Online and Blended Learning: Moving from Conversation to Execution


Recently Learn Outside the Lines had the opportunity to sit down with Fuel Education’s General Manager, Gregg Levin, to talk about his reflections on the state of online learning in 2014 and what developments he sees for blended learning in the coming year.  Here’s what he had to say:

Learn Outside the Lines (LOTL): Online learning has been an evolution. As you reflect back on 2014, what are the bigger developments that have happened over the course of the year to really push forward adoption – both at Fuel Education and in the industry? 

Gregg Levin (GL): It is indeed an evolution!  And for online learning, it continues to be an exciting time as districts re-evaluate how they deliver their academic programming to meet the changing needs and desires of the students, parents, and communities they support.  When I first started in education technology almost ten years ago, online learning was primarily used for high school students on either end of the achievement spectrum.  Since then, online learning adoption has accelerated and now serves mainstream students of all ages, achievement levels, and personal circumstances.  Educators and education technology providers alike have grown to understand the power of personalized learning that can be offered to students in online and blended environments.

In 2014, Fuel Education (FuelEd) saw a significant increase in our school partners delivering direct instruction using our online course solutions.  Historically, FuelEd provided instructional services via state certified, subject matter expert teachers to the majority of our partners and their students.  While demand for those services continues to grow in terms of the absolute number of students taught by FuelEd teachers, students taught by district teachers last semester (the first semester for SY 14-15) grew by more than 200 percent.  To put that in context, in the first semester of last year (SY 13-14), we saw a 50 percent increase from prior year (SY 12-13).  We believe that this means that our partners are beginning to accept online learning as a mainstream curricular and programming solution.  Fundamentally, this means more districts and their teachers are using online courses to replace textbooks.

With textbook replacement comes blended learning. Schools have moved from having conversations about blended learning to executing on it.  This transformation has so far centered on how the classroom is designed, or how the model is implemented, but now schools understand that teachers need to transform, too.  The need for professional development to help teachers shift from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide by the side” is on the rise, and administrators are seeking answers for how to ensure district teachers can be most effective in a blended learning program.

So, what’s driving this growth in district taught programs?  I think there are several reasons we’re seeing this trend:

  • Teachers entering the workforce today grew up on the computer and the internet and have a high comfort level with technology.  Further, many of them were students of online learning themselves as undergraduate and graduate students.  Online learning is increasingly accepted as a standard form of learning AND teaching.
  • More states are enabling funding sources—which were traditionally allocated for textbook and print materials—for purchase of online and digital content.  Recently in Florida, funding for world language adoption included the approval of online courses and content.
  • Similarly, more states, via their legislatures, are enabling or mandating access to online courses.  Michigan is one of the best known examples, as it requires students to have at least one online learning experience in order to graduate, and it provides students in grades 6-12 the ability to enroll in online courses through Michigan’s Online Course Catalog. More recently, Louisiana’s Supplemental Course Academy offers districts access to a wealth of online courses that are not available in schools.  Both initiatives have helped drive growth of online learning in those states.
  • There has been a steep increase in the adoption of tablets, and in a short period of time.  As districts shift away from computers to tablets, they are focusing more on enabling them with online and digital content for use in the classroom.  And, in many cases, teachers are leading the way to educate their districts on best practices for using tablet computing effectively in the classroom.
  • There has been an explosion of digital resources made available to educators. Some of this growth is driven by the emergence of the Common Core State Standards, and some is simply the natural growth of resources that the internet has enabled just as it has for other markets.  Whether it’s free (often referred to as Open Education Resources or OER – think Khan Academy or YouTube Education), paid, or curated from a variety of online resources that may or may not be targeting K-12 education (i.e., CNN, Wikipedia, etc.), educators now have access to a treasure trove of content they can use to personalize instruction for a class or a student.  FuelEd has seen a similar explosion in the use of its PEAK Library personalization tool this year.  District teachers use it to custom build assessments and courses, modify existing courses, augment classroom instruction, and develop lessons for sharing across their districts.
  • Further, teachers are leveraging the explosion of digital resources—the internet and online content—to create a virtual classroom extension of their physical classroom culture and environment both at the macro (room) and micro (student) level.  When I walk into my kids’ classrooms, they each have a distinct look and feel that reflects their teachers’ personalities, the subject matter taught, school spirit, the age group, and other defining characteristics.  Similarly, when I watch my kids log in to their Google accounts, I see where teachers often place emojis, notes, links, and other tools that are unique to either my child, what they are doing in class at the time, or events at school.

LOTL: Moving into 2015, what are the top 5-7 things you see happening that will make the biggest impact in the growth and success of personalized learning? 

GL: In 2015, I think the trend for teachers to leverage the wealth of available digital resources will continue to gain traction, especially as it relates to teachers using online content to personalize learning for classes and students. This will lead teachers to seek more tools to curate content.  You will see FuelEd expand the capabilities of PEAK Library, and you will see similar tools that aggregate content emerge from both established and small education technology  players.  And, these tools will improve in functionality; they will be able to retrieve a piece of content from the internet and wrap that content in a “shell” of enhanced capabilities, such as text-to-speech, translation tools, standards alignment, and data.

Data will be in high demand.  As the education industry collectively gets smarter—both districts in terms of what they want and demand, and companies in terms of what they produce—data capabilities will emerge that transform the way teachers teach and students learn.  We will track demographic characteristics, activity level, performance data, and much more via a single, comprehensive view that aggregates and analyzes data from multiple sources.  This data collection will inform an increasingly real-time decision-making capability that determines what type of content, in what modality, against what standard, skill, or competency that a student needs, and it will provide teachers recommendations for ongoing support of that child.  It will also be used to measure teacher performance. This, of course, will be done against the backdrop of the growing data privacy debate taking place at the state and federal level.

Interoperability will be imperative.  The past few years we’ve seen increasing demand from districts for the solutions they contract to integrate and interoperate with their core operating systems like their SIS and LMS.  This demand will continue and will drive the creation of a single, comprehensive view of student performance related to student’s growing activity with online solutions.  And, I believe you’ll begin to see companies form partnerships to create more value for the districts they are targeting.  In early 2015, you will see FuelEd activate several partner solutions via our PEAK platform to address key needs of our district partners that we cannot address with our current solution set.

Preparing students for career readiness will grow in importance relative to college readiness.  FuelEd is seeing strong demand across our district partners to offer more career exploration and readiness solutions.  There are a lot of interesting companies in the market today that offer various forms of career solutions to school districts, ranging from courses that lead to industry certifications, soft skills, career and tech electives, core academic crosswalks to careers of interest, ACT readiness, and more.

Finally, demographic trends will drive the need for more specialized services. With a steady increase in the past few years in students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, more than 6 million students who require special education, and a quarter of all students who are in need of English language instruction, we will continue to see online learning leveraged to address the needs of these students, too.

With all of the change, there two underlying principles of online and blended learning that won’t:

  1. The powerful combination of education and technology will continue to evolve and to do what it has shown it does best—help educators personalize learning for more students; and
  2. Of utmost importance is the role—albeit changing—of a talented and nurturing teacher.  Online and blended learning only enable their success, online or in the classroom.



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