I wish I had a dime for every school that crams a laptop 1:1 into students’ hands and calls it online learning.

Students taking notes on a laptop while their teachers lecture is not online learning—even if the kids surf the Internet while the teacher talks. Teachers delivering standardized, one-size-fits all learning to batches of kids using online textbooks or Internet-generated lesson plans is not online learning. Students typing homework on Microsoft Word is not by itself online learning.

As I’ve looked at schools that are blending online learning into brick-and-mortar environments, I have noticed a growing trend of labeling all tech-rich learning as online learning. But computers are powerless to transform the education system into one that is actually student-centric and individualized unless educators use the computers to allow for anytime, anyplace, any pathway, and anyplace learning—the essence of authentic customization. That’s why when we published a white paper about the rise of blended learning, Michael Horn and I were careful to define blended learning as any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.

Tom Vander Ark addresses this same issue in his blog “Tech-rich learning may not be blended.”

Last week I visited the Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, where 17 lucky 1st through 5th graders get to learn individually in the morning, then apply that learning in teams in the afternoon. During the morning individual-learning time, I saw two students on Dreambox Learning, three on ALEKS, one on Rosetta Stone, and the rest engaged in small group instruction or pencil-and-paper work.

Those students working online to progress along a self-paced, individualized pathway were experiencing true online learning. There was nothing standardized or factory about it.

I wish I could think of the perfect analogy to convey this idea that online computers by themselves do not mean online learning. I’ve thought that it’s like having a car, but using a horse and buggy to pull it instead of turning on the engine. But that’s not quite it.

If you can think of a better analogy that conveys this idea, I’d love it! It should start something like “Online learning without student control of path and pace is like…” The best analogy gets a copy of Disrupting Class, signed by Michael B. Horn.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.