A teacher at Carpe Diem charter school in Indianapolis assists a student working in the 'learning center.' Students spend half their day in this room, which is filled with hundreds of cubicles and computers, working on assignments online. Teachers use data about their progress to craft classroom lessons.
Indianapolis high school junior Reo Burton spends as much of his school day at a cubicle as he does in a classroom.
Half of Burton’s time is spent in a classroom, but the other half is spent taking online courses with the assistance of both virtual and in-person teachers and learning coaches.
“It’s a lot more interactive than one would believe — just sitting in a cubicle working,” Burton says.
This mix between digital curriculum and in-classroom instruction is called “blended learning,” and Burton is part of a small handful of Indiana students who’ve moved to similar schools.
But Indiana education officials have paved the way for that handful to grow. Burton attends the state’s newest “blended” school, Carpe Diem Charter School in Indianapolis, and the Indiana Charter School Board has green-lighted applications for at least three operators to open 24 similar schools by 2024.
“We’re very good at giving kids worksheets if what you want to give them is practice on procedures. We don’t need to leverage complex forms of technology to accomplish that particular goal. That’s underusing, in my opinion, the potential of technology.” —Melissa Gresalfi, Vanderbilt University
While interest in online education has grown exponentially in the past decade, advocates say blended learning can be an alternative for students seeking a more individually-focused learning experience without completely giving up the structure and supervision a brick-and-mortar school offers.
The independence offered by working at your own pace sounded attractive to Burton, who left an Indianapolis Public Schools magnet program to attend Carpe Diem this year. He says his old school wasn’t all bad, but that he got tired of students who had already tuned out.
“You get slowed down by a lot of the people that don’t care as much about their education,” Burton, 16, says. “But here [in a blended learning school], you can go as far as you want to — it’s all in your hands.”
But blended learning looks different in each school that uses it, and even some who study digital learning are skeptical about the model’s effectiveness. They worry the time students spend in front of screens could be better used — especially if the content they’re consuming online is no better than what they might receive in a textbook.
Roughly half of a Carpe Diem student's day is spent in the "learning center" working online. School leaders say teachers review data about student progress and use it to shape the in-classroom lessons that occupy the other half of a student's day.
Carpe Diem founder Rick Ogston shows off the school's server room. Ogston, who has Masters degrees in theology and education, started Carpe Diem in Yuma, Ariz., and has relocated to Indianapolis for the summer to open the new campus on North Meridian Street.
Carpe Diem's two-level building has several classrooms downstairs, and one large "learning center" upstairs. The learning center is filled with hundreds of cubicles and computers where students complete online assignments.
Several Carpe Diem teachers pace the "learning center" while students — who rotate in and out of the space in 35-minute intervals — complete online assignments in "Education2020," the digital curriculum the school uses. Students who need help or who have a question raise their hand to call over a teacher.
Carpe Diem teachers in the "learning center" carry Nook tablets displaying each student's progress in real-time. They use them to make sure students are on-task and to more easily reference the curriculum when students ask for help.
What Looks Different & How It Works
Aside from its stripped-down, no-frills décor (think of a Chipotle without the burritos), the lower level of Carpe Diem’s brand new school building on North Meridian Street in Indianapolis looks like you’d expect a school to look: There are a handful of classrooms where teachers lead small groups of students in projects.
One cavernous room — “the learning center” — makes up much of the upper level at Carpe Diem, lined from end to end with small cubicles. Each cubicle is equipped with a computer screen. At any one time, several dozen students use them to work on lessons, quizzes and tests from an online curriculum.
As they work, a few teachers pace the room, carrying Nook tablets displaying each student’s progress in real time. When a student raises her hand, a teacher steps in to help.
Carpe Diem founder Rick Ogston says the school’s model is designed to allow students to master “textbook” skills upstairs, in the learning center. Then students rotate into classrooms downstairs in 35-minute periods throughout the day to apply that knowledge in projects teachers craft to encourage critical thinking and creativity.
Ogston says data from the online curriculum links the two together, helping teachers craft their lessons and know how far each student has progressed at any one time.
‘It Gets Messy’
How to integrate technology into the classroom to engage increasingly wired kids is one of the broadest questions facing education. But Indiana University associate professor Krista Glazewski — who consults with teachers and schools on how to use digital learning tools — isn’t sure blended learning is the answer.
“Learning isn’t just content and information to fill minds with, but it’s to engage students as humans in their own right,” Glazewski says. “Teachers are able to capture that, technology is not able to capture that.”
Glazewksi says she worries using technology pushes opportunities for spontaneous learning moments and critical thinking out of students’ experience:
Where is the space in the learning day for students to be able to ask these questions as they occur to them? More importantly, how are those questions being fostered in the students? Who is encouraging them to think more deeply about issues and topics and subjects, because they aren’t just empty vessels to be filled.
But Ogston says fostering critical thinking skills and creativity is part of Carpe Diem’s model and is built into the lessons teachers are offering in the classroom setting.
Ogston — who has worked as a U.S. Navy chaplain, a pastor, a counselor, and has masters degrees in both theology and education — acknowledges the contrast between Carpe Diem and a mainstream school can be jarring.
“It looks like a call center, absolutely,” Ogston says, when asked about the learning center’s physical appearance. “But what does a classroom look like? If you look at the traditional classroom, you have kids lined up in rows. What was personal about that?”
Ogston says teachers have been trying for decades to teach kids at different ability levels — it’s known as “differentiating instruction” in the business. But he says kids have not received a truly individualized education, because in trying to teach to high-achieving and struggling students at once, educators end up teaching to the middle.
Carpe Diem tries to solve that problem, Ogston says. He told StateImpact:
We’ve gotta figure out a way to redesign facilities that will support kids best. When you begin to optimize learning for kids, it gets messy. And there’s no way one person, one teacher, can optimize learning for 30 kids or 40 kids in the classroom. That’s what technology leverages — it isn’t about technology. You’ve got to have a teacher. You’ve got to have a great teacher. You’ve got to have a teacher that undersands their content. Technology doesn’t replace a teacher, it enhances their role.
Carpe Diem’s building on Meridian Street is only the first of six schools Ogston plans to open by 2018. Other “blended” charter schools are already open in Muncie and Indianapolis, and plans are afoot to build others in Hammond, Gary, South Bend, Fort Wayne, and Evansville by 2024.
What do you think of the blended learning model? Would you send your student to a “blended” or online school? Do you or your child already attend one?