The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning

The Innosight Institute released a whitepaper yesterday exploring the future of K-12 online learning. They contend that K-12 online learning is increasingly becoming a blended learning phenomenon, rather than a distance learning one.

The Innosight Institute is a nonprofit think tank devoted to promoting Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. This theory postulates that large-scale reform to transform a complicated and unproductive sector comes through a set progression; first the reform serves those who have no alternative, then others observe how the reform is preferable, and slowly adapt until it is a norm.

The Innosight Institute suggests that online learning fits the pattern of a disruptive innovation, especially as we consider school reform efforts. For example, K-12 online learning was first referred to as “distance learning” and primarily served home-schooled students and students whose circumstances did not allow an alternative for learning. This usually included students wishing to take advanced courses that their school could not offer in-house, or students who attended school in small, rural sites that could not employ highly qualified teachers in certain subject areas.

Over time, though, online learning has been altering the education experience. The Innosight Institute notes that online learning is expanding “in classic disruptive fashion” (p. 2) as educators are increasingly introducing blended-learning environments into their core programming for mainstream students in their schools.

Online learning is sweeping across America. In the year 2000, roughly 45,000 K–12 students took an online course. In 2009, more than 3 million K–12 students did. What was originally a distance learning phenomenon no longer is. Most of the growth is occurring in blended-learning environments, in which students learn online in an adult-supervised environment at least part of the time. As this happens, online learning has the potential to transform America’s education system by serving as the backbone of a system that offers more personalized learning approaches for all students. (Horn & Staker, 2011, p. 1)

Indeed, it appears that online learning may be an area where massive growth can be expected. They remark that “Online learning has the potential to be a disruptive force that will transform the factory-like, monolithic structure that has dominated America’s schools into a new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive, as it delivers dramatically better results at the same or lower cost” (p. 2)

The potential for improved quality of learning should be noted. Blended-learning programs allow students to work and learn at their own pace. These programs offer frequent and timely feedback to students. Most programs collect student achievement data in real-time so that teachers can use the information to help personalize learning for their students. When implemented properly, blended-learning programs have the potential to offer a very high, quality learning experience.

When blended learning experiences are offered as part of the curriculum, students are still, fortunately, allowed to take advantage of the things that a traditional school does well, such as creating a strong, supportive culture that promotes rigor and high expectations for all students, and providing healthy, supportive relationships and mentorship opportunities.


Horn, M. B., & Staker, H. (2011). The rise of K-12 blended learning. Innosight Institute.


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