The scion of the Gap, Inc. fortune has jumpstarted a $25 million fund with the goal of turning the Bay Area into a national hub for blended learning, the promising school model that combines individualized online learning and face-to-face classroom instruction.

With a sizable gift from John Fisher, the Silicon Schools Fund  can move ahead with plans to underwrite 25 schools’ experiments in blended learning, within five years. The  grants will be up to $700,000 – money that wiill underwrite startup costs of innovative new schools until they can become self-sustaining, according to Brian Greenberg, a former charter school principal and technology advocate who’s the founder and CEO of the new Silicon Schools Fund.

Sophisticated software that can identify gaps in individual students' knowledge is one piece of blended learning.

Sophisticated software that can identify gaps in individual students’ knowledge is one piece of blended learning.

Most schools have computer labs, and some districts are offering online courses. Teachers have been supplementing what they teach with computer software since Steve Jobs introduced the Mac. But true blended learning, in which individually tailored online instruction is an integral part of the school day, transforming what students learn and how teachers teach, is still at version 1.0 in its development and, as with many pioneering efforts, idiosyncratic. A handful of schools – School of One in New York City (actually three schools now experimenting with the approach) and Carpe Diem in Yuma, Arizona – have been built around personalized learning, with all students going at their own pace and, to an extent, following their own interests. School of One in particular is still feeling its way, and its founder quit last spring.

In the Bay Area, blended learning is getting traction. Rocketship Education has opened seven charter schools serving low-income, primarily Hispanic students in San Jose and has approval for two dozen more. It built its model around circulating students in and out of a computer lab daily and plowing savings in personnel costs (one less teacher per grade through the use of technology) into teacher training and higher salaries. Three schools open long enough to report standardized test scores have an API above 860, and one had 793.

But that’s just one model, and Rocketship is now exploring other forms of blended learning, perhaps including team teaching or small group learning.

Salman Khan, who’s on the Silicon Schools Fund board, has become a pied piper of blended learning. Though his eclectic three-minute videos on everything from algebra to economics have been viewed by millions, his focus has shifted to classroom and school transformation. A team of programmers focusing on math has created assessments and algorithms that identify gaps in students’ knowledge, a path to mastery and dashboards that feed information on students’ progress to teachers in real time. They can adjust their lesson plans or divide the class into small groups. Los Altos School District, in Khan’s backyard, and Summit Public Schools’ charter high schools in San Jose have teamed up with Khan Academy. Inspired by the results, Summit plans to design its new high schools around blended learning. (I’ll be writing more about Summit’s experience with Khan in coming weeks.) With funding from the Rogers Family Foundation, Oakland Unified has launched blended learning in four schools.

Many districts are beginning to experiment with blended learning – at least as they conceive it. Some teachers see it not as empowering but threatening. Silicon Schools Fund wants to shorten the learning curve by having the member schools observe and learn from one another. They’ll also be in the Stanford-San Francisco corridor, where new education technology companies, like Junyo and Education Elements, have set up shop.

Brian Greenberg, CEO of Silicon Schools Fund

Brian Greenberg, CEO of Silicon Schools Fund

“We’ve been promised before that technology would change education,” Greenberg said. Now, long-promised personalization of education through low-cost hardware and software that can diagnose and adapt to individual students’ needs has developed to the point “where educators see it and recognize this is pretty good,” Greenberg said.

The next step is to design schools for blended learning. “It won’t be without its challenges,” he said. “This is time for research. Then we can focus on replication and scale.”

The Fund will announce the first two or three grants in January, for schools to open next fall, with the next round, for schools opening in 2014, to follow. The aim is a mix of district and charter K-12 schools, with at least some serving low-income children. Eventually there will be a portfolio of small and large schools, schools converting to blended learning, and startups. The latter may work better for districts, which lack charters’ flexibility and would need buy-in from teachers who’d be learning very different instructional models.

“Educators have to lead the charge,” Greenberg said.

So far, the Fund has raised half of the $25 million goal; Greenberg is optimistic about raising the remaining money from individual donors.

Fisher, whose parents, Don and Doris Fisher, started the San Francisco-based clothier, is also a major donor to KIPP charter schools. Other Silicon Schools Fund board members are Ted Mitchell, the president and CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund and a past president of the State Board of Education, and Michael Horn, executive director of education for the Innosight Institute and co-author, with Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen, of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

How Khan Academy is reshaping learning in Los Altos School District.

In Silicon Schools Fund videos, Summit Public Schools CEO Diane Tavenner describes how blended learning has inspired a new design and vision for the schools; Sal Khan explains Khan Academy.

How to classify blended learning and other writing on the subject by Michael Horn of Innosight Institute.

Brian Greenberg’s blog on blended learning.

 

 

 

 


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