Assessment, EdTech & Design, Promising Practices, School Community

Personalizing Education

How blended learning transforms roles and relationships

As our modern economy shifts from the industrial era to an age of knowledge workers, we increasingly need an education system that teaches students to work in collaborative teams, master higher-order knowledge and skills, and creatively solve complex technical and social problems. For this kind of education to be possible, we need to be able to customize instruction in order to address each student’s unique learning needs.

In the last few years, many innovative educators have been leveraging technology to make this type of educational experience possible. They integrate online learning in their traditional schools to create new instructional models that are collectively referred to as “blended learning.” Sometimes people fear that online learning in schools will lead to a dehumanizing experience, where students are constantly plugged into devices and teachers are just passive monitors. In contrast to this conception, the leading pioneers in blended learning find that technology allows student and teacher interactions to be more meaningful and personal.

For example, high-quality blended learning frees up teachers from some administrative and instructional aspects of their jobs so that they have more time to focus on creating high-value learning experiences for their students. These teachers spend less time lecturing and more time mentoring and coaching. They offload basic instruction to online tools and resources so that they can focus their efforts on developing students’ critical thinking skills and fostering their character development. Additionally, blended learning allows students to take greater ownership of their learning.

Examples from the field


In 2005, Rick Ogston found himself looking for a new campus for Carpe Diem Collegiate High School, the public charter school1 he had founded in 2002. The owners of the church facility that the school had been renting were selling the property. Finding a suitable school facility was a challenging task, but Ogston seized it as an opportunity to simultaneously transform the school’s instructional model and provide a more student-centered form of education.

The moment one walks in the door of a Carpe Diem school, the differences from the traditional classroom model are apparent. In Carpe Diem’s school in Yuma, Ariz., the center of the building is a large room filled with individual computer stations. On the periphery of that room are breakout rooms where teachers lead collaborative workshops.

Every 35 minutes, the students rotate among the computer stations and the breakout rooms according to individualized learning “playlists.” On the computers they learn using Edgenuity software, with paraprofessionals on hand to assist them if they get stuck. The software adjusts to the students’ learning needs by letting them test out of lessons they have already mastered, and provides them with rich video content of real teachers to explain the concepts they still need to master. In the breakout rooms, a face-to-face teacher reviews or applies the material introduced online through discussions and projects. The teachers are also aided by the software’s teacher dashboard, which alerts them when they need to intervene to help a student.

This model allows Carpe Diem to achieve noteworthy results. In 2010, Carpe Diem’s school in Yuma ranked first in its county in student performance in math and reading. Businessweek recognized Carpe Diem as one of the top high schools in America in its 2009 report, and U.S. News & World Report gave Carpe Diem the same recognition in 2010.

With online learning as the backbone of Carpe Diem’s instructional model, the role of teacher is substantially different from that of traditional teachers. Carpe Diem’s teachers do not have to present every single concept their students need to learn. Instead, they focus on figuring out how to intervene when students are struggling and how to push students to deeper understanding. Ogston explains that when online learning is used to provide basic instruction, teachers then get to do the exciting part of teaching, which is making the content applicable and relevant to students’ lives.

Blended learning affects not only how Carpe Diem’s students learn, but also how teachers and students interact with each other. As Ogston said, “When you’re leveraging technology like we are, people want to look at us in terms of technology. But the secret sauce is not the technology, it’s the relationships.”2

Carpe Diem’s teachers are able to spend more time working with students in small groups and on an individual basis. Carpe Diem’s online learning software also helps teachers better understand their students’ learning needs. The data generated by the software lets teachers know on a daily and hourly basis exactly how students are progressing in their learning and alerts them when they need to intervene. As one student describes it, “Here the teachers know where you’re at exactly, so if you have a problem they’ll talk to you about it and they help you with it.”3

Carpe Diem’s model also fosters longer-term relationships between students and teachers. Each school has one teacher per subject for all students in grades 6–12. As teachers work with students across multiple years, they get to know their interests, their career goals, their families, and their individual learning needs. They also get to see their students’ growth across their entire high-school experience. Luis Vanhook, one of Carpe Diem’s teachers, says that seeing students grow across multiple years “is the most beautiful part about my job.”4


A number of years ago, a group of parents from the San Francisco Bay Area came together to re-imagine the public middle and high school experience. In 2003 they founded Summit Prep, a charter school with the mission to prepare a diverse student body for success in college and to be thoughtful, contributing members of society. Today, Summit Public Schools operates six middle and high schools and enrolls 1,600 students. Its schools are some of the best in California, as they score consistently well above average on state tests and have over 96 percent of their graduates accepted into at least one four-year college or university. In 2011 Newsweek listed it as one of the top ten most transformational high schools in America.

Yet despite these successes, Summit’s leaders noticed a few years ago that many of its graduates were struggling to complete college. To address this problem, they began thinking about how to better prepare students with the content knowledge, cognitive skills, habits of success, and real-world practice necessary to succeed in college and as adults in 21st century society. What resulted was an innovative blended-learning model that aimed at helping students become self-directed learners.

To create its blended-learning experience, Summit had its teachers spend a summer writing out the learning objectives students needed to master each year and then developed online assessment items for measuring mastery of each of those learning objectives. The teachers then curated playlists of free online content – including articles, websites, videos, and web apps – to cover each learning objective. With these tools in hand, they redesigned their physical space and their instructional time during the school day to create a unique, student-centered learning experience.

