Online and blended learning is now “digital”

Some long-time Keeping Pace readers have been asking us about the new title of the 2014 annual report: Keeping Pace with K–12 Digital Learning. The phrase “digital learning” has replaced the reference to “online and blended learning” in the title of previous recent reports. This seemingly small word change signifies a significant evolution in the landscape, and in the way we are analyzing and reporting on it. A bit of history should be helpful in understanding our original focus, and our reason for changing. Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning was first published in 2004. At that time, we chose to focus on the young and disruptive K–12 teacher-led online learning segment, and not the broader use of education technology. In 2004, K–12 teacher-led online courses were almost exclusively provided by state virtual schools delivering supplemental online courses, and charter schools where students took all of their courses online. A small but growing number of school districts were also beginning to establish full-time online programs accessible to students regionally and across individual states.

Subsequent years saw two key changes. First, a growing amount of online learning activity developed inside individual schools and districts, as an ever-increasing number of students were taking online courses from within their own districts instead of from state virtual schools and virtual charter schools. Concurrently, a second shift was taking place. Schools were beginning to combine an online or digital content component with regular face-to-face classroom instruction in new and varied ways. In many cases, the classroom configuration and the bell schedule were unchanged. In some cases, the instructional approach and learning spaces were reconfigured to take advantage of the benefits of combining digital content and instructional management software with face-to-face teacher and student collaboration.

In 2012, in recognition of these changes and the growing visibility of blended learning activity, the report’s title changed to Keeping Pace with K–12 Online and Blended Learning. This was not a change that we took lightly, for several reasons. The evidence showed that online learning, when done well, was transformative because it offered new options to students. Students without access to a wide range of courses in their regular schools could now take the additional courses online. Students who could not attend a physical school could now enroll in an online school. These online options did not necessarily need to be better or more attractive than their classroom counterparts, because they weren’t replacing or competing with existing classroom courses. To use the terminology created by Clayton Christensen, online courses and schools primarily served the needs of non-consumers--students who did not have access to the course or school they were seeking as the best fit for their needs.

Blended learning’s goal differs in that it does seek to replace existing classes already offered in the school by improving upon the existing traditional classroom experience. From the outset, research and analysis of blended learning activities has been challenging. If one defines blended learning as any combination of digital learning and face-to-face instruction, then blended learning implementations have infinite permutations, making it extremely difficult to identify and study these activities in all but a small number of newly formed, stand-alone, blended schools or classrooms. Organizations such as the Clayton Christensen Institute have made significant contributions toward creating blended learning definitions and categories of blended models, but while this has been highly useful, there is little consistency among the many interpretations of these definitions by schools for their programs.

To further complicate matters—and create a need to expand the research—the broader digital learning landscape continues to shift in many ways, including the exploding growth of new digital learning technologies and products, the changing and merging ways these resources are used, and shifting levels of usage within the various sectors of K–12 education.

With these changes in mind, in 2014 we are continuing to report on categories that we have described in the past, such as state virtual schools and online charter schools. In addition, the report looks in more depth (compared to past years) at digital learning activity in school districts and in charter schools, particularly at the cases that are not fully online.

The next blog post will explore Keeping Pace research into digital learning activity in school districts.