Special Report

New School Facilities Build Spaces for Blended Learning

By Katie Ash — March 11, 2013 7 min read
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When students or their families enter the newly opened USC Hybrid High School in downtown Los Angeles, founder David Dwyer wants them to recognize immediately that it is not a typical high school.

The space is divided into open learning studios with a variety of different breakaway learning spaces. The classrooms, which are separated partially by walls but remain connected through wide open doorways, are grouped into pairs—one for math and science, and another for English/language arts and social studies. Splashes of color on the walls and comfortable chairs for lounging reflect a collaborative, cafe-like learning space.

“We had to have a space that when kids walked into it, there would be an immediate, ‘Wow. This is different,’ ” says Dwyer, the president and chief executive officer of Ednovate, a charter-management organization launched by the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education to educate students deemed at risk of dropping out.

“When kids and their families see this, they’re already cued to expect something different,” he says. “We think that’s really important.”

What’s more, the school, which opened in August 2012, is located in the World Trade Center Los Angeles, where students on their way to class regularly mix with professionals.

“Our kids have a chance to see a professional space,” Dwyer says. “The space is communicating a different kind of possible future for these kids.”

Blended learning—an approach that combines online and face-to-face instruction and is growing fast in K-12 schools—is now having an impact on how new school buildings are designed and how current ones are being redesigned.

For instance, in the flexible model that USC Hybrid High operates under, students do not need to be separated into multiple classrooms based on what subject they’re working on.

Since the instruction is coming from an online curriculum, all students can occupy the same space while working on different subjects in their individual carrels.

Breaking the Mold

USC Hybrid High School enrolls students at risk of dropping out and engages them in a blended environment of face-to-face and online learning to help them graduate college- and career-ready.

The school was launched in August 2012 with 130 9th graders, and Dwyer expects to add 10 to 15 rising 10th graders as well as a new class of 150 9th graders next school year. In future years, Dwyer hopes to continue adding 150-student classes of 9th graders.

“If the space will support that number, eventually we’ll be a school of about 600 9th to 12th graders,” he says.

Finding the right space for the school was the biggest challenge, Dwyer says. There were many opportunities to take over older facilities from the Los Angeles district, but Dwyer wanted something different—a more open, flexible space where students could collaborate.

In an urban environment like Los Angeles, space is at a premium, says Dwyer, which made it difficult to find a big enough facility. Space constraints forced school leaders to think creatively about how to design the school.

So Dwyer teamed up with USC’s school of architecture to create the learning environment for USC Hybrid High.

“In order to support the hands-on curriculum and the computer curriculum, we have to have very flexible spaces,” he says. “The selection of furniture is very important, and being able to change the format of the classroom at any moment is important.”

Instead of individual desks, the school uses smaller tables in the paired classrooms so that they can be easily combined into different configurations.

“We literally try to think about the space design as one of the tools to support kids down that pathway toward learning how to collaborate,” says Dwyer.

Having one big open space where students engage in online curriculum also improves security in the building, Dwyer points out. “We can see our kids and what’s going on and be very alert to anybody who’s in the building,” he says.

The school aims to operate on a year-round model, with open hours at the school for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Currently, there is not enough staffing to stay open so many hours, although the school does open for a half-day on Saturdays, as well as 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Students at USC Hybrid High spend about 40 percent of their time working on project-based learning, and the other 60 percent working through online curricula. They check out MacBook Airs at the beginning of the school day for their work and check the laptops back in before they go home.

“We want them to work here so they have teachers here to help them,” says Dwyer. “The teachers are constantly getting feedback [from the online curricula], and every kid is on a personalized learning plan.”

Creating Learning Stations

In a similar model, the Cornerstone Charter Health High School in Detroit, a blended learning program aimed at helping high schoolers considered academically at risk connect their learning to careers in the health field, occupies a large open space where 75 individual stations are set up.

Students learn under a flexible model in which they spend a majority of their time working through a competency-based online curriculum, provided by Apex Learning or Compass Learning.

Drawing on data from those e-learning companies’ programs, teachers schedule workshops to help small groups of students who may be struggling with a certain aspect of the curriculum. Students use desktop computers in their individual stations to complete online coursework.

The school, which opened in August of last year, enrolls 75 9th graders, 80 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, says Thomas Willis, the chief executive officer of Cornerstone Charter Schools. Cornerstone operates three K-8 schools in Detroit and its suburbs in addition to the high school.

The average student’s reading proficiency at Cornerstone Charter Health High School is at the 6th grade level, and the average student’s math competency is at the 4th grade level, says Willis."When you’ve got kids [performing] all the way from the 1st grade level up to 10th grade, I don’t know how to begin to serve all their needs [in a regular classroom,]” he says. “In that way, this model was perfectly designed.”

Students work through the curriculum at their own paces. In some cases, they are able to make several semesters’ worth of progress in one semester, allowing them to catch up if they are behind.

For now, students are required to attend school from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. But Willis hopes that as they move through the grade levels and reach greater mastery of the curriculum, more-advanced students will be able to work in internships with local hospitals two or three days a week while attending school the rest of the time.

That flexibility could provide an incentive for students to work hard through the online curriculum, and could free up the facility to teach more students, he says.

Willis also hopes the school will be able to find a bigger facility—preferably its own building. (Right now, the high school operates on the second floor of one of Cornerstone’s K-8 schools.)

The current model of 75 students in one room does help create efficiencies, says Willis, because teachers can monitor a large number of students at one time.

The move to blended learning could provide the ability to educate more students in less space, says Curtis J. Bonk, a professor of instructional systems technology in the school of education at Indiana University Bloomington and the author of The Handbook of Blended Learning.

“Not only are we going to reduce the space [needed for schools], we’re going to change the spaces and make them more like the kinds of places where we see natural, seamless learning happening,” he says. Blended learning will allow students to attend a physical school space only when they absolutely need to, which will most likely be for collaborative and hands-on projects, predicts Bonk.

“It’ll place an emphasis on social exchange, problem-solving, and trying things out in new ways,” he says of such education.

That is already happening on some postsecondary campuses, which have done a better job of harnessing the power of informal learning spaces than the K-12 system has, says Philip Long, the director of the Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Long, a former associate director of the office of educational innovation and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied learning-space design in the United States before his move to Australia.

Colleges and universities routinely create informal learning spaces in hallways, cafeterias, and multipurpose areas that promote collaborative and reflective learning, he says.

Though most K-12 schools have not embraced such an approach to space as rapidly, says Long, postsecondary institutions also have lessons to learn from what’s happening at the precollegiate level.

“Higher education can learn a lot from kindergarten classrooms,” he says. “They often have a single large room that is zoned [for different activities].”

Long says that while having flexible and adaptable space is important to accommodate different styles of learning and changes in technology, it’s equally important to make sure those spaces fulfill their intended purposes well.

“There’s a fine line between flexible and useless,” says Long. “We have typically fallen into the trap of building boxes that try to be flexible, but in reality do nothing well.”


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