In his State of the Union address, President Obama urged the country to out-innovate the rest of the world. If we want to bolster America’s competitiveness now and for the future, there’s no better place to start than education, where Obama also said we need to out-educate the rest of the world.

Fortunately, we are well on our way. Online learning is sweeping across America, as more than 3 million K-12 students took an online course in 2009. And it is no longer just a distance-learning phenomenon. Most of the growth in online learning is occurring in blended-learning environments, in which students learn online in an adult-supervised environment.

This trend will continue. The troubled budget picture, amidst the demand for better results, is accelerating the adoption of blended learning by forcing school operators to rethink the structure and delivery of education.

Blended learning has the potential to upend today’s factory-model school system, which standardizes the way it teaches and tests, and instead enable personalized learning approaches for all students. Many experts agree that targeting students’ different learning needs at different times will in turn result in higher achievement as each student can realize his or her full human potential.

A research report Innosight Institute released recently reveals several proof points. One is Carpe Diem, which began as a traditional, state charter school serving 280 students in grades 6 to 12 in Yuma, Ariz. But when it lost its building lease eight years ago, the school had to slash its budget and question every assumption about what a “school” should look like. It turned to blended learning.

The results are strong. Carpe Diem developed a far more productive and affordable school model that personalizes learning for each student. Its student population—60 percent of which is on free or reduced-price lunch and 48 percent of which are minorities—excels. In 2010, the school ranked first in its county in student performance in math and reading and ranked among the top 10 percent of all Arizona charter schools.

As students learn online at Carpe Diem, teachers roam around offering instant help whenever a student struggles. The software provides frequent feedback. And students only progress to the next level or unit once they have demonstrated mastery of the unit on which they are working.

Students also spend time in traditional classrooms where they work with a teacher who re-teaches concepts as needed and enhances and applies the material introduced online.

What is keeping America back from having many more Carpe Diems? Mostly ourselves. Policy barriers stand in the way of allowing blended learning to truly be transformational.

A host of policies and funding streams dictate to schools what their inputs and processes must be and look like. In other words, they make it difficult for schools to adopt creative and innovative arrangements for student learning. Others restrict the online courses students may access regardless of how high quality they might be. And still more tie students to an arbitrary calendar year.

Real transformation would allow students to progress based on mastery rather than the amount of time they sat in a classroom. Of course in exchange for this increased autonomy that escapes these input-focused rules, schools and programs must sign up for higher accountability measures around individual student outcomes so that we’re not merely adopting new arrangements and technologies for their own sake, but instead doing so to improve the lives of our students in measurable ways.

Other countries are already moving in this direction. With America’s abundant technological resources and entrepreneurs on hand, we ought to lead them there rather than follow.

A modified version of this post appeared originally at The Economist’s The Ideas Economy blog here.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.