Beyond Brick and Mortar

By Janet Barresi, State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Imagine a learning environment without boundaries, where fifth-graders are doing calculus and trigonometry. Or imagine a school where more than 60 percent of the children receive free or reduced-priced meals and about half are minorities, yet they are outperforming their peers in reading and math scores throughout the county.

But these aren’t imaginary scenarios. These are two examples of blended learning that already exist.

The first is Khan Academy, founded by former hedge fund manager Salman Khan, whose mission is to help kids learn. What began as a tutoring project for his niece has blossomed into a website offering thousands of free video lessons and practice tools for anyone. The free resources span a wide array of topics, ranging from higher order math to science to history.  Khan Academy ( is now engaged in a pilot project with a school district in California where young students are tackling lessons traditionally reserved for high school.

The second example is a school I visited called Carpe Diem, located in Yuma, Arizona. About 300 students in grades six through 12 start their eight-hour day about 7:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday. Friday is reserved for students who need extra help. Students spend a large part of the day in Carpe Diem’s Learning Center, where they work online at their own pace while teachers assist and track progress. Throughout the day, students break into smaller groups to work with teachers in workshops.

When I first heard about the concept, I admit that I envisioned chaos. But it works beautifully. Eighth-graders might be doing geometry alongside 10th-graders. About 60 percent of these students are economically disadvantaged, yet Carpe Diem ranked first in its county last year for reading and math results.

Another example of this hybrid of traditional classroom teaching and individual online learning and tutoring is Rocketship Education, a network of free, public Kindergarten through fifth-grade charter elementary schools based in California. Rocketship’s founder believes that the road to college starts in kindergarten. To accomplish this, Rocketship educators use a blended learning model (part classroom, part online) to focus on individualized instruction for kids.

School officials in San Jose are so supportive of the concept that they want Rocketship to establish more than two dozen schools in the area by 2018.

This isn’t limited to areas outside of Oklahoma. “Anytime, anywhere” learning is starting to make its way into our state, as well.  Just last week, the State Board of Education heard from Cordell and Norman public schools, as students and teachers talked about the value they’ve received as recipients of 1:1 School Classroom Initiative Grants. The grants provide laptops for each child in the grantee's school.

Teachers discussed how the laptops have changed the way they educate. And as one educator pointed out, perhaps the most important voices in the room were those of the students. Several seventh- and eighth-graders spoke of how excited they are to be able to interact and engage with the lessons.

"This is easier and more fun," one student said.

Online learning enables the students to do much more research than they could do from one textbook, they said. They also can make more interactive presentations of what they’ve learned. And they can keep up with missed assignments or teachers’ notes when they’re absent from class by accessing their teachers' online study pages.

I hope that soon all schools will take advantage of the benefits of online learning combined with traditional teaching methods.

Let’s move beyond the imagination stage and put this into practice.

Last updated on December 13, 2011