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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Blended Learning in the Age of COVID-19

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 19, 2020 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

This new series continues a 25-post “blitz” that began on Aug. 1 supporting teachers as we enter a pandemic-fueled school year.

You can see all the posts from this month, as well as the 60 from the spring, at All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Many schools will begin this year in a hybrid situation, with students attending a physical school part time and spending the remaining hours in remote asynchronous instruction. Other districts, like ours, will begin the year entirely online, with students spending part of their time in live classes while working on their own during other parts of the day.

This series may be able to provide some support for teachers trying to figure out how to make this new learning environment work...

Today, Alfonso Gonzalez, Janice Wyatt-Ross, and Kait Gentry share their advice.

The Core 4 of distance learning

Alfonso Gonzalez has been teaching grades 4-8 for 29 years. He is a national-board-certified teacher in the area of early-adolescent generalist with a master’s of arts in teaching and has completed two ISTE Capstone certifications. He tweets regularly at @educatoral and blogs often at Mr. Gonzalez’s Classroom:

With schools all over the world redesigning because of COVID-19, blended learning is becoming a new normal. Blended learning has been around for a while and is the combination of traditional face-to-face instruction with aspects of online instruction all while students are in the classroom with the teacher. Blended learning strives to provide students the best of both face-to-face and online learning experiences. Blended classrooms include face-to-face instruction techniques such as direct instruction or lecture, group discussions, and small-group work while also using technology to provide in-class online learning that students can do at home provided they have access to necessary technology.

Online instruction is often facilitated by a Learning Management System or LMS. An LMS is where the instructor puts all the lessons and activities that students must work through to successfully complete the course. Typical LMS’s that schools use include Canvas, Schoology, Blackboard, and even Google Classroom. If you’re looking for an LMS that can support gamification, check out Classcraft. Just as whole-class discussion and small-group work are staples of face-to-face instruction, discussion forums and asynchronous learning are staples of online learning. Blended classrooms can empower students who are introverted or shy to share their ideas and learn from others using discussion forums where conversations that were started in class can continue well after the class ends.

Teachers who never taught an online course, never used an LMS, and maybe even hardly used technology in their classroom with their students had to learn how to use an LMS and put their often analog or nondigital work, assignments, activities, labs, etc., on an LMS, and they had to do that very quickly. Now that many of us have some time before school starts up again, we can better prepare.

During the spring, as we were offering 100 percent online education to our students, many teachers from my district and all over Washington state took an online course to learn how to teach online. The course, offered by Reimagine WA ED, a Jeff Utecht Consulting Co., called Shifting School: Implementing Distance Learning, gave us strategies to support our students during their forced at-home-online-learning.

One of the big takeaways for me from the course that applies to online learning and therefore blended learning is what they call the Core 4 of distance learning. School districts, or at least schools, should agree on what systems they are going to use to provide online learning. First, schools need to determine which LMS they will use so that all students, regardless of grade level or teacher, are using the same system. Many schools that already used Google Education tools chose Google Classroom. Second, schools need to determine what teachers and students will use for file storage and sharing. Google Education schools used Google Drive, for example. Third, schools need to determine how teachers will connect with students synchronously for online meetings. Many schools used Zoom or Google Meet. Fourth, schools need to determine what teachers will use for recording video lessons for asynchronous learning. Chrome users use Screencastify for screencasting (recording what you are doing on your computer screen), but services such as Loom and Screencast-O-Matic were also quite popular.

With your Core 4, you can provide your students online learning experiences when they are with you in class, and if or when schools have to shut down again and go 100 percent online, your students will be ready because they will have learned how to use the tech tools needed to learn at home! Now that schools and teachers are being forced to incorporate educational technology and seriously implement blended learning because we will have students working from home, all students will have access to this learning model. Even before COVID, kids were very likely to learn, get higher education degrees, or do on-the-job training through blended learning or online learning, so the sooner kids are exposed to those modes of learning the better prepared they will be for their future learning. It is my hope that two of the many good things to come from this pandemic are more equitable access to technology and connectivity as well as more teachers incorporating technology in their courses.

Flexibility is key

Janice Wyatt-Ross has a bachelor’s in special education from the University of Central Arkansas, a master’s in special education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and a doctorate in urban educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati. Her career began as an elementary special education teacher, and she has held such positions as a consulting teacher, compliance specialist, field-service assistant professor with the University of Cincinnati, gap-reduction specialist, associate principal at Bryan Station High School in Kentucky, administrative dean at Cardinal Valley Elementary in Kentucky, assistant professor at Asbury University, and director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. She is now the program director for the Success Academy of the Fayette County public schools in Kentucky:

In recent years, it has been harder and harder to educate students in the age of social media. Gone are the days when students would be docile and compliant while sitting and listening to a teacher lecture for an hour. How do teachers in the classrooms compete with upbeat music, realistic photos, flashy videos, and friends there to like and share content with all from the palm of students’ hands? How do you harness these features and bring all of this to the classroom? Now add the barrier of high school students who are delayed in their progression toward graduation and a diploma because many of them got caught up in the frenzy of being social. As the director of a dropout-prevention and re-engagement center, I am addressing this dilemma every day. One way we address re-engaging students in school is through blended learning.

