Digital natives have been immersed in a world of video games, computers, digital music players, and cell phones since they were born.

We believe many American schools today provide an effective education, but that the bar is rising, requiring new ways to think about how to educate today’s students. A growing number of experts and educators are examining the ABC’s of how the system approaches the challenges of educating this generation of students. These students are fundamentally different than their predecessors even a single generation ago, and hybrid education could provide powerful solutions.

Experts point to the current crop of digital natives–kids born into a world of modern technology. Digital natives have been immersed in a world of video games, computers, digital music players, and cell phones since they were born. That’s vastly different from the world of digital immigrants–an older generation that’s learning to adopt technology later in life.

Digital immigrants are learning to speak a language that doesn’t come as naturally to them. While many have successfully mastered all types of technology, it’s a language they’ve adopted incrementally. Digital natives, on the other hand, have been shaped by the internet, Google searches, and instant messaging from day one and can’t imagine life without technology.

The terms digital native and digital immigrant were coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky, an internationally acclaimed thought-leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and game designer in the fields of education and learning who’s also an outspoken proponent of creating a new educational paradigm that makes learning more relevant to today’s students. It’s an idea that’s sparked much debate and inspired some educators to adapt blended or hybrid learning programs to teach and inspire today’s students.

The undeniable truth is that the world we live in outside the classroom has drastically changed. It begs the question: how can our classrooms change and evolve as well?

Digital natives: Students 2.0

“Today’s students are incredibly sophisticated,” says Rajeshri Gandhi, an academic advisor at Thesys International, an educational company and provider of hybrid education programs. “The availability of the internet has conditioned them to ask questions and get answers instantaneously.” That’s a far cry from the card catalog and encyclopedias most digital immigrants grew up with.

These students aren’t programmed to sit quietly and take notes while a teacher lectures or demonstrates math problems on a chalkboard. They’re more amenable to an interactive environment where they can talk, touch things, and process information in multiple ways–ways of learning that were likely more effective than rote memorization all along. And more than ever before, students today demand a sense of purpose and control over what they’re learning.

“They want to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” says Rolin Moe, a creative writing teacher and doctoral student working toward an EDD in learning technologies at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

Students are no longer content to learn something because a teacher tells them they should. “Teaching to the test” doesn’t take into account the way kids learn. The most successful teachers are putting lessons into a context that ensures that students see their value in the real world, and that often requires additional effort to learn technologies that the kids have already mastered.

“This is the first generation of students who are more proficient with technology than their teachers are,” says Moe.

Teachers who fumble with technology may struggle to persuade students that the information they’re presenting is worthwhile. Still, what’s most important isn’t that teachers know it all; it’s that they create interesting situations and design better learning experiences than those in more traditional classroom settings. That means bridging the gap between kids’ digital and school environments–but it doesn’t mean leaving the traditional classroom behind. The best learning environments retain the most enriching aspects of teacher-student relationships.

Students still need the guidance of a teacher and still love smart people. Today’s kids, with all the inherent differences of being digital natives, are still kids. They still gravitate to interesting people and still want mentorship and someone to help them build skills–and they want to create more of their own learning and then go test the information for themselves.

It’s little wonder that a non-stop cycle of testing is failing miserably. Purpose-driven learning has much more promise with today’s “what’s in it for me?” students, who don’t typically respond to the concept of learning for its own sake.

Hybrid learning’s role in improving education

Placing a teacher at the front of a traditional classroom to dictate lessons to students is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition. But mention “hybrid learning” or “blended learning” to many teachers, and they think of online education versus the brick-and-mortar classroom. A well-designed hybrid curriculum is actually a blend of online tools and a traditional, teacher-guided classroom setting. And that’s exactly what makes it so powerful. Students appreciate the chance to explore and expand with online tools, but they still require the guidance of a teacher to put lessons in context and bring content to life for them. Hybrid education pulls the best from both of those worlds.

Many people think the online components of hybrid education are impersonal, but it’s really all about personalizing.

Digital tools allow teachers to meet students on their own turf, providing lessons tailored to their interests and rife with the opportunities to interact and explore.

“Choice is absolutely vital,” Moe says. “If I’m in a classroom and send out a worksheet, some will be interested and some won’t. But if I can post five discussion board subjects, students can choose the one they’re interested in. If students can choose their own experience, they’ll have a better outcome.”

Hybrid education gives teachers the tools to make those different experiences possible. The teacher is still a vital element of the process; the computer is simply a tool to enhance the process and engage students in an arena where they’re most comfortable.

Kids still need personal interaction in schools to learn to develop relationships with peers and adults. There are some things that are simply better left to human discourse.

With discovery-based learning, skilled teachers can guide the kids to figure things out and have their own “aha” moments, says Joshua Cook, faculty advisor for UCLA’s GSE&IS Teacher Education Program. “What the computer allows for is better engagement,” he says. “You learn through talking and getting your hands on something and manipulating it. The computer is simply a tool.”

That tool is creating wonderful opportunities for education. Kids are no longer restrained by the resources available within a single school day or classroom. If they’re interested in Peruvian flutes, Moe says, the internet can immediately provide the information for them to learn more.

