Q&A: K12 Discusses the Challenges & Benefits of Blended Learning

EdTech / by

K12, Inc., a K-12 online learning provider delivers a 1:1 education approach with individualized instruction for every student. The online school currently has a 95 percent satisfaction rating in its delivery of fully online schools and courses. Today, Darren Reed, the Vice President of Blended Schools at K12, has given us some insights into online and blended learning.

Reed, a native of East Cleveland, received numerous recognitions for his success as an award-winning teacher and principal at inner city, at-risk school communities for nearly 20 years. At K12, he leads efforts to design and implement a range of blended learning school models across the U.S.

Among the models, he helped design K12 Passport, a Chicago-based high school designed to assist students who have dropped out of high school recapture credit and earn their diplomas. In its first year of operation, the school graduated 92% of its eligible graduates and 94% in year two.

Reed shares with us the challenges he faces leading virtual school programs in the 21st century and the ways that new learning models are changing the face of education.

Q: What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions when it comes to online learning?

A: There are many misconceptions of online learning (blended learning) as it remains a fairly new concept to many within the traditional educational space and among the general public. The two biggest I believe are:

  1. The idea that computers will replace teaching, and
  2. The misconception that the types of instructional technologies used within online learning aren’t far beyond the basic computer functionality that has existed for years within schools.

Neither could be farther from the truth. As a former public school principal and teacher however, I understand why such assumptions are made. There has been no shortage of technology initiatives within public education over the past several decades with computers being the primary technological advancement.

By and large, however, this technology has failed to produce significant improvements in how teachers teach, the manner in which students learn, and more importantly, student academic outcomes. So, grasping how “the computer” can have a transformational effect on the teaching and learning process is difficult for many who have seen basic-level technology infused in traditional schools with less than stellar results.

Q: How can we best alleviate those misconceptions?

A: I believe we are beginning to see these misconceptions change as various technologies are increasingly being used in schools of all types to provide more real-time academic achievement data to educators, parents, and students for example.

The power of being able to immediately assess whether a student has mastered a particular skill holds great promise for how the learning experience can be tailored for each student. This access to real-time data allows teachers, school leaders, parents, and students to respond more appropriately and more timely to student needs no matter where they fall along the learning continuum.

Teachers can therefore utilize their instructional expertise to remediate and/or enrich student learning experiences as dictated by these data. As this example illustrates, the role of the teacher remains instrumental in the instructional process. In fact, the teacher’s role is magnified, allowing them to better target the specific needs of each student.

The challenge, however, remains in the existing structure of traditional school settings with regard to space and time. Despite having such unprecedented access to student data, teachers still have a fixed space (traditional classroom) and time (length of class period) to meet the varying needs of students within the classroom – a frustration I hear often from traditional teachers. Understanding how technology can remove the barriers of space and time to improve teacher effectiveness will help to alleviate the second misconception regarding the use of technology.

The more we embed innovative and advanced instructional technology into teacher preparation programs and professional development – demonstrating how technology can provide adaptive, personalized, pedagogically sound learning experiences for students and how it can address the many learning styles within a “classroom setting” – the more educators will recognize the power of a “computer” beyond its traditional use in the classroom. In short, if we can show teachers how technology can be leveraged to improve their ability to differentiate learning, a fundamental expectation for teachers across the nation, the sooner this misconception will dissipate.

I’m excited to see that blended school models are demonstrating how advanced online learning tools are doing this now, helping to eradicate these misconceptions. The design and instructional models of many blended learning schools also shatter how space and time are traditionally viewed within the learning environment.

Q: What do you think are the key elements that lead to success in an online learning environment?

A: Successfully acclimating students and families to the school delivery model, having an advanced and adaptive curriculum, a high quality staff, and a strong school culture are key components to success in any blended learning school environment.

Given the limited experience many students and families have with online learning, the manner in which schools “onboard” students and families to the school’s instructional models is fundamental to the success of a blended learning school.

Successful onboarding builds student and family capacity to effectively use the online tools and curriculum and adapt to the new learning environment. We’ve found that this is not challenging for students and many parents within our blended schools as the technological aptitude of our society has risen sharply given the many advances and uses of various technologies. Assuming however, that this will automatically translate to success in the online curriculum can be costly. Training is needed.

Additionally, how instructional space and time will be used differently than the traditional “classroom” needs to be explicitly clear to all. It is also vital to re-define for students and families the role of the teacher as a diagnostician who consistently analyzes student data and proscribes appropriate interventions rather than providing one-to-many direct instruction only. Failure to do this can lead to dissatisfaction and confusion.

A high-quality curriculum is also essential to the success of any blended model school and it’s important to note that “all curriculums are not created equal.” A pedagogically-sound and researched-based curriculum that is adaptive and provides multiple learning modalities, that is user friendly, etc. is a must.

K12 understands this and has always ensured that the quality of its curriculum is second to none. Additionally, no successful blended school can be successful without the highest quality teachers and school leaders. Their collective role in ensuring that the technology is leveraged accordingly, that student-centered learning is paramount, and that space and time can look exceedingly different by the student, day, or class is vital.