Instead of assigning students to individual teachers and sending them to learn in separated classrooms, Summit’s students work in large, open learning spaces, and its teachers work as a team to serve the students they share. When students arrive at school, the first thing they do is power on their computers and sit down for an hour of “personalized learning time.” During this hour, they work through Summit’s playlists in order to master their personal learning goals for the current week. The playlists offer them multiple learning resources that they can choose among for learning the concepts they need to master. Once students feel they are ready to pass a learning objective, they go to their teacher to get the assessment for that objective unlocked. After taking assessments, they see their results immediately, along with a detailed explanation of their performance. This short-cycle feedback loop gives students actionable data on their progress that allows them to feel ownership over their learning. After the hour of personalized-learning time each morning, students then spend the rest of the day working with their teachers and fellow students on project-based learning activities. This gives them needed opportunities to apply what they have learned in a relevant, off-line context.

Summit’s blended-learning model has radically changed the roles of its teachers and their relationships with their students. Because teachers no longer spend the majority of the school day planning and delivering large-group instruction, they focus instead on developing personal, deep relationships with students as their mentors. Each mentor has stewardship over 10 to 15 students and meets with them at least weekly to review their progress toward their learning goals. Mentors also act as academic coaches, college counselors, family liaisons, and advocates for their students. School leaders knew that when they changed their model to put students in charge of their own learning, mentors would be vital to help them make progress toward rigorous but attainable goals.

For teachers, another benefit of Summit’s blended-learning model is that it relieves them from the siloed isolation of traditional single-teacher classrooms and gives them valuable opportunities to learn from each other. Emily Swegle, one of Summit’s teachers, says that co-teaching at Summit has allowed her to develop a trusting relationship with her co-teacher in which they each draw on their unique experiences and expertise to give each other ideas and constructive feedback.5

Summit’s founder, Diane Tavenner, acknowledges that when Summit first switched to a blended-learning model, the shift was difficult for teachers, but ultimately proved to be rewarding. “Teachers first had to mourn a little bit because they have this image in their mind of who they are, and now it suddenly looks a bit different. But our model has more of the stuff that teachers got into education for. There’s more meaningful one-on-one work, more opportunities to get to know their kids very well.”6

The future of personalized learning

Schools like Carpe Diem and Summit offer a promising glimpse of what our education systems might look like in the future. They are showing that personalized education is about not only personalizing the instruction students receive, but also the ownership students feel for their work and the relationships between teachers and students. Fortunately, we live in a unique time in history when the technology finally exists to make this kind of personalized education possible.

Not many teachers or school leaders have the operational freedom to create blended-learning models that are as radically different as those found at Carpe Diem or Summit. But many educators from around the world are finding creative ways to implement blended learning within their existing classrooms and schools. Some are setting up computer stations within their classrooms and then having students rotate in small groups between teacher-led instruction and personalized online instruction. Others are finding ways to leverage their existing computer labs to create tighter integration between what students do during lab time and what they do in their other classes. Still others are finding ways to “flip” their classrooms by assigning students to learn core concepts online for homework and then refocusing class time on applying that learning to solve problems, work on projects, and collaborate with their teachers and classmates. In all of these cases, educators are leveraging technology to create innovative learning environments that better address their students’ needs.

Making the shift to blended learning

Blended learning is a powerful enabler of personalized instruction, but the shift to high-quality blended learning is no small task. It is not merely a matter of purchasing devices and licensing good online learning software. Major shifts in aspects of school operations are often required, such as the schedule of the school day, the grouping of students, the roles and responsibilities of teachers, classroom procedures, classroom management strategies, classroom culture, and the architecture and layout of the physical learning environment.

Because blended learning is still a relatively new phenomenon, resources and best practices are just now emerging from the field. Fortunately, as more and more schools experiment with blended learning, successful models are providing lessons that can help streamline the planning and design processes for other schools that are looking to make the shift. Even so, the work of developing a successful blended learning model requires significant research, planning, collaboration, and reflective execution.

For more information on blended learning, please visit: www.christenseninstitute.org/blended-learning

Photos: courtesy Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation

First published in Education Canada, September 2014


EN BREF – L’apprentissage hybride, un modèle pédagogique novateur, intègre l’apprentissage en ligne à l’enseignement en personne afin d’engendrer des possibilités d’apprentissage personnalisé pour les élèves. De nombreuses écoles primaires et secondaires utilisent l’apprentissage hybride pour transformer les environnements éducationnels à l’école et pour aider tous les élèves à mieux se préparer aux études supérieures et à l’environnement de travail du 21e siècle. Un apprentissage hybride de qualité libère les enseignants de certains aspects administratifs et pédagogiques de leur travail de sorte qu’ils peuvent se concentrer davantage sur le mentorat et l’encadrement de leurs élèves. Il peut également aider les élèves à acquérir plus d’autonomie en tant qu’apprenants et engendrer des liens plus personnels entre les élèves et leurs enseignants.

[1] Both of the schools described in the article are U.S. charter schools. They are publicly funded and operated by private, non-profit organizations. They have open enrollment for any students living within their geographic areas, they do not charge tuition, and when they receive more applications than they can accommodate they admit students based on lottery.

[2] Frederick M. Hess and Bror Saxberg, Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using learning science to reboot schooling (Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, 2014), 19.

[3] Ian Murray, Carpe Diem Learning Systems (video, 2013), 7:14. http://carpediemschools.com/videos/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Silicon Schools Fund and Clayton Christensen Institute, Case Study #1: Teaching in a flex model at Summit Public Schools (video, 2014), 7:56. www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/ssf-cci/sscc-teaching-blended-learning/sscc-blended-case-studies/v/sscc-blended-summitteach

[6] Hess and Saxberg, Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age, 156.

Meet the Expert(s)

Thomas Arnett

Thomas Arnett is a Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation (San Mateo, California). His research examines innovative forms of teacher training and the changing roles of teachers in new learning environments.

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