Another benefit to the hybrid model is that the technology brings in students who wouldn’t otherwise participate. Some students are more apt to perform better in class, and others participate better online. Introducing the online components allow for more students to engage in the learning process in the ways that come most naturally to them.

“[With hybrid education], it’s like each child is challenged in a different manner,” says Gandhi. “Not all students do well being put on the spot. They won’t raise their hand and show you what they know without feeling like a spotlight is being put on them.”

Meeting digital natives in the middle

“Either we can try to fit square pegs into round holes, or as teachers, we can change how we are passing along information,” says Moe. That means moving beyond chalkboard and rote memorization techniques and learning to teach in multiple ways.

“Teachers are worried,” says Minda Fitzgerald, a teacher at California High School for the past 15 years. “They think kids aren’t going to get as much out of hybrid education because that’s not the way we learned. But it isn’t there to replace classroom learning; it’s there to increase students’ ability to grasp information. The hybrid idea is research-based. Students’ pass rates increase every time. The data is there.”

Active engagement is the key. Interactive learning means learning by doing rather than by being told. The choice and control impact students’ motivation. Students choose their own path via technology and arrive at their own conclusions rather than being told what the conclusions are.

The technology that’s enhancing students’ learning in hybrid programs is just as beneficial to the teachers, who prefer the hybrid models that enable them to access embedded professional development tools on demand. Just as children learn better when they understand context, teachers often prefer to seek technology help on-demand and at their own pace rather than being expected to absorb a weekend’s worth of lectures crash-course style at a formal conference. Educators in such hybrid environments get the support they need to create dynamic content for students that allows them to do more than just impart information; they bring the lessons to life.

Multimodal education and multiple intelligences

While many students excel in environments that focus primarily on logical and linguistic intelligence–hallmarks of the American educational system–many don’t. Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner put forth the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983, asserting that a number of cognitive abilities fail to be taken into account in such environments. A student who learns to memorize the multiplication table, for example, may not actually achieve a fundamentally deeper understanding of the subject than another student who learns the material differently or less quickly. Those perceived as slower learners may respond better to a different teaching approach, or they may understand the material in ways the classroom isn’t designed to provide.

Multimodal education brings that theory up to date to account for the explosion of digital media in the years since. Because digital natives have been immersed in a world of technology throughout their lives, their brains are formed differently and they require a fuller range of representational modes to achieve literacy.

“Their brains are physiologically different than those who didn’t grow up with technology,” says Fitzgerald. Lifelong exposure to interactive media has shaped the way kids make mental connections. The tools teachers use to share information need to account for that process to communicate effectively with digital natives.

Computers rely on interactive text features that incorporate elements of design and visual images to elicit the imaginative, interpretive, dynamic and interactive features of communication. As our society has transitioned from print-based to multimodal reading, the demands of digital media and visual texts mean that students have a new style of coding and decoding text.

In the context of their daily lives, these kids aren’t learning in a linear fashion. Instead, they’re extracting data that comes at them from multiple sources. They crave guidance from an educator who understands that perspective and can help them sort the information in a way that’s meaningful in their world.

“You have so much information at the tips of your fingers today,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s almost like you have to teach them to have a filter. For some kids, it’s just overload. But that overload can actually be good, because it can raise some great questions, [sparking] more global conversations and discussion about far-reaching effects.”

Besides simply engaging the same students differently, hybrid education is able to reach students who have often been ignored using traditional techniques.

No digital native left behind

“What we are doing in the classroom is recognizing the opportunity that comes with this kind of learner,” says Gandhi. With so many students coming through the school doors, it’s been extremely difficult to challenge the kids at the top without losing the kids at the bottom. The hybrid model helps teachers accommodate those gaps. “I can design lessons and have different things available for different groups of students. I don’t have to do 20 assignments on the same topic.”

It’s important to remember that however savvy they are online, today’s students have many of the same needs as the kids who grew up without access to the same tools and information.

“Socially, they’re still kids with the same social need and desire to be connected with other people,” says Gandhi. They simply have different ways of connecting with peers and the world around them–whether it’s through Twitter or an online video game. Educators need to make use of the available tools to reach them.

“A lot of people get excited about new technology,” says Cook. “They want to put a TV in every classroom.” But putting the kids on computers with fewer teachers is the wrong answer. “What’s exciting about [hybrid education] is it’s the perfect synthesis of classroom teacher and leveraging everything that’s great about online learning. In this case, I think hybrid is the way.”

The point of hybrid education is not to replace teachers, but to provide them with tools that enhance learning for as many students as possible. And when it comes to digital natives, few alternatives show as much promise as the hybrid model.

“Any student can learn better when lessons are personalized and individualized to that student. Making a student feel comfortable and safe can help them learn, and this environment can do that,” says Gandhi. “People can fall in love online. Why can’t they connect with education online?”

Alan Rudi is principal solutions strategist at Thesys International, LLC, an educational service provider that supports schools with a hybrid online/classroom approach to education. Thesys works alongside educators and provides curricula that works with schools’ existing standards and protocols to help students reach their full potential. Thesys International is dedicated to providing high school students the optimal balance of online and in-person learning, making education more relevant for a new generation.