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How Learning Environments Are Changing

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A school's perimeters are no longer the only place students learn. Kids are learning about the world from their homes, from the community, and anywhere it's available to them. Here's a look at trends in the future of learning environments.

The Three Key Trends

1. Virtual.

Whether it's to cut costs or give students more options, virtual schools – and brick-and-mortar schools that offer online courses – are proliferating. Students are taking online courses in 82 percent of K-12 school districts in the nation. The number of K-12 students taking online courses jumped from 45,000 in 2000 to over three million in 2009. By 2019, half of high school classes will be delivered online, according to the authors of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

New virtual schools are springing up, as are traditional school districts offering online courses. In Florida, a virtual school now offers content to in-class e-learning labs in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where a "facilitator" instead of a teacher monitors student progress. Schools like the Florida Virtual School, North Carolina Virtual Public School, and Georgia Virtual School don't issue diplomas, but serve to support traditional schools by offering course content to students across the state. But the number of full-time virtual schools offering diplomas is growing across the country, from Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, to Monroe Virtual Middle School in Wisconsin, to Riverside Virtual School, to Minnesota Virtual High School.


Cost cutting is a big motivating factor for traditional schools offering online programs. A Michigan-based study found that Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida spend 20 to 30 percent less per pupil on full-time student online enrollment as they do on traditional classroom enrollment, and administrators in Florida admitted that a huge impetus for creating e-learning labs was to bypass a class-size reduction law.

Universities are also leveraging online classes for practical benefits -- as a way to compensate for over-filled classes and a way to save costs. The number of online-only universities hit record highs in 2010, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all college students taking at least one course online.

Online classes offer a number of benefits: personalized, flexible learning approaches, access to courses that are over-capacity, and collaboration with other institutions, for starters. They're also essential for distance learning for students in rural areas, with special needs, or those being homeschooled.

But there are drawbacks too, according to some, who say virtual school students must be monitored at all times by their parents to keep them on task -- difficult for those who work full time. Socialization in the virtual world is also a big concern, which is why schools offer social-networking tools like Skype for videoconferencing, chat rooms, and virtual whiteboards. They also organize field trips, proms and community gatherings.

"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," says Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of the Innosight Institute, which just published a study called "The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning."

[Sara Bernard contributed to this report.]

2) Theme-Based.

Innovative schools and programs based on subject and theme are proliferating as well. Their focus varies from science and technology to media and the arts, but their goals are in line: to leverage students' passions and interests in specific subjects to nurture the love of learning.

Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy, developed in partnership with the science-based museum, the Franklin Institute, offers a project-based curriculum focusing on science, technology, math, and entrepreneurship. But there's also plenty of time for basketball and yoga, drama and debate, and allows students behind-the-scenes access to the Institute's museum experiences.

In Chicago, the Digital Youth Network program offers classes within schools, as well as in after-school "pods," teaching kids how to create digital media. Last fall, the program was launched in five low-income communities. In addition to learning to record music, create podcasts and videos, and design logos, students are required to provide feedback to each others' work -- constructive critique is part of the curriculum.

In New York's iZone, the state Department of Education has embarked on a series of individual programs sprouting up in different schools, such as the School of One, where students work one-on-one with teachers, on individual and group projects, and with virtual tutors -- all organized through an algorithm that sets the schedule for the day based on student answers. The Innovation Zone also includes the iSchool, a project-based, tech-powered high school. And as mentioned earlier about curriculum trends, Quest to Learn in New York uses video-game creation to teach a wide range of subjects.

Using the community as a learning environment, the New Youth City Network connects learners to rich sources of information, like the American Natural History Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and New York Hall of Science, among other organizations. Like an extended field trip, students spend time learning about the neighborhoods, the city's ecology, and practice skills like data visualization and collaboration.

3) Deconstructed.

Frustrated by the shortcomings of the public school system, parents and educators are finding ways to deconstruct the system, add and subtract pieces, and put it back together in ways they think works best.

Spurred by ideas like Dr. Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiment, in which children in the slums of India were able to figure out how to operate and learn from an Internet-wired computer that was placed in a hole in the wall, proponents of this movement have different ideas about what works best.

Some, like educator Lisa Nielsen, are advocates of doing away with a formal learning environment structure altogether. They believe that children are naturally driven by their own interests, and can find their path to knowledge through independent thinking and experience in the real world.

The movement has different names -- "unschooling," "deschooling, or "unbundling," -- some might even say "homeschooling"-- and each camp has varying degrees of structure and focus. And though it might not necessarily qualify as "new," access to online learning is making it a more viable option these days. The basic idea is that, away from the pitfalls of constant testing and assessment, there's a more organic alternative to learning that looks nothing like the public education system.

There are obvious questions. Where would children go every day? How can we measure what they learn? Who would be in charge? What if they don't go to college? The current education system is linear and dependent on children progressing from one step to another: K-12 to college, and so on. Can you get from an "unschool" to college without SAT scores and a GPA? And from a different vantage point, if these experiments prove successful for those who have the time and financial means to try them, what happens to low-income kids who have no other choice but to pass through the public school system?

What these trends mean


Given the growing momentum of these trends, what does it mean for students, teachers, schools, and the education community at large?

  • A blurring between formal schools and flexible learning environments.
  • Students and learners are given more control over what and how they learn.
  • Given the access to almost everything they need to learn, parents and learners are finding more opportunities to learn outside of school.

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