SF Flex Academy do expect students to attend school everyday, Haglund stresses that his school is not intended for families who think they can leave their children at home unsupervised to do their school work. His school expects students to have someone at home, even if it is a grandparent or another adult.

“It’s not independent study,” van Haaster advises other parents. “You do need to participate. You can’t just toss them out there and say ‘here you go.’”

Blended or hybrid schools might also not provide the same extracurricular or athletic opportunities as traditional schools. While SF Flex Academy does have sports teams, students in the Riverside school have to sign up for sports and other activities at other schools, which could further complicate the transportation issues for parents.

A July 2012 report from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder found that a smaller proportion of students in K12-operated schools — the study didn’t look into ones that just use K12 curriculum — was meeting or exceed state standards in reading and math. Differences were as small as five percent and as great as almost 35 percent.

Is hybrid learning right for my child?

Students can succeed in a blended learning arrangement if they are motivated and able to take some responsibility for their progress.

This combined model might also be appropriate for students who need a little more time on certain subjects and have not been able to get the help they need in a traditional classroom. Haglund notes that students who were too shy to ask questions in a typical classroom can thrive in blended learning because they feel more freedom to interact with the teacher.

What might be unexpected, he adds, is that high-achieving students do not always adjust well to this approach.

“For years, these kids have learned that they can walk into a room, answer the questions and don’t really have to think about it. They weren’t really processing any information,” he said. In an online class, “every single kid has to answer every single question.”

While online learning can meet some students’ needs for credit recovery in high school, parents may not see the kind of academic gains they are expecting if the student completes most of his or her work remotely. These students are more successful, Hagland adds, when most of their online study is conducted in a lab under the supervision of an instructor.

Van Haaster says he has been very pleased that the experience has taught his sons how to be responsible and budget their time.

“These kids are going to be extremely prepared to go into college and manage their schedule and manage their communication with their professor,” he says, although cautioning parents to be patient. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

A final word of advice

There is no way to know if a school is right for your child until you visit it. So make sure to schedule a tour of any school you are considering. Be sure, too, with hybrid schools to do your research so you feel confident that a program has a good track record and will meet your child's specific needs — socially, academically, and emotionally.

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

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