Blended – Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools

By David Maugel, IPLI Mentor & Principal at NorthWood High School

As I was working with architects and school personnel to design a 21st Century media center, one of my English teachers suggested that I read “blended:  Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.”  We were looking to transform the current media center into several different collaborative spaces that would include a video production room, makerspace (a place where individuals can work together on projects), glassed-in project rooms, and soft seating space.  The original media center had great square footage, but it was a traditional design with several bookshelves and hard seating for research.  Additionally, we were embarking on the first year of a 1:1 technology initiative, which was opening doors to research, collaboration, project-based learning, and communication outside the traditional model within a brick and mortar setting.  I found myself reading this book from these two perspectives – defining and understanding new ways of learning and transforming a space.

Our school is located in a rural community with traditional small town values that defends high expectations, conservative values, hard work, and community as the cornerstones to a good education.  Moving into the 21st Century concepts, I know we must continue to support the cornerstones that have had our students prepared for college and career readiness.  We have already established an online learning model for students who were taking courses not offered in our building as well as for students working on credit recovery.  Our traditional instructional model of face-to-face, teacher-led instruction has evolved to include student-centered approaches with think-pair-share, peer editing, and project-based learning strategies.  The book provided some much-needed common vocabulary and direction for our next steps to our development of online learning, traditional instruction, technology-rich instruction, and blended learning.

The first questions I found myself asking centered around online learning, technology-rich instruction, and blended learning.  What are the differences between online learning and blended learning?  Technology-rich instruction versus blended learning?  The book explained that online learning utilizes a virtual instructor with real-time communication in some situations.  However, our current model utilizes the brick and mortar instructor providing feedback at the earliest convenience.  Should we evolve our online model?  Maybe, but I think we will focus on developing a blended learning model.  As defined in this book, this “learning environment allows a student to learn at least in part through online learning with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.”  With the elimination of computer labs through our 1:1 initiative, we will have space for students to work online from home and at school.  Obviously, finding the correct staff member to run the program will be key.

Secondly, I was stretched to look at utilizing a non-traditional model for evolving the spaces within our new media center.  We are looking at using a school stakeholder team to develop the non-traditional spaces within our new media center.  The team would include educators, business owners, parents, civic groups, and students. What resources will we present to the development team that would help us define purpose, personnel, timeframe, and equipment in this space?  I don’t know yet, but I know this is where the disruptive innovation comes into play.  We will be looking at a heavyweight or autonomous team.  The author describes the use of a heavyweight team when architectural changes occur that require new types of interactions and coordination among different groups.  We need to look outside the media center staff, traditional teachers, and administration to fulfill the potential of these spaces.  Additionally, the autonomous team, as described by the author, allows disruptive projects that do away with traditional classrooms altogether to develop a new learning environment.  We may find ourselves creating additional independent study opportunities in these new spaces.

We have no plans to replace our highly successful “brick and mortar” school with a completely developed “disruptive” model, but we know that implementing a new opportunity for learning can help students who are finding the balance of life more and more difficult.