I'm starting a fairly large research project on blended learning. This is the phrase people use to describe a mix between online/software-based learning and face-to-face learning with teachers. One example would be the Khan Academy, where students watch instructional videos and work online problem sets, with teachers monitoring progress and swooping in to tutor when kids are having trouble.
I think in general it's a good idea. Kids can work at their own pace but with plenty of accountability, moving through lessons as they achieve mastery. So I was a bit surprised at my initial reaction to a profile (in Mind/Shift) of a school that uses a similar approach, the Flex Academy in San Francisco.
At the Flex Academy, students sit in cubicles and work through most of their lessons online. When they need help with something they can ask a teacher or fellow student. The pace is pretty self-directed.
I like self-direction, and I like the idea that you wouldn't even know what level your classmate was working at, so maybe it was the mention of the cubicles that got me. One of the things I write a lot about the workplace is how silly it is that people commute to a place only to use laptops and email and call people in other places. Why not just stay home? Maybe not every day, but 2-3 days a week seems doable. It doesn't seem any better when kids commute and then simply work online, though of course the presence of teachers-as-tutors does change that equation. The school leaders are correct that this is how many people work, so school is preparing kids for the workforce. The problem is it's not necessarily how people want to work. At least the cubicle part. No one likes cubes.
Several of the comment writers on the article had the same visceral reaction. Students choose from online electives as well; perhaps in an ideal world there would be face-to-face electives and online core subjects. It's hard to know. The challenge of blended learning is hitting the sweet spot of learning at your own pace and from master teachers, without producing something like Dunder Mifflin from the Office.