Blended Learning | August 2012 Digital Edition

9 Keys to Success in Hybrid Programs

Strategies to help develop the right environment for blended learning

For blended learning to work well, students must navigate both in-class and at-home curriculum

credit: Scotty Reifsnyder


This article, along with a video on New Mexico's statewide hybrid learning program, NM-IDEAL, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's August 2012 digital edition.

Blended learning exists at the intersection between traditional face-to-face instruction and online learning, although to what extent each component is employed is open to interpretation. The ratio between offline and online instruction can vary widely from school to school, but both elements must be present to qualify as true blended learning.

1) Assess Student Learning Goals Through Collaboration
Since schools traditionally measure student progress by seat time, a model in which part of the learning happens outside the classroom presents new challenges, requiring districts to figure out both how to assure that learning is really taking place and how to stay accountable to state systems. One solution: Bring stakeholders at the school together regularly to collaborate on how students are progressing.

Elaine Manicke, principal of Rio Rancho Cyber Academy in Rio Rancho, NM, and her team build this collaboration right into their schedule, meeting every Friday to review the previous week's student activities, catalog specific student goals achieved, and ensure that all the activities teachers and students undertake are documented in order to meet mandates. "We have done this in such depth, we know the program, we know the curriculum, and we have a governance model that provides for collaboration," she says.

Heidi Parnell, program manager of the Rio Rancho Cyber Academy, says her district's first LMS provider took up to two weeks to process grade changes, which caused some in the district to lose enthusiasm for the program. A change in vendors, however, rekindled their dedication.
Specifically, the new vendor provided educators, students, and parents with separate system log-ins, allowing them to share documents and information among themselves. "That information is being shared with all stakeholders now," Parnell says. "That helps those students be accountable for what they're doing, and it helps the school to know that everything is being documented--that beyond the shadow of a doubt the data is there for everyone."

The relationship between the district and the vendor should be viewed as a long-term partnership--one that fosters cooperative problem solving throughout its life.

2) Set Ground Rules With Vendors
The backbone of any hybrid environment is its LMS, which school districts usually look to third-party companies to provide. But just because you're handing off some aspects of your program doesn't mean you hand over the reins. Even the CEO of a company that offers such off-the-shelf programs says it is important for schools to maintain control of their own initiatives.

"The only way you can change the climate in your school district is by owning the initiative and empowering your teachers to teach in a hybrid environment," says Jed Friedrichsen, CEO of Blendedschools.net, which sells courses, software, and related PD for blended learning. "My advice to any school is to look toward teaching your own students, and do it your own way," he says.

When choosing a vendor, look for ones that are responsive to your specific needs and those of your students, advises Manicke. One key element is quick retrieval of data for all users, which facilitates learning. Heidi Parnell, program manager of the Rio Rancho Cyber Academy, says her district's first LMS provider took up to two weeks to process grade changes, which caused some in the district to lose enthusiasm for the program. A change in vendors, however, rekindled their dedication.

Specifically, the new vendor provided educators, students, and parents with separate system log-ins, allowing them to share documents and information among themselves. "That information is being shared with all stakeholders now," Parnell says. "That helps those students be accountable for what they're doing, and it helps the school to know that everything is being documented--that beyond the shadow of a doubt the data is there for everyone." The relationship between the district and the vendor should be viewed as a long-term partnership--one that fosters cooperative problem solving throughout its life.

3) Put Learning Needs Before Technology
A hybrid model has the potential to increase choices for students, since customized instruction can be tailored to each child's needs, says Lisa Andrejko, superintendent of Quakertown Community School District (PA), which currently has 1,800 students involved in blended learning. But Andrejko also adds that administrators must resist the temptation to design the technology before identifying the educational requirements. Instead, look first at the kinds of options you want to offer students and the learning outcomes you want to achieve, and then build a system based upon those needs.

As an example, Andrejko's district carved out space for a "cyber commons" area in the school library where students can work collegially, pursuing topics that spark their imaginations. "We didn't start with the technology in mind first," she points out. "We said, 'How do we make flexible options for kids?' That whole piece of engagement is actually opening the doors of the school and allowing kids to take part in what they find interesting."

One student's passion was video production, and she chose to spend three hours a day in the school's production lab. "So she freed up her morning to do what she loves, and then takes two of her other courses online," Andrejko says. "That's the kind of flexibility we're talking about. That's how we get students engaged." 

