Originally published: E-Learn Magazine | By Michael B. Horn | Nov 16, 2017

Quick Take: In a knowledge economy, we need to ensure that every student is getting the right opportunities to fulfill their potential. Online learning offers a flexibility that can help transform Education into a student-centered learning system beneficial to all.

Michael Horn is an expert in online learning, blended learning, competency-based learning and student-centered education. He works with several education organizations to improve student learning experiences and his work has also led him to serve on education organizations advisory boards. He is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank, and is the author of the bestseller book “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.” Horn holds a BA in history from Yale University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

In this interview, he shares how to transform the educational system into a student-centered learning (SCL) approach, how to use online learning to maximize student success, and why online learning is considered a disruptive innovation in education. He also shares his perspective on the challenges of blended learning, as well as some of the trends educational institutions will experience in the coming decades.

Cristina Wagner: How would you define student-centered learning? We live in a knowledge economy, why is this approach important nowadays?

Michael Horn: I think of student-centered learning as the combination of personalizing learning, meaning delivering the right learning experience at the right time, with competency-based or mastery learning, in which students move on as they master their learning objectives, not based on time. It basically means every student is going to learn; we are going to make sure we are doing the right thing for each individual, whether that degree of experience is a project, direct instruction, or individual tutor. If you go back a hundred years ago, when the factory model education system was created, we wanted to get as many students as possible through school with a minimal education level, and it was okay that some students really would get concepts while others just would not, because we had a place for them in the industrial economy. As for a knowledge economy though, you really need to make sure that every single student is mastering the basics, and then, is having opportunities to discover and build passion and fulfill their potential. We really need everyone participating in the economy in a much richer way, which means helping individuals fulfill their potential.

Learning experiences through online learning will be able to slide into the schools, to create the right experience for each individual student.

Cristina Wagner: In your experience, what are the determinant factors to achieve student success?

Michael Horn: There are two elements I think about. The first one is the academic preparedness side of things: Are we giving students a learning experience that is appropriate for them based on their working memory capacity, their background knowledge on the subject, and so forth?

Secondly, we need to think about their motivational level – that is, are students motivated to tackle something because they conclude that they are able to complete a proposed activity successfully?

Cristina Wagner: How can schools and teachers use the opportunities that online learning provides in order to improve student engagement and maximize student success? You say that online learning is considered a disruptive innovation in education, why is that?

Michael Horn: Online learning allows the teacher to be able to move between the students based on their individual needs because it is inherently flexible, and students can learn a given content at their own pace. It can therefore help to deliver the education that is right above their level so that it is sufficiently interesting and challenging, but not too hard that they grow disengaged and conclude that they can never ‘get it’. Also, that it’s not too easy that they grow bored. Online learning can help target and tailor the right learning experience, at the right time. The definition of a disruptive innovation is of an innovation that delivers something far more affordable, convenient, accessible and simple than previously existed, and basically it is disruptive relative to a tutoring experience. Tutoring is expensive for most students; Online learning, for the first time, gives teachers the opportunity to really tutor.

Cristina Wagner: Teachers face a challenge when it comes to new technologies: they tend to get excited about the technology itself and end up forgetting about the learning objectives. What would you say about the educator’s role in keeping the experience focused on the learning goals?

Michael Horn: It is true that a lot of educators get excited for technology’s sake, as opposed to thinking about what students are using these tools for, or if the materials students are delivering thru technology are high-quality. It is really on the educator to start with the fundamental “What am I trying to achieve here,” question. “What problem am I trying to solve, what opportunity am I trying to seize, what am I helping students achieve from a learning objective perspective?” Secondly, they need to question what success looks like in a given context. Then you start to ask how technology can help achieve that objective more efficiently and effectively.

Cristina Wagner: Is there an ideal balance in blended learning? How can schools set that according to their reality? Is there a way low-budget schools can start working with student-centered learning?

Michael Horn: There are all sorts of models and ways of doing this. I think it starts with understanding how much technology would really help my students for what I’m trying to achieve. It is figuring out what you think they need to experience, in order to hit the learning objective. And from a low-budget school’s perspective, absolutely. We see schools that will have one computer for every four to five students, and just do a rotation in a way that only a fifth of the class has to be on the computer at a given time. Often, technology is a way to be able to keep up with schools that have lots of resources.

Cristina Wagner: How is blended learning going to develop in the next few years? What does it mean for the future of schools?

Michael Horn: My sense is that, as blended learning continues to develop, a lot of schools are going to be transformed into much more of a community center, where students are coming to school for academic experiences that make sense for them, supports around them, and so forth. Students will also do a lot of learning outside of school too, thanks to technology. The school as a community center, will offer mixed and matched services – everything from supervision and custodial care, to health and social-emotional needs. Learning experiences through online learning will be able to slide into the schools, to create the right experience for each individual student.

Cristina Wagner: What about the future of student-centered learning?

Michael Horn: We are going to see a lot more robust set of experiences over time, as personalization and student-centered learning march forward. I really want to see where the mobile technologies enter here. Right now, we say online learning, which is in some ways deceiving because, increasingly, mobile devices will be far more affordable and accessible to a much wider population. I think this is really exciting, and already under-encouraged apps like Smartly and Duolingo create unbelievable active learning experiences that are extremely engaging, and are some of the coolest ways to learn material now. In this new world of SCL; mobile learning will actually help advance us in the future.

Cristina Wagner: What other trends and opportunities do you see for educational institutions in the next couple of decades?

Michael Horn: In addition to thinking about personalization, educational institutions should do a few things. They should think very seriously about how and what interventions they are personalizing. What is most likely to get the results that they want to achieve? What are those results?

Secondly, as this brings up academic timings, meaning that we can potentially learn certain concepts faster, we should give schools and educational institutions time to think much more deeply about social capital. How we are paying attention to who students know, and how those connections can create opportunities in their lives.

Lastly, there is a lot of conversation around what some people call non-cognitive skills, and others call habits of success — traits like perseverance and agency. I think educators are to think about how they use the technology that is coming online to better measure and support the development of those habits. Well, if we look at what students actually do when confronted with a new problem in online technology, we can measure their response rates to see how engaged are they. We can learn a lot more about those habits of success in technology than we have done at this point. Also, we know that learning does not happen without an emotional connection, so schools should help students develop the ability to control their emotions so they can be high functioning individuals in society. A school thinking about that as part of a whole child development program is absolutely imperative, and serves the personalization. I do not think we want that to mean fragmentation of the student’s experience, but instead, the optimization of a student’s experience.