Finally, blended learning schools must have a purposeful culture at its core that contextualizes the school’s instructional model. The blended school provides a social environment that must contain clear expectations, habits of mind, ceremonies and rituals, processes, etc. that supports the learning experience and ensures the actualization of the school’s mission and vision. In this regard, the blended learning school is not unlike a traditional school.

Q: What specifically makes K12 so successful?

A: In addition to having a world-class curriculum, the resources available to our schools and the breadth of talent and expertise throughout the organization are what make K12 so successful. All K-12 managed schools benefit from strategic alignment and support to all aspects of the school operation, curriculum development, school management, academic services, budget management, teacher training, compliance, board relations, you name it.

With over a decade of experience as the leader in online and blended school delivery options, K12 has experienced many successes and continues to effectively respond to challenges that emerge from online and blended model schools. By doing so, it continues to grow itself as the leader in the field by solving complex problems with the best minds and resources in the business. Our schools and, more importantly, our students are benefactors of such support and commitment to improving technology’s role in transforming education.

I’m excited about how K12 is developing and launching new blended models all across the country for school districts and charter schools. The K12 Passport blended school model, for example, is specifically designed to improve academic outcomes for at-risk students. Passport is a full-service school model that addresses both the academic and non-academic needs students bring.

The YCCS Virtual High School is a K12 Passport that is demonstrating compelling results for students who have dropped out of school and seeking to earn their high school diplomas. Passport allows students to receive their online instruction both on-site several hours a day with certified teachers and assistants as well as time off site via “Remote Education Plans” (REP’s). These plans are developed collaboratively with the Head of School, teachers, student, and families. The REP allows the students learning to be built around their “real life” which many involve work, childcare, etc.

The K12 Flex Academy is our newest school model with sites now in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, CA. This is a full-time one site blended learning model that serves middle and high school students. We believe this model holds great potential for students and families who, for different reasons, are unable to enroll into the full time virtual academy.

K12’s Hoosier Academies in Indianapolis and Muncie, Indiana as well as our Chicago Virtual Charter Schools are other blended models that operate closer to a virtual academy model in that students’ primary instruction and learning takes place online at home utilizing the learning center for different times based on academic needs. Finally, we are expanding some of our state-wide virtual academies to include learning centers to further support the diverse needs of our student populations.

Q: What are the benefits to a blended learning approach over a fully online approach and vice versa?

A: This is an interesting question that should seem fairly easy to answer. However, I believe that it’s difficult to compare the benefits of either approach to the other. Here’s why: Fundamental to online learning, whether it is full-time or in a blended school setting, is the idea that the learning experience is unique and customized for every student and every family. As a result, both online and blended model schools represent equally sound educational options for the students they serve.

While the blended model may work for one family or a single parent who is unable to have a full-time learning coach at home to support their child, a fully online program may provide tremendous flexibility to support another family who may travel, want to serve as learning coach, etc. This is just one of many examples of how the different models can work for different needs. Both examples illustrate again how technology can be leveraged to expand learning options to all students.

Q: What advice would you give to a parent or student interested in online or blended learning?

A: One: Visit a blended learning school and learn as much as you can about how technology is truly transforming education. Two: Challenge the status quo. Parents have always had a strong voice in educational improvements. Where these school options and choice don’t exist for parents, I encourage them to speak to legislators, education officials, etc. to expand the educational opportunities in their areas.

Q: How do you see online and blended learning developing or expanding over the course of the next five years?

A: As cliché as it sounds, I am convinced that online and blended learning represents the future of education. In many instances, the “schools of tomorrow” actually exist today. Increasing support of innovation has led to the development of blended schools around the nation that are positively impacting and transforming education. As we continue to see this, the more we will see a dramatic shift in what takes place within classrooms everywhere, whether it’s traditional brick and mortar schools or charter schools.

Additionally, as parents begin to see the various school model options available to them, the more traditional school districts will have to respond to remain competitive and relevant in how it delivers instruction and enhances the learning potential of all students.

This Q&A was reviewed and edited by Sarah Cargill.

4 Comments

Deepak Ganguly /

Hi Sarah I read your article and its good to understand about k12 education. thanks and regards deepak

Sarah Cargill /

Thanks for stopping by Deepak!

John Putz /

Hi Sarah,I think I will soon be entering the world of at least some online schooling for my son who has just moved in with me. He has had a problem staying in school his Jr year and I’m sure he needs to make up credits.He says he wants to finish high school and I want him to be caught up by fall. I hope that I get the support I need and the articles I’ve read sound encouraging so being a single dad wish me luck. Thanks John

Edward Eckman /

I am a grandfather who is concerned that my otherwise intelligent grandson does not like to read.
He says he cannot stay concentrated and gets bored easily.

I know with this limited information it might be difficult to venture a diagnosis, but do you think a type of dyslesic symptoms are exhibited?

Many thanks for your consideration.