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Volume 27, Number 2
March/April 2011

Hybrid Schools for the iGeneration

New schools combine “bricks” and “clicks”


Students work online in the Learning Center at Carpe Diem, a hybrid school in Yuma, Ariz.

School buses begin pulling up in front of Carpe Diem, a middle and high school in Yuma, Ariz., around 7:15 in the morning. In the next 30 minutes, 273 students in crisp uniforms will walk through the front doors and have their ID badges scanned to record their attendance.

By 7:45, most will be sitting in front of computers at their work stations—row upon row of individual study carrels in a big open space administrators call the Learning Center. Middle school students sit on one side of the room, high school students on the other, separated by an area with cushy couches and tables called the Fishbowl, where students gather to chat between classes or to work on group projects.

For the next 55 minutes, students work independently at their computers, learning core subjects or electives through online curricula aligned to Arizona’s state standards. They put on headphones or twist iPod ear buds into their ears, because the online programs are interactive and multimodal—comprised of audio, video vignettes, Flash animation, quizzes, and games. Paraprofessionals called “assistant coaches” walk through the center to make sure kids are doing their work, fix computer glitches, help with academic questions, and—most important, administrators say—check in emotionally with the students, talking with them about anything at home or at school that might be affecting their learning.

The students may be sitting in the same place, but, academically, they’re all over the map. The online curriculum for each course is adaptive, meaning it can gauge from the students’ answers when they have mastered something and are ready to move ahead and when they may need extra practice before moving on. A bar on the upper right corner of the screen tracks students’ progress in every course and becomes part of a report automatically e-mailed to parents at the end of every week.

Using this “daily achievement data” from the students’ online work, teachers at Carpe Diem meet with students individually or in small groups, called workshops, either to give extra remedial help or to facilitate enrichment projects. Grouped roughly by age, students rotate in and out of the Learning Center, workshops, gym, or science labs every 55 minutes until the end of the day.

While the workshops tend to be age- or grade-specific, they can also be based on a broad concept and pull students in across all levels, says founder Rick Ogston. “Last year, we had a schoolwide project in which students learned about the Renaissance period through music, poetry, costume, food, and [by] building a life-size trebuchet. We then had a Renaissance Fair outside.” Every day is different, Ogston says, though on average students spend 50 to 70 percent of their time in front of the computer. “There is a lot of flexibility,” he says, “which is hard for people to wrap their traditional minds around.”

A New Kind of School
Carpe Diem, a public charter school, is an entirely new type of school and one of only a handful of its kind that have sprung up in recent years across the United States. They seek to combine the best of traditional, face-to-face instruction with the best of the cutting-edge online curriculum available to virtual schools. The result is something education experts are calling a hybrid school.

Instead of a traditional brick-and-mortar school, or the completely online clicks of a virtual school (see “Learning Across Distance,” Harvard Education Letter, January/February 2009), hybrids are sometimes referred to as bricks-and-clicks schools. Unlike blended learning, where some students in traditional schools may take one or two courses online per semester in addition to their regular classes, hybrid schools typically divide up the learning in such a way that students spend at least half the day learning on a computer and rarely sit in large classrooms where everyone learns the same subject at the same time (see sidebar  “Incorporating Online Learning: Existing Models”). Incorporating Online Learning: Existing Models

The online learning world is growing so rapidly that even experts are struggling with how to define the different models that are emerging. Still, many agree that schools generally fall along the following continuum:

Technology-Infused Traditional Schools. In these schools, students learn primarily from teachers in classrooms, but they may also go to computer labs or use programs such as Skype or Blackboard.

Blended Learning in Traditional Schools. Sometimes also referred to as the “online buffet” model, these are traditional schools that allow students to take a few of their courses online.

Hybrid Schools. These schools combine online curricula and face-to-face (F2F) teaching. Students go to a physical school but spend much of the day on the computer working at their own pace using online curricula that can be highly individualized. Teachers work with students one on one or in small groups to reinforce skills or extend learning through projects and other types of activities.

Virtual Schools. These schools are completely online. Students typically work at home, supervised in the lower grades by a parent or adult; teachers, who also work at home, may be in another state. Instruction may be synchronous, with students learning directly from a teacher online, or asynchronous, with students working online and e-mailing or talking to teachers by phone at a later time.

Ogston says he came up with the idea for the school while he was running a small charter school that was based on character education and building personal relationships between teachers and students. “I was discouraged. We were not as effective as we needed to be,” he said. “We didn’t tap into the learners and learning styles of all the kids coming to our schools. That’s the underpinning of the entire idea for the school now. It’s designed for the ‘iGeneration.’”