4) Arrange Adequate Tech Support
Gideon Sanders, director of partnerships for McKinley Technology High School in Washington, DC, is in the enviable position of having three district-paid, on-location certified technicians who can troubleshoot technical issues for teachers. They also conduct routine professional development workshops to help teachers become more actively involved with the technology. This serves a dual purpose of having a well-trained staff and offering reassurance to instructors that they will be able to teach unimpeded by technical hindrances.

"You want to have activities where (teachers) are testing the system early, so they know they can access things from home, or from wherever they happen to be working," Sanders says. "They want to test their passwords, for instance, or their download speeds, whatever it happens to be."

5) Use a Hybrid Model for Professional Development   
Hands-on professional development is an essential key to success in blended-learning programs, says Abshire, whose Calcasieu district conducts its PD within the hybrid environment itself, with teachers participating in collaborative effort such as building lessons together. Each PD session in Abshire's district features both face-to-face and online instruction.

The district also prepares teachers to design or redesign curriculum for a hybrid delivery, building a solid knowledge base for its staff along the way. "Once (teachers) were able to build confidence in working in a new and evolving environment, then we were able to say to them in a very strategic way, 'Okay, you have now taken an online class, you've seen the benefits, you've seen the opportunities. Now, let's brainstorm: What could you do with it if you were the instructor?'"

One of Abshire's most important pieces of advice for administrators: Do not rush through the professional training required to make the switch to the hybrid model, but instead allow the time to go through the process "at a pace that's actually going to work for your educational organization," she says.

6) Turn Teachers Into Curators
Creating a quality hybrid program can entail shifting some responsibility over to teachers for curating content, as schools seek to develop an online repository of affordable, high-quality learning materials. Virginia Padilla-Vigil, executive director of Innovative Digital Education and Learning in Santa Fe, NM, recommends that, rather than having a developer "just kind of floating around in cyberspace looking for resources," a district should develop a vetting structure that categorizes content by how it meets district curriculum requirements.

"The structure that works for us is getting content experts, so the teacher really understands the content at a deep level, and pairing that content specialist up with an instructional designer, who specializes in packaging educational materials in an online format that is going to engage students," Padilla-Vigil says.

7) Prepare in Advance for Higher-Quality Face Time
A blended learning program gives teachers opportunities they might not have imagined to use the online portion of instruction to inform and enrich face time with students, says Barbara Treacy, director of EdTech Leaders Online Education Development Center in Waltham, MA. For example, an instructor in a classroom may choose to use in-person time to focus on a small group of struggling students, while other students not in need of additional reinforcement for a particular lesson continue to work on projects independently, she says. Because the teacher is able to mine information gathered from students' online work, the two groups can be divided up before class begins.

"You may come in and realize, when you see the class face to face, there's actually some very specific things you learned from the online part that's going to inform what you do in the face-to-face time," she says.

8) Assign Student Mentors
Orcas Island School District's (WA) hybrid program pairs students with assigned mentors, in addition to their distance-learning teachers. Mentors give students reminders and help them set timelines for projects. A common discussion time can be helpful, too, says Superintendent Barbara Kline.

Niles Community Schools' (MI) hybrid program also has assigned mentors and teachers, both online and on-site, but it goes a bit further by emphasizing almost constant contact with students via an exchange of daily e-mails, as opposed to merely a "checking-in process" that some systems require. There is a fairly rigorous procedure at the beginning of the school year in which students are matched with a series of different mentors until the relationship clicks. 

The program's requirement that students e-mail mentors daily, with the mentor serving as both coach and guidance counselor, facilitates engagement, says Bill Prenkert, team leader for Niles Community Schools' Widening Advancements for Youth (WAY) Program, a nonprofit associated with the district. It encourages students to "develop habits and routines of how to get together, pick projects, what to look for, what content areas that they still need to finish credit in, and (to) progress on a daily basis," Prenkert says.

Another key to success is soliciting weekly reports from the mentors. The report includes how many times the mentor tried to contact the student through e-mail and any and all responses. "If a student is just typing in, 'Yeah, I'm fine' and that's it, we know that the engagement with the mentor is not that strong," Prenkert says. "What we look for is communication between the two.'"

9) Let Teachers Experiment Collaboratively
Give teachers a break from teaching, gather them together in a workshop, distribute an array of tech tools, and then give them a chance to experiment. B. Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent of Burlington Public Schools in Burlington, MA, says he tries to build in a "a good amount of playtime into our professional development." The strategy encourages teachers to become more comfortable collaboratively sharing in person.

"We're trying to make sure that, first and foremost, teachers get more time together to share best practices and see what's working for them," he says. "If they haven't gotten comfortable sharing in person, I don't think you're going to make the transition to start sharing stuff in an online environment."

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