Blended learning in independent and private schools

Whenever I come across something that I think is new or different, I have to pause and ask myself: is it really new, or is it just new to me? Case in point—we at Evergreen are seeing significant growth in interest in online and blended learning from private and independent schools. We saw more people from such schools at the Virtual School Symposium (VSS) in 2012 than in previous years, we are now working with private schools for the first time, are in conversations with about a half dozen others planning to design and implement blended learning options, and I just attended the first Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools (OESIS) in California in late January.

Some attendees and many of the main issues being discussed at OESIS suggest that there is quite a bit of overlap between public schools and private/independent schools. Representatives from iNACOL and Innosight were at the conference, speaking about collaboration among schools (iNACOL) and disruptive innovation (Innosight) in ways that were not all that different from similar discussions at VSS. The sense of near-boundless opportunity, reined in by the challenges of on-the-ground implementation, echoed many conversations we have had with public school leaders.

There appear to be a few differences as well—although I will caution that these are my preliminary impressions and they may change. Private and independent schools are more likely than their public school counterparts to feel that they have achieved a very high level of student and family satisfaction, often based largely on the connections that students feel with individual teachers. With generally smaller class sizes, there is less focus on increasing personalization through the use of technology, although there is recognition that improved data generation may allow for individualized learning in new ways. Private and independent schools are generally more aware than their public school counterparts of issues tied to communications, “brand,” and alumni relationships. They also often feel that they are competing with other schools in ways that some public schools would recognize, and others would not. If they are feeling pressure to move to blended learning relatively quickly, it is as likely for financial reasons and college readiness as for reasons tied to student outcomes.

Another difference is that, with a few exceptions, most online and blended programs in private and independent schools are much newer than their public counterparts. For every program like Stanford University's Education Program for Gifted Youth—which has a long history that predates the World Wide Web with computer-based distance learning—there are many more that have been created within just the past couple of years. This rapid proliferation of new blended programs is similar to the expansion in public schools, but my impression is that there are far fewer programs that are five, 10, or 15 years old. Also, many of the new blended public schools that have received so much attention are new schools that were built from the ground up to serve students in a blended learning model. Independent schools are integrating blended models while grappling with legacy issues of existing buildings, extracurricular activities, and traditions that are part of the value of those schools.

Why is this relevant to a blog and report that has previously focused on public schools? There are two reasons. First, I believe that public and private schools can learn from each other in important ways and historically there has not been a great deal of overlap between the two sectors. We have found that the creation of blended programs in public school districts and agencies is often the catalyst for vastly improved communications between curriculum and technology staff who have not often had reason to work closely previously. Perhaps we will find that blended learning similarly brings together public and private schools.

Second—and tied to the first reason—we are planning to help catalyze that interaction, in a limited way, by starting a new area of research and reporting in Keeping Pace that will begin to look at independent and private schools this year.