Ogston felt that technology, which was so ubiquitous in his students’ lives outside of school, needed to be a part of his vision for this new kind of school. “But it couldn’t be a matter of infusing computers and letting them play around a little bit. It had to be disruptive, a complete change.” So he put smart boards, projectors, laptops, and online student response systems into classrooms. He sought out the most innovative online curriculum that was adaptive, engaging, rigorous, and aligned with state standards. He brought his charter school teachers in on the project, training them to take on an entirely new kind of teaching role. (see sidebar, "Writing Poetry, Hybrid Style"). Writing Poetry, Hybrid Style

At Carpe Diem, students first learn about poetry online. They start by hearing new vocabulary words like “iambic pentameter” through their headphones, seeing them on screen and typing them using the e2020 curriculum program. They watch video “vignettes” —like one on the life of Shakespeare—and complete online lessons.

In the classroom, teachers analyze their online coursework. Based on the results, they may decide to work with those who didn’t understand a particular concept in a small group setting to briefly reteach or reinforce it by providing examples and additional explanation. Students who don’t need additional instruction may be invited to learn more about a particular poet or type of poem in a teacher-led workshop.

All students write their own poems in workshops. Some have created their own anthologies and published them on the Internet using a class Facebook or wiki page. Students have also hosted poetry readings for parents and the community. Poems written by 18 Carpe Diem middle and high school students were published in The Gold Edition 2010 Poetry Collection by The American Library of Poetry, according to the school’s founder and executive director Rick Ogston.
Ogston also disrupted the traditional school week. Students on track go to school Monday through Thursday from 7:45 a.m. until 4 p.m. Students who are home sick or out of town with family can keep up with their studies online. Students who have fallen behind are required to go to “Friday school.”

After five years operating in this disruptively different way, the results are impressive. For two consecutive years, Carpe Diem, which is a majority minority school (more than half of all students also qualify for free or reduced-price lunches), led the state in the amount of growth students showed on test scores. Arizona has designated it a “highly performing” school. Its graduation rate continues to increase, as does the number of students going to college. It has won rave reviews from parents at, kudos from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and a bronze-star ranking from U.S. News and World Report.

And just as Carpe Diem is making its impressive gains, other hybrid schools are opening up or in the works. New York recently opened the pilot School of One program that combines teacher time with individualized online learning. Rocketship Education, a pioneer in hybrid schools, opened two K–5 charter schools in 2007 and 2009 for low-income English-language learners in San Jose, Calif. The schools are working so well—they are among the top-performing low-income schools in the state—that Rocketship has won $7 million in grants to open 30 new hybrid charter schools nationwide by 2015.

The End of “Factory” Instruction
Central to the hybrid model is advocates’ belief that online curricula developed over the past 15 years for virtual schools—like DreamBox and Reasoning Mind—allow students to work at their own pace while freeing teachers from curriculum planning, assessment, classroom management, and having to “teach to the middle” in large, diverse classrooms. Instead, teachers can focus on what they do best: interacting with students.

“We reserve teacher time for all those wonderful things that only teachers can do—guided instruction, group discussion, helping kids learn to listen to each other and challenge each other, helping higher-order critical thinking,” says Rocketship’s spokeswoman, Judith McGarry. “But at the same time, we think individualized learning requires more than great teaching. It’s unfair to put that burden, as we have in our society, on teachers. Every child learns differently. That recognition led us to learn how computers can assist in individualizing learning.”

“We have blown up the classroom,” says Mark Kushner, founder of the Flex Academy, a hybrid high school that opened in San Francisco last fall. “The era of factory-model instruction is over. No more going to classes all day in large groups whether the students need that class or not. Our kids love it because they’re sick of sitting in a class that they either don’t understand or don’t need. It’s like Goldilocks. It was either too fast or too slow. And hybrids like the Flex Academy are just right.”

Interest in hybrids took off in 2009 after the U.S. Department of Education released a meta-analysis of online learning studies that appeared to confirm that a blend of face-to-face teacher time with online curriculum produced better outcomes than either face-to-face time alone or online learning alone, according to Susan Patrick, who heads the advocacy group International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

The federal study also emboldened reform groups like the Digital Learning Council, headed by former governors Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) and Bob Wise (D-W.Va.), to embrace hybrid schools as a way to reform schools while helping them operate more cost-effectively.

“This is the time of the moment joining with the means,” says Wise. “The moment is greater demands for student outcomes and a crisis in education funding, and the means is the ability to rapidly scale up to use technology effectively to assist the teacher and the public education process.”

