Blended Learning Sports Variety of Approaches
As schools mix online instruction and face-to-face learning, educators are identifying promising hybrid approaches
As blended learning models, which mix face-to-face and online instruction, become more common in schools, classroom educators and administrators alike are navigating the changing role of teachers—and how schools can best support them in that new role.
"This is a whole new world for education," says Royce Conner, the acting head of school for the 178-student San Francisco Flex Academy, a public charter school.
In the grades 9-12 school, students spend about half the day working on "the floor"—a large open room of study carrels where students hunker down with their laptops to work with online curricula provided by K12 Inc.—and the other half of the day in pullout groups with teachers. Which students are in pullout groups, when the groups meet, and how often they meet depend on the progress each student is making in his or her online classes, says Conner.
Having a passion for using data is one of the skills that Conner looks for in his teachers, he says, since it becomes such an integral part of their planning process each week.
The school employs one teacher for each subject area—math, history, science, and English—so each teacher needs to have a wide breadth and depth of content knowledge, Conner says.
Meghan Jacquot is the school's English teacher. "I'm teaching everything from freshman [English] to AP," she says. "It makes the job both intellectually stimulating and intellectually challenging." Because students work through curricula online, instead of in a face-to-face class, teachers are able, however, to focus on academic intervention and enrichment instead of traditional lesson planning and content delivery, she says.
"It would be impossible to do this job without that framework [of online-delivered curriculum]," says Jacquot.
Since the school opened in fall 2010, it has hired mostly new teachers, in their first or second year of teaching, says Conner. Those teachers go through about 40 hours of professional development before they begin teaching. They also receive ongoing, in-person training at the school.
At the Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School in Yuma, Ariz., students spend about half their time working through online courses from the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based curriculum provider e2020 and the other half in workshops and small-group instruction with face-to-face teachers, says Rick Ogston, the founder and chief executive officer of Carpe Diem Schools, a public school model that uses technology to improve education. "Our teachers are different," Ogston says. "They're there to facilitate learning, to coach, and to mentor."
Jaya Chopra has been teaching science at Carpe Diem for seven years.
"All our instruction is data-driven," says Chopra, "so we know where each student is and where their struggles are."
Students are grouped on the basis of what they're learning and the data that teachers receive on their progress.
As with the San Francisco Flex Academy, a wide range of content knowledge is important for teachers at Carpe Diem because there is only one teacher for each content area, serving grades 6-12.
Louis Van Hook has been teaching social studies and history at Carpe Diem for 10 years. "Because of the online direct instruction, I don't have to do the curriculum, so I actually work on enrichment and have time to remediate [with students]," he says.
Ogston, the school's founder and chief executive officer, says learning to adapt into that new role requires a shift for teachers. "They don't grade a lot of papers, but they've got to do a lot of assessing and analyzing data," he says. "They don't traditionally come fully equipped to understand and aggregate the data."
Those are skills that can be learned, though, and each teacher goes through professional development to help in understanding how to use the data effectively, Ogston says.
Like the San Francisco Flex Academy and the Carpe Diem schools, Rocketship Education takes content delivery out of the hands of the teachers and uses data analysis to help inform teachers of what their students need.
Rocketship Education currently operates five K-5 schools serving about 2,500 students in San Jose, Calif., and will expand to include 20 more in California over the next several years, says Sherri Dairiki, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit elementary school charter network.
In the Rocketship model, students spend part of the day in a face-to-face environment with teachers and part of the day in what the schools call the Learning Lab, where they use software to focus on math and literacy skills. About 90 percent of the schools' students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and three-quarters of the students are English-language learners.
The blended model allows a Rocketship school to provide one less teacher and one less classroom than a traditional school with a comparable number of students, and the money that is saved as a result is funneled back into the classroom, says Dairiki. The money is being used to update facilities as well as pay teachers 10 percent to 20 percent more than the district average, she says.
About 75 percent of the teachers for Rocketship Education come from Teach For America, the nationally known program that recruits and trains recent graduates of top colleges to teach in low-income communities.
"The culture of Teach For America is really aligned with our mission," says Dairiki, which is to eliminate the achievement gap related to racial and socio-economic disparities within our lifetime. Rocketship Education employs first- and second-year TFA corps members, she says, as well as many alumni of the program.
The other 25 percent of teachers come through word of mouth, she says.
In New York City, the 126-student Bronx Arena High School was launched in fall 2011 with a combination of online services, group lessons, and hands-on, real-world experiences. The school, which targets overage, undercredited students, has partnered with the Glen Cove, N.Y.-based social-services organization SCO Family of Services and the Boston-based Diploma Plus. Diploma Plus provides an education model to re-engage students at risk of dropping out.
"All of our classes exist online and in the face-to-face setting so that the students have 24/7 access," says Ty Cesene, the principal of the school. Each student has access to a computer during school to work through the online curriculum, and students are pulled out into "mini-lessons" and small groups to work in person with teachers and peers on project-based learning.
The school uses a combination of online curricula from the Florida Virtual School, Apex Learning, and Aventa Learning.
