Key Points

  • For learning ecosystems to become viable alternatives to schooling for more families, they need “orchestrator” organizations to knit together learning experiences from diverse providers.
  • Organizations such as VLACS, My Tech High, and Compass offer early examples of how orchestrators might work.

The pandemic sparked unprecedented interest in new models of learner-centered education, such as learning pods and microschools. Yet as school buildings have reopened, many families have returned to schools as their primary education providers. Their reasons for going back to conventional schooling are telling. For example, consider these findings from CRPE about families’ experiences with learning pods:

“[N]early three in five families preferred pods overall. The most commonly cited benefit was a heightened sense that their child felt ‘known, heard, and valued,’ followed by increased engagement in their learning.”


“The majority of families and educators we interviewed did not expect to continue with their pandemic pod experiments beyond the 2020–21 school year. For some families, a return to their former schools meant gaining access to additional academic support, special-education services, and expanded opportunities for students to socialize with peers. Other families begrudged a return to school but couldn’t sustain their participation financially or logistically.”

These comments illustrate a general challenge with education that happens in less formal settings outside of schools. Although these experiences can be highly flexible and customizable, they often fall short in delivering some of the basic functionality and reliability that many families depend on schools to provide. 

Charting the future of learning ecosystems

In this vein of out-of-school education, another possibility proposed by Education Reimagined and others is the idea of learning ecosystems. Learning ecosystems don’t yet exist in the full-fledged form that proponents envision. But to help think through what it would take for robust learning ecosystems to become a real alternative to schools, this blog series looks at learning ecosystems through the lens of Modularity Theory. 

According to the theory, learning ecosystems are non-integrated systems (see Part 1). Non-integrated systems excel at being flexible and customizable—some of the hallmarks of learner-centered education. But to gain broad adoption by families, they will also have to get good at what integrated systems (i.e., schools) excel at: basic functionality and reliability (see Part 2). Most families need reliable child care and transportation throughout the day, value the supervised socialization that happens in schools, and don’t want to worry about how an amalgamation of learning experiences fits together into a cohesive educational program that is recognized as a marker of readiness for postsecondary opportunities. Getting that kind of functionality and reliability in a learning ecosystem requires developing and refining the modular interfaces that connect the parts of a learning ecosystem (see Part 3). How does that refinement happen? The answer from Modularity Theory is through orchestrators.

What is an orchestrator?

In the early days of personal computers, IBM played the role of an orchestrator. It designed a PC architecture with modular interfaces that enabled other companies to build components that were plug-compatible with IBM machines. Once IBM worked out the architectures of the system and its modular interfaces, Microsoft could make the operating system, Intel could produce the central processing unit, and a host of PC assemblers such as HP and Compaq assembled and sold machines all based on the IBM architecture.

In education, a few organizations have started to orchestrate out-of-school learning opportunities as alternatives to traditional school-based learning. They don’t yet offer all the functionality of schools—such as coordinating child care, transportation, and meals. But they have made important headway on assembling academic experiences from a variety of independent providers in a manner that leads to high school credentials.

Virtual Learning Academy Charter School

In New Hampshire, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) is an early pioneer serving as an orchestrator of learning ecosystems. VLACS is funded directly by the state and offers full-time and part-time learning to anyone under 21 across the entire state. Students enrolled with VLACS can take online courses provided by the school, or they can earn credit through other learning experiences such as through college courses, student-designed projects, and internships

VLACS’s system of competencies and assessments are the modular interfaces that bring students’ various learning experiences together to form a complete K–12 instructional education. Students earn credit for non-school-based learning by demonstrating to VLACS their mastery of those competencies. The modular design of competencies also allows VLACS to break down its online courses into chunks that it can provide to students on a targeted basis to help them master competencies that they don’t gain from their other experiences. VLACS also works with learning experience providers to create coherent bundles of learning options for students. Additionally, New Hampshire state policies make it straightforward for students who learn part-time at VLACS to have their VLACS learning added to their transcripts at the schools where they’re primarily enrolled.

My Tech High

My Tech High works with a handful of public school districts across 10 states to provide personalized education plans to students who learn best through a mix of learning resources delivered at home, online, and in the community. Its catalog includes online courses from companies such as Apex Learning, Edgenuity, BYU Independent Study, and Edmentum; online learning resources from providers such as Waterford, Rosetta Stone, and DreamBox Learning; and college courses from Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) College for America, and Snow College Online.  It also offers online, project-based tech and entrepreneurship elective classes for students in grades K–12, and every student is supported by an experienced, state-certified teacher.  Additionally, in some states, students are approved to enroll in up to two courses at their local district school.

Compass Charter Schools

In California, Compass Charter Schools is a virtual public charter school providing TK-12th grade students with access to a variety of academic resources, materials, teacher-led live instruction, and community-based learning experiences. In its home study program, students and their parents collaborate with an assigned, credentialed teacher to develop a custom, personalized learning plan. Students’ plans may include academic resources and services ranging from standards-focused curriculum; online learning courses; materials such as Kiwi Crates and robotics kits; and learning experiences with community providers such as math tutoring, music lessons, karate studios, and dance lessons. (In full disclosure, my children attend Compass’ online program and I am currently the chair of its board.)

The missing ecosystem interfaces

The pioneering orchestrators mentioned above have made critical headway in building the interfaces that make it possible for students to get academic credit from a variety of learning opportunities both within their schools and across their communities. But making academic credit count across the system is just one of the areas where ecosystems need modular interfaces to improve their functionality and reliability relative to schools. 

In my next post, I’ll discuss the additional interfaces learning ecosystems will need to build for providing some of the other functionality schools provide, such as custodial care, transportation, meals, etc.

Other posts in this series can be found below:

I’m grateful to Karen Pittman of KP Catalysts for sharing her thoughts on these posts at the Changing the Odds Remix blog. Her commentaries can be found at the links below.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.