Next-Gen Learning Models Blend Tech & Experiences

By Tom Vander Ark

Editor’s Note: Excerpts from this guest post originally appeared on GettingSmart.com and EdWeek.

Critics argue that blended and competency-based learning is just testing all the time. They chafe at what appears to be more mindless box checking. When I visit credit recovery labs and see students flying through online lessons and taking end of unit multiple choice quizzes, we worry that there is some truth to the criticism.

The good news is there are thousands of schools incorporating deeper learning strategiesand innovative examples of new schools blending personalized learning technologies with hands-on and experiential learning.

The Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, issued an invitation for proposals for breakthrough school models for college readiness. This is the second of three blogs outlining the 20 next gen grantees. The first blog outlined turnaround, partnerships, and blended charter networks. This post features NGLC grantees proposing schools models that engage, extend, challenge, and inspire. (View two page profiles of all 20 models and see excerpts below.)

PBL. The following five NGLC-awarded models incorporate project-based learning in blended environments:

  • Da Vinci: “Project based learning underpins Da Vinci’s model and much thought has been put into designing engaging and enriching activities…Projects will be planned by teams that may include Da Vinci faculty, industry experts, college faculty and students.”
  • Aspire’s middle school instructional model in Tennessee will be STEM-focused and move from a rotation environment to a one-to-one, project-based environment.
  • Summit will debut a new learning model in 2013 “with a robust, custom-built LMS; continuous student access to content and assessments, and an Intersession program that regularly offers all students intensive, hands-on opportunities to apply their skills and knowledge, explore their passions and interests, investigate careers, and learn outside the school walls.”
  • Intrinsic students at the Chicago network will “move fluidly between individualized adaptive digital content, multimedia content, small group instruction, seminars, and group and independent project work.”
  • Franklin Central Supervisory Union supports schools in several Vermont towns and is developing a new high school, Academy 21, where each student will manage his or her own individual learning plan. Based on work pioneered by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition students will develop and demonstrate competency by creating interest-based individual or team projects. “Students capture and share those projects (research papers, videos, presentations) in a multimedia e-portfolio, accessible to their teachers and parents, and portable beyond graduation.”

New Tech Network (supported by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation) and Edvisions each have about 100 high project-based high schools working together in a network with common tools and supports.

Experiential. In a recent paper on “ How Digital Learning Contributes to Deeper Learning ” we illustrated that learning technologies are not only preparing students for critical thinking, new tools and blended schools are supporting new roles — students as journalists, producers, scientists, entrepreneur, and project managers. (Check out this cool infographic.) It’s exciting to see new school models incorporating these ideas. A few of the NGLC grantees promoting experiential and authentic learning in blended environments include the following:

  • Cornerstone Charter Health High School will leverage a hospital partnership to help students “explore health-related careers and competencies through projects, coursework, internships, and other real-world learning experiences.”
  • USC Hybrid High students are “responsible for creating their own projects that they pursue either individually or in small groups. They work with their teachers to define the project and interactively create rubrics for evaluating the work products.” And, “The ultimate goal is to empower students, engage them in their learning, and provide them with constant support.”
  • Venture Academy is a year-round, 6-12 school opening in Minneapolis in the fall. Each student will chart a unique path with charted weekly during a 1:1 session with their personal coach. Venture will blend “digital content and tools with hands-on project and discovery learning.”
  • Touchstone opened Merit Prep Newark last fall with a significant focus on out of school externships and authentic learning. “In small groups with master teachers, students are challenged to demonstrate their learning through projects, experiments, guided group work, and discussions designed to show that students can apply their skills to relevant and challenging activities.”

Blending online and experiential learning isn’t a new idea, many of the Expeditionary Learning and Big Picture schools (as featured by Lisa Nielsen yesterday) have been doing it successful for more than a decade.

Competency-based. All of the NGLC grantees are competency-based and ask students to show what they know. At the new opening this fall Summit Public Schools "plans to break down silos between grades and content to allow students to move at their own pace, both academically and physically.”

Schools For the Future, which opened an 8-12 school in Detroit, “is a new model for overage and under-credited students that uses a mastery approach to help them recuperate lost credits while accelerating their path toward college-ready standards and high school graduation.” The real innovation is the combination of a personalized instructional model with “intensive staffing with strategies to address social-emotional development with “wraparound” services like tutors and various technologies to support the diverse learning needs of students who are two or more years behind academically when they enter high school.

NGLC grantees are among the first generation of schools to combine the best of hands on learning with the emerging potential of personalized digital learning. The result is a new generation of engaging and supportive secondary schools that will prepare all of their students for college and career.

In the last of three blogs on the NGLC grantees, we’ll explore how the models are breaking new ground in platforms, staffing, and resource allocation.