"Teachers are tracking the students as they progress through the course, doing a series of assessments," says Cesene. "Teachers need to know where each kid is in the course, what the skills are [that they need], and how to address those."
Students play a role in embedding their own interests into their project-based learning to help engage them in the content and get them excited about what they're learning, he says.
"We were looking for [teachers] who could model learning and didn't always have to be the expert in the room," Cesene says. "If students have questions, [the teacher's] job isn't simply to give answers, but to show them how to find [those answers]."
Each student is paired with an advocate counselor to help map out a plan for graduation, and students meet in groups with their counselors twice a week, says Anne Zincke, the program director of the school.
Range of Services
Through the partnership with SCO Family of Services, the school provides a range of social services for students, including home visits, medical assistance, and child care.
In addition, SCO Family of Services partners with the school to provide internships for students; as interns, they are paid the minimum wage to work with various organizations, such as day-care providers and hospitals, to learn life skills such as managing money and keeping up with taxes, Zincke says.
The teacher training for Bronx Arena began in the summer with a weeklong series of professional-development courses.
"My teachers are veterans, and I essentially made them first-year teachers again," says Cesene. "[Part of the challenge] is getting them to manage their own expectations of themselves."
Mike Kerr is the principal for the 231-student KIPP Empower Academy Los Angeles, which serves kindergartners and 1st graders in a blended learning environment. Pupils spend two half-hour blocks on computers each day working with software programs to improve their reading, writing, science, and math skills, and then cycle through to small-group learning with face-to-face instructors for the rest of the day.
"Blended learning is still so new at the early-childhood and elementary school level that schools are still learning how to best recruit teachers for the model," Kerr says. "We like to see folks that have the capacity to manage classrooms effectively and who can maximize instruction time."
As in other models, teachers use data to group students and provide individualized feedback and instruction for them.
"Because of the data that we are able to glean from our online content, teachers really need to be adept at looking through that content with their administrator," says Kerr. "A lot of the professional development comes into data analysis and really knowing how to use that information to best meet the needs of students."
"A big part of it is eliminating the need for teachers to be spending countless hours grading papers and doing all that kind of clerical work," he says. "There's more one-on-one time with students, and the teachers love the freedom they have with the small groups. They can give kids the attention they need."
Instructional assistants help teachers troubleshoot technical issues, so being tech-savvy is not necessarily a critical component to teacher success at KIPP Empower Academy Los Angeles, Kerr says.
But it's not just individual schools that are making the move to blended models.
The 125,000-student Prince George's, Md., school system, just outside Washington, is making strides toward a more blended approach to its students' education. Last school year, about 100 teachers went through training provided by the Maryland Department of Education to learn how to teach online, says Lisa Spencer, the director of instructional technology training and support.
Some teachers volunteered to go through the training themselves, while others were specifically targeted by administrators to expand the offerings for students throughout the district.
David Eagle is the district's coordinator for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and sat classes. Eagle works in the office of college and career readiness and was part of the push last year to enable the expansion of AP offerings in the district by providing online AP courses taught by district teachers.
This year, the district offered five AP classes online, all taught by AP teachers in the district.
Gloria Keaton is the program manager for access Online for Prince George's County schools, which stands for "alternative, community-based evening and summer school." In this model, which primarily serves students in need of credit recovery for graduation, students receive 80 percent of their curriculum through online content and 20 percent in a face-to-face environment.
"Students are required to come into the lab for at least two hours at least twice a week," says Keaton. And although the online learning component requires more independence than a traditional school model for students to be successful, the face-to-face part helps keep students grounded, she says.
"For our young people, I really believe that it's the face-to-face that helps them keep up with what they're doing," Keaton says.
The online curriculum the students use is provided through the Baltimore-based Connections Academy, a for-profit online education provider. Every Friday, the teachers who help students in the computer lab have a chance to speak with their students' online teachers provided through Connections, Keaton says.
Focus on Graduation
Last summer, the Prince Georges district ran a pilot blended learning program called On Track to Graduation for 200 students from five high schools.
"Students came in to take one credit," says Camella Doty, an instructional technology specialist for the Prince George's County district. "[Students] stayed for four hours per day, working with a mentor or a teacher."
Each lab provided mentors to help students with the online curriculum, provided through the Seattle-based Apex Learning, as well as teachers who divided the students into small groups for extra instruction. In the end, 89 percent of the students passed their courses.
Training for the teachers began six months beforehand, says Doty. Teachers were required to have experience taking an online class; they then went through the state-provided online professional development. Next, each teacher shadowed another teacher in either a blended or online learning environment. And lastly, teachers received training on the learning-management system the district uses.
"We put them through rigorous training," Doty says. "For a lot of the teachers, it was their first time teaching online."
Feedback from the teachers revealed that the most challenging part was keeping students engaged, on task, and motivated, he says. But overwhelmingly, teachers said learning to teach online also enhanced the way they taught face to face.
"The idea is that we're trying to build a cadre of teachers [to teach in online and blended learning environments]," Doty says. "I've never seen a more dedicated group of teachers."
Vol. 31, Issue 25, Pages 31, 34Published in Print: March 15, 2012, as Blended Learning Mixes it Up