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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.

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