Blended learning for our program is a combination of digital learning, which can be accessed anywhere the student has internet access, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; face-to-face instruction with a certified instructor; and project-based community-service learning activities. Combining all of this with a staff who is persistent in making sure students visualize the goal of completing high school and beyond, there is no justification for students being left behind. Students are attracted to this model because they can work at their own pace while having teachers on hand to give guidance in the areas that they need help, and they can give back to the community. Students receive grades based on a combination of their completion of coursework through the digital learning system and lessons teachers create based on standards addressed in the community-based projects. We have developed a curriculum framework around five elements that are the foundation of our blended learning model. The most energizing aspect of this framework is that teachers have the autonomy to take risks and be as innovative as they can think to be.

We plan to continue this model even in the era of COVID-19 with virtual instruction. As we plan for what school will look like this year, we will incorporate live virtual instructional sessions with recorded on-demand lesson presentations. Students will still have access to their digital learning program, but this will be supplemented with live sessions and prerecorded teacher mini-lessons that students can also watch if they are unable to attend the live sessions and need additional help. Each teacher will have virtual office hours to answer student questions and to provide feedback on assignments. Community members will be invited to speak with students during virtual sessions to aid students in their project-based learning activities.

This framework is not for everyone. Teachers and administrators have to be willing to be flexible and be vulnerable enough to admit mistakes and not take it personally when an idea is not successful. Re-engaging students back into school does not lend itself to following a prescribed pacing guide or teacher’s manual. This framework requires lots and lots of planning, reflection, and sometimes revising on the spot. Did I mention that this framework requires flexibility? Every new group of students will have a new set of needs and interests. To be student-centered, culturally responsive, and tailored to student interests, this framework has to be flexible. Our framework is individualized, intervening, intensive, intentional, and immediate.

The flipped-classroom model

Kait Gentry is the middle school learning and support coordinator at Calvert School in Baltimore, where she has taught for 12 years in both middle and lower school. Kait has overseen the development and expansion of Calvert’s Lyceum learning center, which serves the entire middle school student body through both structured and optional enrichment and support periods:

Like many educators, I leapt into the world of virtual learning last spring due to COVID-19 school closures. While some teachers have spent years immersed in the world of technology, many of us were adjusting to sitting behind a screen and figuring out how to best translate the benefits of in-person learning to the virtual world and how to use technology-supported instruction to enhance student learning.

Blended learning, in the traditional sense, combines in-person teacher-student interactions with online learning tools to support overall instruction for both the teacher and student. And with the widespread use of technology in teaching and learning, there are numerous ways to approach blended learning today.

However, as we shifted to distance learning last spring, we had to take the best of blended learning and adjust it to exist in a completely virtual world. Prior to COVID-19, we had explored the flipped- classroom model, which is a popular form of blended learning that typically layers instructional videos to be consumed independently at home, with time spent in the classroom focused on working through assignments, extension activities, or application problems. As we transitioned to remote learning, we worked to capture the benefits of “traditional” in-person learning through live, virtual small-group classes, which allowed students to ask clarifying questions in real time and to provide peer-to-peer learning opportunities, as well as critical social interactions. While there were so many educational losses this spring, this virtual flipped classroom provided opportunities for students to engage in discussions and instruction in smaller groups than would normally occur in a classroom setting. I found that this was ideal for our quieter students (who loved using the chat feature to share ideas) and also allowed teachers to connect with students in even deeper, more authentic ways despite the distance.

The flipped-classroom model, whether virtual or in person, has been a gift for many of my students, most notably those with learning differences or more introverted kids. This model provided the opportunity for students to review new learning materials prior to class beginning, which increased their confidence in the materials and academic engagement during live discussions, as well as encouraged all students to process new material independently. One of the biggest challenges that some students face is relying on peers and teachers to do the work of content “digestion” for them—making connections to prior knowledge or predicting future connections or patterns. The flipped model places a greater emphasis on the student putting in more of their own intellectual effort, leading to greater retention of the material and a significant increase in confidence.

Blended learning also incorporates online learning tools, whether it is in class or at home, that can offer more personalized learning experiences for students. For example, vocabulary development can vary drastically among individual students. Using an online tool like InferCabulary allows my students to work through developing new vocabulary words at their own pace and level. Over time, the program learns what words a student has mastered and which words still need additional work, providing a more customized learning experience than traditional pen and paper vocabulary assignments. This leads to greater retention as well as broader extension and usage of the words in a variety of contexts. Furthermore, the program incorporates gamification to keep students engaged and motivated.

As teachers work through the unknowns of the 2020-21 school year, educators will have to continue to examine and evaluate how to maximize teacher-student interactions as well as online learning tools to support instruction and student development. While this year is sure to bring more challenges, it is equally likely that there will be incredible growth and development along the way.

Thanks to Alfonso, Janice, and Kait for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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