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Putting Students at the Center of Education

• Nathan Martin

A fundamental goal of education should be fixed on one simple question with a million complex answers: “How can we place each student at the center education?”

We at the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) believe digital learning is one important part of that answer. It has proven to be a powerful tool in the hands of committed educators, offering personalized learning for every student, from every background.

While digital learning has the potential to dramatically change the landscape of education, we know that the success of digital learning will depend not on technology but on humans. Unless digital learning solutions are designed and implemented with a focus on the needs of students, the abilities of teachers, and the environment of the school, then all the tablets in the world won’t make a difference in a child’s life.

As we explore in our annual Digital Learning Report Card, digital learning should not be narrowly defined as solely online learning. While it encompasses a student taking a free online course on Dante from an instructor at Georgetown University through EdX, learning the basics of coding with, or enrolling full-time with Florida Virtual School, digital learning also includes what can happen in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Blended learning is one of these exciting, in-person uses of digital learning. Technology and online resources are utilized to reframe instruction, allowing students to have increased control over their learning experience while being guided by a teacher in their classroom.

To assist education leaders as they think through this shift to blended learning, ExcelinEd developed with our partner Getting Smart our Blended Learning Implementation Guide 2.0. When implemented thoughtfully and carefully, blended learning has the power to transform schools, amplify great teachers, and ensure that each student is reaching their own maximum potential. This is happening at Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco, California. Take a look:

The school places a focus on students—not technology. For the 225 students attending Mission Dolores Academy, education is a critical component to future success as 75 percent receive tuition assistance and 40 percent are at or below the federal poverty threshold. Students are in need of intense instruction but the school faces the universal challenges of limited resources and time.

Dan Storz, principal of Mission Dolores Academy, asks the important question, “You have 25 different learners, individuals in your classroom. How do you speak to all of them and to their needs?” School leaders saw the potential of utilizing blended learning as one tool, combined with great teachers, to reach each individual child.

For 1st grader Andrea Flores—Andi—blended learning provides a warm and welcoming tool that’s easy to navigate and helped kick-start her rise from the 4th percentile in reading to the 42nd in a remarkable nine months.

Blended learning is about allowing the teacher to offer differentiated instruction to each student.

“In the past years, without the computers, you would have to go at the teachers pace,” said Manuel Mora, 8th grader. “If you asked them a question, they would try to help and if they couldn’t, they would just move on, because most people had gotten it.”

What is critical about blended learning is that it helps well-meaning teachers, like Manuel’s, by giving them new tools to better serve their students. The students are engaged, energetic and involved in the learning process. It’s an exciting vision and one which is replicated in numerous high-quality classrooms across the country. It’s also one which positions the school to save money and reallocate resources more effectively.

We need more classrooms like Mission Dolores Academy, more places where technology is seen as a highly effective tool, where the needs of students like Andi and Manuel are at the center of education.

About the author

Nathan Martin

Nathan Martin serves as the State Policy Director of Online and Blended Learning for Digital Learning Now. Previously, he worked as the Director of Policy and Alliances for Scantron, an education technology company focusing on digital learning and assessment. Prior to that, he worked in journalism, producing a nationally-syndicated talk radio show, working for the Washington Post and writing for various newspapers in his home state of Mississippi. Nathan received his undergraduate degree from Patrick Henry College. Contact Nathan at