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Albert Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles. This story was presented by Chic Thompson, author of “What a Great Idea!,” at the luncheon keynote at the first day of iNACOL’s Virtual School Symposium 2012.

To say we laughed and cried (mostly Chic) during the presentation would be an understatement. Chic held the audience of two thousand educators in the palm of his hand with his passion, wit, humor and raw emotion as he spoke about the importance of creating learning environments that are truly personalized and student-centric. Environments that empower our students to experiment, explore, while, at the same time, never being a barrier to the beauty that is natural curiosity.

Chic spoke about his struggles with Dyslexia as a student and some of the barriers he contented with, specifically a teacher who told him he would never work where he wanted to and should drop out of college.  He did just that and wound up being a successful product developer, consultant and inspirational speaker due to his tremendous creativity and innovative spirit; a spirit nearly quashed in school. He also later returned to school to complete his undergraduate degree in Chemistry as well as a masters in Education.

Why was school initially not a place Chic could thrive? It was certainly not because he wasn’t smart. It was certainly not that he wasn’t a hard worker. And it was certainly not that he wasn’t creative. The bottom line is that school didn’t allow Chic to look for all the needles.

The problem with our education system as it stands is that in many classrooms we stop the learning once the student has found the needle; the single predetermined by the teacher needle. Furthermore, and much more severe an educational crime, we move on to the next haystack when time has run out for the search regardless of who has found the needle. It is in this haystack that traditional educational has failed our students and where online learning shines.

Online and blended learning potentially provides “ a more consistent and personalized pedagogy that allows each student to work at her own pace and helps each child feel and be successful at school (M. Horn and H. Staker, 2011).”I use the word “potentially” because online learning is not a magic wand that just works without careful strategic planning, effective design and instruction and intelligent implementation. However, if implemented correctly, it has the potential for more efficient differentiation, personalization and higher achievement.

I can share two recent examples of a school I recently visited that uses a blended model where the majority of the learning takes place using an online provider with facilitators in the classroom to provide mini-lessons and support as needed.

The first example is of a young man that attends the school who lives with Autism. He is highly intelligent, but can only focus on any one thing for 15 minutes.  In the traditional model of school he failed miserably because he could not pay attention for an entire period. However, in his new blended model he connects to his course and in 15 minutes gets the work does that can take many of his peers over an hour.  He is highly successful this way because the model does not force him to pace himself with others in the class.

The second example is a system wide one where this school pulls the course data from every student every two weeks. By doing this they get an overview of progress, success and struggles so that they can provide targeted interventions in a timely fashion. They do not need to wait till the end of a quarter or semester to look at test scores. They review how much time is spent on different subjects, what percentage of work is done, what areas seem to slow the student down and what areas appears to be strengths. This is all possible because all of this data is collected in real time as the student is working online.

I believe that if Chic Thompson would have been in a school using a blended model of education he would have felt successful and truly been able to search for as many needles he could fine or, better yet, create.

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