Innovator | Feature

Building a Blended School

Rich Kiker is the director of online learning at Palisades School District (PA). Here, he talks about how he helped build an online learning environment that offers expanded choice for students and plenty of professional development and support for teachers.

The Right Blend
I was a teacher in this district, then I left and was spending most of my time consulting. I was asked to come back to help build a K-12 online school that would be flexible and blended enough to meet diverse needs. We knew this program would be an asset for things like when students were traveling or on homebound instruction, but the bigger question was, “How do we serve our children and prepare our teachers to perform in the environment that we’re calling college- and career-ready?” We felt strongly that blended learning is not only a new and modern instructional model, but it’s proven. With an online component, you can use the classroom for project-based learning, enhance and remediate, enrich during the online time, and you don’t have gaps in learning.

A Relaxed Environment
At the secondary level, we now offer close to 20 fully online courses. In these, there is plenty of opportunity for blended learning. The teachers all get a period of their day during which kids can come in and meet with them. We’ve built cyber centers — areas set up to be warm and inviting, staffed by full-time support teachers — where students who are taking online courses can operate in a more relaxed space than the four walls of the classroom.

Expanded Choice
Part of our plan was to think about how we customize the learning process for students. Can students overload their schedule to graduate early? And how do we bring in MOOCs — these emerging open courses — and provide elective credits to our students? This is our current focus, trying to drive choice and increase student autonomy. So we’re implementing three-year graduation outcomes, and with MOOCs students can get rich experiences in electives that we’ll never be able to offer — subjects like oceanography, advanced programming or electrical engineering.

How to Succeed with Teachers
When you’re setting up an online program, you have to involve the teacher’s voice early. It would be easy for them to misinterpret what we were doing as, “The district is trying to take our jobs.” They need to be stakeholders and decision-makers in the process. Assisting them with content and professional development is also critical. You can’t just say, “We’re going to move your class online. Good luck.” We went with Blended Schools, which provides Common Core-aligned courses that teachers can adapt and make their own. In addition to our internal time for professional development, as part of the package Blended Schools provides support to teachers: on-site training, regular online webinars and other online professional development opportunities.

Spreading the Word
Google Apps for Education is a free and open online suite of productivity tools — from spreadsheets, text documents and presentations to blogs and websites — that gives students anytime/anywhere access. With the stress on school budgets and the pressure on our school boards to do a lot more with the same amount of dollars, it was really a no-brainer to look at that at Palisades. The students can access their documents at home, share and collaborate in real time on resources, build e-portfolios and use them for displaying proficiency or mastery in any set of standards. I went through the Google certified trainer program in education after I left teaching, received my official certification, and continue to present and support districts all around the country in finding the best solutions. I’m the top-rated trainer in the marketplace right now, which is a huge personal success. Knowing that I’ve impacted teachers that way is such a great reward.

Value Added
All of this isn’t about changing education; it’s about improving it. We should never leave behind the face-to-face instructional strategies that have been wonderful for the last 50 years. If you have a great diorama project in your fourth-grade classroom, don’t stop doing that. But now we can add to these pieces. First we provide the access and bandwidth for on-site devices, then we give students autonomy in how they become proficient with the material — navigating and building supports for the classroom, but letting the inquiry and discovery happen. When you put those things together, you’re creating the space for students to build amazing things and find what’s awesome.

About the Author

Dan Gordon is a freelance writer based in Agoura Hills, CA.