13 Keys to Successful Blended Learning
Educators share their best practices for tech-enabled pedagogy, from building capacity to implementing lessons to supporting teachers and students.
Transforming a mishmash of educational technologies into a coherent “blended learning” model is fast becoming the holy grail of modern education. With so much software and hardware already in place, making blended learning work is less about acquiring technology, and more about changing mindsets. Susan O. Moore, supervisor of blended learning at Meriden Public Schools (CT), breaks the implementation of blended learning into five stages:
- Build the capacity of staff members to support each other in the transition to a blended learning environment. Provide opportunities for staff to visit each other’s classrooms and collaborate.
- Allow teachers and students the freedom to fail and learn from mistakes.
- Engage student experts to support each other and their teachers in learning new technologies. “We had students present on technology tools to teachers during one of our professional development days,” Moore said. A student introduced her to Google Keep, which has become one of the apps she uses most.
- Encourage students and teachers to take charge of their learning. Providing control over “time, place, path and/or pace” comes with responsibility. For example, a student might have access to digital content during the high school pep rally, but is that the best time and place to retain the information? Teachers may need additional training in using rotation models or creating digital content. “They need to model extending learning beyond the classroom,” said Moore.
- Take the first step. As Moore put it, “We have had several reluctant teachers who, after implementing their first blended learning lesson, wondered why they hadn’t tried the approach sooner.”
Moore cautioned against waiting for the ideal time to launch a blended learning initiative. “We will never have all of the devices, all of the access points, the perfect content, the perfect classroom setting, and all the stars aligned in just the right way,” she said. “What we will always have are students who are counting on us as education professionals to lead the way, and that starts with a first step.”
Blending From the Beginning
Relatively new charter schools have the luxury of starting with the primary goal of establishing a cogent blended learning curriculum. The Village Green Virtual Charter School in Providence, RI, launched in September 2013 with a three-pronged approach.
“Number one is maximizing technology in courseware,” said Robert Pilkington, the superintendent at Village Green Virtual. “Number two is maximizing teacher efficacy in the face-to-face role, and three is providing supreme equity in access for all kids with a rigorous, high-quality curriculum.”
John Butler, the director of academic planning and logistics at Village Green Virtual, reported that actual class instruction is made up of 60 percent online and 40 percent face-to-face teaching. Village Green officials believe the 60/40 approach makes sense for schools looking to boost their blended learning efficacy, but they are by no means tied down by the ratio.
Kevin Cordeiro, social studies teacher in the Second Learning Center and mobile learning coordinator at Village Green, puts it this way: “The way blended learning plays out in the classroom is you are trying to have little to no false boundary between kids learning digitally or in a traditional method. The kids don’t distinguish between learning in a traditional way, or using some type of digital medium, or using a mobile device. The kids use every resource available to them for the best possible education.”
Finding the Right Blend
Meriden’s Moore said that a crucial step toward blending learning is realizing that “blended” does not necessarily mean “high-tech and/or Web-based.” She explained, “Many people equate blended learning with online learning — all digital, all the time. Blended learning is a balance between digital and classroom learning. The balancing point may vary from student to student. Blended learning allows for variation supported by digital tools.”
Assuming districts have a baseline level of adequate digital tools, Moore sees no reason why teachers and administrators can’t immediately take steps to better shape or create a blended learning model. In the classroom, the program can take many forms, such as extra help for algebra. “Many students struggle with Algebra 1 as high school freshmen,” Moore said. “One teacher [in Meriden] is using a combination of self-created and existing videos to teach and reinforce concepts. Quick response (QR) codes direct students to material that allows them to learn or apply a content standard. Students are able to access this content anytime, anywhere, using school-issued devices.”
To support students’ learning, the teacher then rotates through the class offering small-group instruction. “Once students have demonstrated success in the ‘apply’ activities, they complete the lesson assessment through a randomized quiz in Moodle,” Moore said. If students demonstrate mastery, they continue on to the next lesson. If not, the teacher provides additional support.
For Traci Blazosky, a fourth-grade teacher at Clarion Area Elementary (PA), being prepared to offer these “multiple pathways to engage in content” is probably the most important step toward successful blended learning. Additional steps from Blazosky (who teaches at a BYOD school) include the following:
- Knowing the resources and technology students can access at home, as partially determined by a Google Doc survey for parents at the beginning of each school year;
- knowing your objective and thinking about the route you will take;
- knowing what technology must be added to further engage students; and
- modeling how you want the process to look in your classroom. Some teachers go with a flipped classroom approach where they show a teacher-made video on a concept. The students watch and get an idea of what they will be learning, then explore it from there.
In the classroom, Blazosky’s blended learning model evolves depending on the topic. In a recent social studies lesson, she used a Discovery Education Social Studies online techbook, which employed blended learning to teach students about the Boston Massacre. “Using multi-media, we go to Discovery, BrainPOP and interactive simulations online,” said Blazosky, who also serves as an adjunct professor at Wilkes University (PA). “That really let my kids dig deep and differentiate between fact and opinion.”
Using the blended approach, students examined multiple points of view from primary sources while other students “analyzed pictures and answered questions about what they saw, while another group did a simulation online, and another small group looked at facts based on results of the trial.”
The blended approach has been effective for Blazosky, significantly boosting her students’ test scores. “On a scale of 3, my growth was 2.81 on the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS), which tracks the growth of my students,” she enthused. “My principal said, ‘Wow, have you checked out your PVAAS scores? You’re my hero.’ I have always done this blended approach to learning, and I really feel my students have shown better results because of it.”
Scott Ellis, CEO and co-founder of nonprofit group The Learning Accelerator, believes that results like Blazosky’s can happen all over the country, and his mission is to help implement blended learning on a nationwide scale. He sees differentiated learning as one of the many benefits of truly blended learning.
“We want to make learning competency-based so kids move forward at their own pace as they master content,” he said. “You have 30 kids in a classroom who are at different places in their learning, and now students can learn something at one station, and 30 seconds later, when they talk to the teacher at the next station, the teacher can look at the results and help the student. We’re not all doing this yet … so while we’ve made great strides, there is a lot more to go to get the transformation in teaching and learning that we’re all looking for.”