A high school algebra teacher in Lawrence, KS, has her students watch Khan Academy videos for homework, and when they come to class the next day, she gives them a choice of what to do: They can work together on a problem set that puts the lesson into practice, teaching — and learning from — each other. They can work independently on the same problem set. Or, they can listen to the teacher go over the lesson herself in a more intimate, small-group setting.
In Sonoma County, CA, high school students in Catlin Tucker’s N.E.W. (Next Evolution in Work-based Learning) School classroom rotate through various stations as they learn concepts related to a cross-curricular theme. At some of the stations, students work offline by reading handouts or attending small-group “skill labs.” Other stations have students working online, such as doing internet research or reading digital texts from McGraw-Hill’s StudySync or other sources. Then, students break into groups to collaborate on solving a real-world challenge of their own design.
In Meriden, CT, school district leaders have completely reimagined their approach to instruction. Middle school students can take online courses for high school credit, and high school students can plan their own independent studies with the help of a faculty advisor. Meriden is also redesigning its learning spaces so that students can work in a variety of configurations, and district leaders have shifted their spending from printed textbooks to online content to allow for more self-paced, personalized learning.
All three of these scenarios are examples of effective blended learning in action. Blended learning combines the best of face-to-face and online instruction in ways that can customize the learning experience for each student, while making content more accessible.
As these diverse models suggest, blended learning can look very different from one classroom to the next. But when blended learning is done well, it typically involves some form of student choice or agency in their own learning, experts say — and there are other commonalities as well.
Michael B. Horn, co-founder and distinguished fellow of the Christensen Institute, said at least three-fourths of United States school districts have implemented some form of blended learning — and he estimated about 10 million students are benefiting. Besides giving students a choice in how they learn best, Horn said, effective blended learning shares the following characteristics:
- The teacher has an engaged role and is using the technology to get to know students better.
- There is a strong classroom culture in place that is widely shared and practiced. “Every routine, from asking for help to moving from one activity to the next, is very crisp and well understood by students,” Horn said.
- There is a clear purpose to every learning experience. “There should be thoughtfulness and intentionality behind the use of each mode or activity,” he said. “It’s not done ad hoc.” Instead, there is a strategy behind it: “I’m using this modality to accomplish this specific purpose — and here’s why.”
Redefining the Teacher’s Role
In the Lawrence Public Schools, “we have blended learning classrooms at all grade levels and in all subject areas,” said Jerri Kemble, assistant superintendent for educational programs and technology.
A few years ago, district leaders created a program in which teachers could apply to become blended learning instructors. Applicants received training in how to lead a blended learning environment, and their classrooms were equipped with iPads, MacBooks and collaboration stations featuring flat-panel displays. “We started with eight blended learning classrooms in 2013; now, we have more than 200,” Kemble said.
Blended learning looks different in each of these classrooms. Some teachers, like the high school algebra instructor, have taken a “flipped classroom” approach, Kemble said, while others have adopted a station rotation model. “Elementary classrooms are really well suited for that because they’ve always used that kind of model in setting up various learning stations,” she said.
Blended learning takes more time to plan, she said, because teachers must prepare multiple activities that will appeal to students’ various abilities and learning preferences. To support its blended learning instructors, the district has assembled a group of teachers on special assignment who curate open educational resources for other teachers to use.
“These ‘course shells’ reside in Blackboard, our learning management system,” Kemble said. “Teachers can pull those and use as much or as little of the content as they’d like. It’s a really nice resource for teachers who are just starting to blend their classrooms.”
Tucker, who teaches at Windsor High School in Sonoma County, said she agrees that blended learning requires more work up front. “You’re designing these multiple learning experiences for kids,” she said. “That can be daunting for teachers. But I have to say, it’s so rewarding on a level I never could have imagined when I spent my days using a stand-and-deliver model.”
Tucker co-teaches within a unique blended learning model that she developed with her colleague, Marika Neto. “She takes the lead on science; I take the lead on technology and social media, and then we both share the responsibility for teaching English,” Tucker said. “We share 60 students in two adjoining rooms, and we co-teach for four and a half hours. Instead of teaching those subjects in isolation, we’re teaching them in concert around big issues. For example, our first unit was focused on nutrition, food production and the human body. Students were reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and were doing labs and experiments related to the body’s digestive system and how your body responds to things like sugar.”
Tucker and Neto have access to a Chromebook cart with about 30 devices, and students are encouraged to use their own personal devices as well. “Even if we had a fully 1-to-1 scenario, we wouldn’t have kids go online for every task,” Tucker said. “I think a healthy variety of online and offline activities is crucial to keeping them engaged.”
As they completed the unit on nutrition, students designed their own group projects to address health-related challenges. Some created a website with information about local food options in Sonoma. Others recorded podcasts in which they interviewed health professionals about topics such as the dangers of being a vegan, or whether there is an ideal diet. Still others created infographics to help consumers make healthier food choices.
Tucker said she sees her role shifting from a communicator of knowledge to a designer of engaging, high-quality learning experiences for her students.
“Whenever I’m tempted to stand in front of kids and tell them something,” she said, “I think: Can I create a flipped video so they can self-pace their learning? Can I ask them to research this topic and share what they learn and be experts for each other?”
She added: “I want kids to discover information and make meaning for themselves because it’s so much more powerful when they get to drive the learning.”
Think About What Technology Is Good At
In the Meriden Public Schools, there is a “no zero” grading policy to encourage the completion of all work. Middle and high school students have their own school-issued devices, and students spend part of their class time working independently online, reading digital texts and using courseware from providers such as myON, Discovery Education, Odysseyware and ST Math.
“There are times when there is direct instruction, and there are times for small group or individual work,” said Barbara Haeffner, director of curriculum and instructional technology for the district. In many classrooms, she said, “there are ‘must-do’ activities that students have to complete, and then students can pick from several ‘can-do’ activities as well.”
When students are familiar with the technology and they understand the culture of the classroom, they can work independently at their own pace. “You can give them that choice and know that’s going to be a constructive use of their time,” said Superintendent Mark Benigni.
Part of the challenge in leading blended learning effectively is understanding when — and how — to use technology and when other modalities might be more appropriate.
Educators should “think about what technology is really good at and use it in those ways,” Horn advised. “Technology is really good at delivering content, for example. It’s great for helping people repeat and practice different skills over and over again.”
On the other hand, “technology is not as good at giving robust feedback on a project where you’re moving to much higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy,” he said. “It’s not that great for leading a Socratic discussion among students to reach higher levels of understanding. It’s not as good as a teacher in being able to understand the emotion of a student and try a different approach in the moment to reach that student in a deep, one-on-one way.”
Professional development is critical in helping teachers understand these distinctions.
“You can’t throw a teacher out there and say, ‘OK, start blending,’” Kemble said. “Teachers need to have some structures and ideas in place.”
Lawrence Public Schools provides professional development that is ongoing and embedded. “On two Tuesdays per month, teachers can attend special blended learning sessions covering topics like flipped learning, and they also have time to collaborate on lessons,” she said. “We pay for substitutes to cover the teachers’ classes, and they come to our central office and work here. We also have learning coaches to help them along the way. We feel it’s important for our teachers to be able to grow and move forward with blended learning.”
Meriden also has student-centered learning coaches who work hand in hand with teachers.
“Just like our students are at different levels, our teachers are at different levels as well,” Benigni said. “We don’t expect that teachers will be blended learning experts right away. But we do expect they will embrace this [model] because this is where learning is going. We try to meet teachers where they are and provide staff on-site to support them.”
This article appeared in THE Journal and was written by Dennis Pierce who is a freelance writer with 17 years of experience covering education and technology.