Only for the Motivated?
Critics and skeptics, however, argue that while online programs might work well for motivated high achievers who want to take advanced courses, they won’t necessarily work as well for younger students who are not as intrinsically motivated or lack the time-management skills of older students. They note that the Department of Education meta-analysis concentrated on studies of online learning in colleges and universities simply because there are so few K–12 studies.

“We think technology, online learning, is essential for kids to understand, because it’s the world they live in,” says Andrea Prejean, associate director for education policy and practice at the National Education Association. “But we’re concerned with the notion that this is how we’re going to fix schools when we’re not exactly sure how it’s even going to work. Going slow to go fast is not a bad thing here.”

Robert Pianta, an expert in early childhood education and assessing teacher quality and dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, says that while he has real concerns about virtual schools, he sees promise in the hybrid model as long as the right balance between online and teacher-led instruction can be found. “And I don’t know where the tipping point is,” he says. “We have goals for kids being in school that go beyond just their performance on achievement tests. To the degree that schools are also trying to help kids make decisions, become good citizens, foster leadership skills and how to negotiate complex personal interactions, you need engagement with other people and to be around adults who can help scaffold that learning.”

Hybrid schools appear to allow for that, he says, while making use of technology in the most efficient way.

“It’s Where We Are Heading”
Because online learning and hybrid schools are so new, there is little research showing their effectiveness. And even advocates worry that the growth is outstripping policy makers’ ability to ensure that all programs are high quality, meet national core and state standards, are properly audited, and are held accountable for student outcomes. For instance, some schools, like Carpe Diem and Rocketship, use interactive online learning for the technology part of the hybrid. Others simply videotape teacher lectures and call it online learning, iNACOL’s Patrick said.

Although licensing online software, which is constantly updated, is costly, some hybrid schools are less expensive than traditional schools—with fewer teachers required and smaller capital costs, Patrick said. Because Rocketship Education, for example, does not need certified teachers to supervise its online Learning Center, it has reduced staffing by five teachers and five classrooms, saving $500,000 a year over traditional schools, according to McGarry.

Richard Ferdig, a professor at Kent State University who studies online learning, says the question to ask is not whether hybrid schools are better than traditional or online schools but which method works best in which circumstances and for which students. In studies of online and traditional learning in Wisconsin, he found that students learning Algebra I online performed significantly better than students in a traditional setting. Yet students learning Algebra II from a classroom teacher performed significantly better than students who learned it online.

Ferdig says the results depended on the quality of the curriculum and the difficulty of conveying certain concepts online. “The Algebra I online curriculum had cool tools, widgets, and demos. And Algebra II, which requires complex charts and graphs, was more difficult to convey online.

“We have success stories for face-to-face schools and [for] blended or hybrid schools and for virtual schools,” Ferdig says. “It’s more about under what conditions is each of these successful? I won’t go on record saying hybrid is the best, but I think that’s where we are heading. I don’t care how engaging a teacher you are, we now have technology that showcases molecules in 3-D, which opens opportunities for kids to explore.”

Barbara Means, the SRI researcher who authored the DOE’s meta-analysis, says that only time—and further study—will tell whether hybrid schools really will be the wave of the future. “If we end up having the high-performing KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] equivalent for the bricks-and-clicks schools, then I think more districts will be interested in establishing them,” she said. “But if some really strong providers don’t emerge and there isn’t good evidence with respect to effectiveness, hybrids will remain marginal.”

An Open Question
At the Flex Academy, students sit at their computer carrels under the grand crystal chandeliers of San Francisco’s old Press Building, hang out on cushy couches, or take their laptops to the mahogany bar that serves as their Internet cafe before heading out to classrooms. They can eat organic food at the cafeteria or go to any of the nearby bistros for lunch.

Kushner and other hybrid advocates may have blown up the classroom, but whether what they’ve replaced it with really works—and will work for large segments of the school-age population—remains an open question. What is clear, however, is that hybrid schools won’t feel old school, so to speak. They’ll look, in part, like something most adults know only too well.

“Going to a hybrid school is just like going to work,” Kushner says. “The kids go to their desks, they turn on their computers, they read things, they read e-mails, they go online, they go to meetings—only these meetings are classes designed for them.”

Brigid Schulte is a reporter for the Washington Post.

For Further Information

For Further Information

M.B. Horn and H. Staker. The Rise of K–12 Blended Learning. Mountain View, CA: Innosight Institute, 2011.

B. Means et al. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Educa-tion, 2009.