[Editor’s Note: This story is Part 3 of our April series on Blended Learning. Click here to read Part 1 on what makes a blended learning initiative fail. Click here to read Part 2 on what blended learning really looks like in the classroom.]

As blended learning practices are becoming more widespread, it is increasingly challenging to collect accurate data on the number of schools that have gone blended, but by examining student enrollments in online courses and edtech vendor data, we estimate the number of students engaging in some kind of blended learning to be approximately 9 million, which represents about 20 percent of K-12 student enrollment.

With so many students engaged in this mode of learning, it’s important to examine current trends and technologies to try and predict where blended learning could take students in the future.

The Evolution 

Trend 1: More student choice and responsibility for learning

As teachers and students grow accustomed to a given model, they may find opportunities to take the learning experience another level deeper. We’re seeing teachers who have been doing blended learning for a while starting to crave elbow room from strict, structured classroom choreography. As we recently profiled in our playbook on emerging teacher “moves,” a teacher who starts off “managing” a blended model may, over time, start to release more responsibilities to the students, such as determining their own pace or path through a curriculum unit. When teachers are more confident with their blended practice, they often realize they’re ready to take personalization in the learning process to the next level.

Trend 2: Digitization

The theory of disruptive innovation enabled us to predict years ago that blended learning would become the dominant instructional method in K-12 education, but that prediction could mean two very different futures. On the one hand, this could mean driving down the cost of delivering learning by merely digitizing our old, factory-based model of monolithic instruction.

(Next page: More future-looking trends)

Trend 3: Personalized learning for EVERY student 

On the other hand, online and blended learning could grow in a manner that breaks that mold, and starts to customize and personalize learning down to the level of the individual student. In our work, we strive to help the education sector adopt blended learning with student needs at the forefront, which ultimately means transforming the monolithic system to one that is entirely student-centered.

In the longer run, this focus on outcomes is crucial to scale: only when blended learning is perceived in this vein will it make a compelling case to parents, teachers, students, and school leaders that it is more effective than traditional instruction at addressing their day-to-day challenges. Mainstream adoption of blended learning will not come from policy reform, but from persuading the people who work at the ground level in education.

New Pedagogies, New Technologies

Trend 4: New models yet unknown

Both pedagogical and technological change will be a huge driving force for the evolution of blended learning models. Even now we are seeing teachers who get started with one model, but over time as they identify more opportunities that online learning affords both them and their students, they start to modify their model. In most cases, those classrooms still fit the contours of our existing blended models, but over time we predict the emergence of unique combinations and potentially, entirely new models.

Trend 5: New technologies yet unknown

Technologically, we are really just at the beginning of a sea of change ahead. Improvements in assessment, adaptivity, and engagement will continue to enable teachers to unlock new approaches to blended learning as the field moves forward.

Although there are many pioneers in the space extending the frontier of blended learning, there are many, many schools who have yet to adopt non-traditional instructional practices. It will take several years for the most disruptive blended-learning models to become mainstream.

Seeing the Future in the Present

For a look at what is happening now, I invite you to our Blended Learning Universe, a free, interactive database that hosts more than 500 examples of schools implementing various blended learning models. What that data set suggests is what we’ve long hypothesized: blended learning is not “one thing”; rather it is being deployed to solve a wide variety of challenges facing a diverse array of school systems.

For example, systems like Summit Public Schools have been at the vanguard of blended learning for some time. In addition to implementing a Flex model to support academic and personal development, their learning platform is now getting used in dozens of schools across the country and has been a boon to educators looking to change approaches. At a more granular level, we see pockets of innovation all across the country. At Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, Colorado, for instance, several educators are adapting their blended-learning approach on a weekly if not daily basis to laser-focus on student needs. They’ve created a school-wide culture of innovation and collaborative development. Their staff’s nimble approach to instruction is rare, and really exciting for the field.

Blended learning presents one powerful new delivery model to help educators serve every student. But we must look at blended learning for what is: an instructional delivery mechanism, not the silver-bullet solution to more effective instruction.

The truth is, the efficacy of blended learning greatly depends on its specific implementation, the particular problem it is designed to solve, and the quality of tools emerging across the ed tech market. The field needs to leverage education innovations like blended learning to address what works for what students in what circumstances.

Only with circumstance-driven solutions will schools reap real benefits from online and blended learning that deliver on the promise to personalize instruction for each individual student.

About the Author:

Julia Freeland Fisher is the Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, where she leads a team researching the effects of disruptive innovation on the public and private education landscape. She has published and spoken extensively on topics including the ed tech market, new school models, and competency-based education policies and practices. Most recently, her research focuses on emerging tools and practices that leverage technology to expand students’ social capital by enhancing their access to new networks and their ability to navigate those networks.