NOTE: We have released an updated categorization of the blended-learning models since the publication of this paper. Please see “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive?: An introduction of the theory of hybrids” for the most up-to-date taxonomy.

With contributions from Eric Chan, Charter School Growth Fund
Matthew Clayton, Innosight Institute
Alex Hernandez, Charter School Growth Fund
Michael B. Horn, Innosight Institute
Katherine Mackey, Innosight Institute

May 2011

Some innovations change everything. The rise of personal computers in the 1970s decimated the mini-computer industry. TurboTax forever changed tax accounting, and MP3s made libraries of compact discs obsolete. Even venerable public institutions like the United States Postal Service, which reported an $8.5 billion loss in 2010, are not immune. It experienced a 6 billion piece decline in mail volume that fiscal year, thanks mostly, of course, to email.

These innovations bear the traits of what Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen terms a disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovations fundamentally transform a sector by replacing expensive, complicated, and inaccessible products or services with much less expensive, simpler, and more convenient alternatives. This pattern is as common in heavy industrials as in professional services, consumer packaged goods, and nonprofits. In one of its most recent manifestations, it is little by little changing the way people think about education.

Online learning appears to be a classic disruptive innovation with the potential not just to improve the current model of education delivery, but to transform it. Online learning started by serving students for whom there was no alternative for learning. It got its start in distance-learning environments, outside of a traditional school building, and it started small. In 2000, roughly 45,000 K-12 students took an online course. But by 2010, over 4 million students were participating in some kind of formal online-learning program. The preK-12 online population is now growing by a five-year compound annual growth rate of 43 percent—and that rate is accelerating.

In true disruptive fashion, online learning is expanding beyond its roots in distance learning. Educators and entrepreneurs are increasingly creating blended-learning environments—where rather than doing online learning at a distance, students learn in an adult-supervised school environment for at least part of the time. A small but growing number of schools are starting to introduce blended learning into their core programming for mainstream students.

This paper profiles 40 organizations that are blending online learning with brick-and-mortar classrooms. These represent a range of operators, including state virtual schools, charter management organizations, individual charter schools, independent schools, districts, and private entities. The organizations profiled in this paper are not a “top 40” list. Thousands of other schools are currently participating in blended learning and may have superior programs.

Among the programs profiled in this study, several patterns are emerging, including the following:

Definition of blended learning
In a field with significant confusion around what K−12 blended learning is, the 40 programs converged under a simple, umbrella definition. First, in all of the blended programs, the students learned in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home at least some of the time. Second, in all of the cases, the students experienced online delivery with some control over the time, place, path, and/or pace. These two requirements, then, start to distinguish blended learning from other types of learning.

Blended-learning models
Blended learning is gravitating toward six models. The six distinct clusters each share design elements that differentiate them from the others in terms of teacher roles, scheduling, physical space, and delivery methods. As innovators develop new versions of blended learning, the contours of these clusters will continue to evolve.

Mapping of programs
Often blended learning is depicted as something that takes place across a linear spectrum ranging from face-to-face to online. But blended learning is better captured on a plane, rather than a line, because it varies across two dimensions. The 40 blended-learning profiles map onto a two-by-two matrix, with the X-axis representing geographic location (brick-and-mortar versus remote) and the Y-axis representing content delivery (online versus face-to-face).

Technology trends
The market of companies and organizations providing content and technology is highly fragmented and disjointed. Many of the organizations in this study hope that policymakers will introduce quality metrics that force businesses to compete on network effects, which will consolidate the industry. Otherwise, a lack of outcome-focused policy will foster a “race to the bottom,” whereby providers compete mostly on price rather than outcome. In this scenario, the marketplace could remain significantly fragmented and cluttered with low-end entrants.

Steps for success
Strong patterns emerged in the answers that blended-learning leaders gave to the questions of what policies would best unlock the potential of blended learning. Robert Sommers, former CEO of Cornerstone Charter Schools in Detroit, summed up the pervading mood when he said, “Any policy about procedure, rather than performance, undermines the creation of a child-centered system.” The operators raised a strong voice for reinventing education policy to make it output focused rather than input regulated.



  • 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.