Moving schooling forward: Next-gen grants possess promise


Jul 26, 2013

I’ve written a few times (here and here, for example) about the great work that the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) is doing to help schools push the design envelope on what’s possible for students.

Last week the group announced its latest set of grants—$6.6 million all told to 38 grant recipients working to personalize learning for students spanning grades 6 through 12.

The grants were divided into two categories this time around. Eight schools received launch grants to support their opening this fall, and, in a smart new category of grants, 30 schools intending to launch programs in the fall of 2014 received funds to help them in their planning process (full disclosure: I served as a reviewer for the launch grants).

The latest set of grants took several encouraging steps forward.

First, an increasing number of districts are applying for and receiving the grants.  Whereas charter networks dominated the first set of grants, they are no longer doing so. Of the 38 grantees, 19 are either districts or districts in partnership with external organizations. I have long believed—and our theories of disruptive innovation have always suggested (see Chapter 9 of Disrupting Class)—that the majority of students in this country will continue to be educated in school districts. Given that this is the case, seeing districts empower school leaders to innovate more aggressively is an encouraging sign.

Second, it’s gratifying to see new types of schooling entities receive the grants. New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), an online course provider and long a leader in competency-based learning, received a launch grant for its VLACS Aspire program. This new program employs a 100 percent self-paced, competency-based approach—as opposed to a course-based curriculum—and is attempting to redefine school to mean anywhere learning occurs, be it in a brick-and-mortar school, online, or in the community through internships, team-based projects, and the like. Although some may wonder how this fits into a design competition meant to propel blended-learning schools, from my perspective it’s a smart grant because the reality is that many districts are unlikely to convert or open entire schools as full blended-learning programs. They simply don’t have the flexibility that charter schools have, which had been a weakness of NGLC’s efforts to not only push people’s thinking with proof points, but also to encourage scale. Yet given that the bulk of students are likely to continue to be educated in district programs, helping them move to blended models is important. And as we’ve written about numerous times—in Disrupting Class as well as in our latest paper “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive?”—the path to helping many traditional schools is likely to occur through disrupting class on a course by course basis. VLACS could help schools accelerate that shift and pushes radically the bounds of what may be possible.

To that end, it was similarly exciting to see longtime disruptive stalwart Florida Virtual School (FLVS) receive a planning grant. For a long time FLVS has wanted to launch its Project TAM, which will combine a learning platform with a student profile system in which standards-aligned learning objects will be delivered to students as and how they need them—the ultimate in competency-based learning potentially. The project will now provide a blended environment where students learn through individualized online content and flexible, in-person learning. In essence, the team there imagines students learning online and in flex Community-Based Learning Centers, which I imagine to be the future of education. If FLVS can help the district school partners with which it works convert over time, then that would be an even more valuable contribution.

Third, I’m excited to see many more blended-learning programs funded that don’t only provide online experiences but also project-based learning experiences as a central part of what they do. Allowing students to work on projects and apply their learning in deeper, more meaningful ways and across circumstances is a critical piece of learning. Online learning can facilitate projects itself—which is often overlooked—but it can also help to commoditize the delivery of core knowledge to leave teachers with more room to work on projects and going deeper into subjects with their students. Mixing the best of these elements in the right circumstance given where a student is in her learning and the learning objective before her is where this all begins to get really interesting. Doing this at scale and for all students has never been done well before.

If NGLC makes a dent in pushing the field forward on this, then that will be yet one more win.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.