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Blended Learning Is for Teachers, Too

By Contributing Blogger — September 04, 2014 5 min read
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This post is by Beth Rabbitt, a partner at The Learning Accelerator.

On Tuesday, I touched upon some of the ways blended learning can be used to deepen student learning. Today, I’d love to tackle another group we tend not to emphasize in conversations about deeper learning: teachers.

To kick this off, a note about the inspiration for this post. A few weeks ago on this blog, Jal Mehta noted that in his experience students in blended environments find online learning less compelling than the learning they do face-to-face. Much of my anecdotal experience would conflict with this. However, when it comes to weighing the value of interactions with technology against a meaningful experience with other humans, I certainly hope Jal is right. Technology can’t replace the very best of in-person learning. Great teachers remain essential to creating and shepherding student learning through discussion, debate, coaching, advising, encouraging collaboration, and, yes, even using technology as a tool for instruction.

The question becomes, then, what can be done to help teachers be the best they can be, particularly with the new tools they have at their disposal?

In answer to this question, I believe we’ve got to help teachers engage as deep learners in their own profession, moving beyond one-size-fits-all, stand-and-deliver training and professional development (PD). I also believe that blended approaches will be instrumental to this in many of the same ways as for students, by using technology to focus on mastery of key skills with personalized supports and engagement in authentic tasks, while also allowing for choice and collaboration.

To provide a very specific example of what this can look like in action, I’d like to point to approach taken by the Highlander Institute (a grantee ours at TLA) in their trainings for a new teacher fellowship program called Fuse RI. The organization selected an initial cohort of 30 teachers experienced with leading blended learning efforts to extend their reach outside of their districts. As stellar as these teachers are in their classrooms, the fellowship role is a new one for many of them. They still need support to grow as teacher leaders, developing consulting and social media skills, as well as knowledge about specific blended learning approaches and the Rhode Island educational ecosystem.

So what did Highlander do? They created a deep learning experience that combined technology and in-person learning with the following attributes:

1. A competency-based approach that used data to allow for reflection and action planning. The organization clearly articulated what they thought teacher fellows would need to know and do in order to have success in the role, and detailed what these competencies might look like in real settings. As fellows went through training, data were collected against developmental rubrics, and then put into a system and provided directly back to participants for reflection, goal setting, and action planning. The growth of these competencies will be tracked over the course of the fellowship.

2. Multiple modalities through which to learn, including online, networking time, in-person coaching, and, simulations. Teachers were able to select different approaches and resources depending on the tasks and what they felt they needed. Some teachers worked through online playlists of curated content. Open office hours with experts were held. It didn’t matter how teachers chose to learn as long as they could provide evidence of learning.

3. Authentic engagement through replication of a blended learning approach. To borrow a phrase from one of my own teachers, Richard Elmore, you learn the task by doing the task. Highlander used a blended model to tackle this, allowing teachers to work at their own pace-- during and outside of training time, online and offline, independently and together. Shawn Rubin, one of the Institute leaders, noted, “When tackling a statewide initiative like Fuse RI we believe it’s important to not just talk the talk, but also to ‘walk the walk’, and by putting our fellows through their own Individual Rotation model with a playlist to guide the way they were able to both learn the skills we needed them to master as well as grow in their understanding of blended learning instruction for their own schools and classrooms.”

4. Encouraged networked collaboration online. Many schools have moved towards more embedded forms of teacher development and support, often in the forms of on-site coaching and team-based professional collaboration. These practices are great (and research-based) but also present a significant downside: they can constrain teachers’ learning to within solely their local education network. This keeps new ideas and inspiration from filtering in and out. Technology, however, can be used to expand the boundaries of learning. Highlander actively encouraged and provided training to their fellows to share information and ideas with each other and practitioners outside of Fuse RI through Twitter.

How did teachers respond? One teacher remarked that this was the first training she’d been to in which she felt like she was being treated like an adult. Having the freedom and flexibility to move through the content in her own way, finish work on her own time and engage with other educators around the topics she was most interested was really empowering to her. Another tweeted “2 full days, not one bored moment. This is the future of PD.”

We’ll be collecting data and learning as the project unfolds, but there seem to be at least a few practices work exploring here. Further, while an early leader, the Highlander Institute is by no means the only organization trying to out blended approaches to create more personalized, deeper learning opportunities for teachers. New models are being tested across the country by groups of schools (e.g., USC Hybrid High’s personalized PD and New Milford High School’s teacher badging platform) and other teacher training organizations (such as through the New Teacher Center’s remote mentoring, Declara’s personalized learning platform, or BetterLesson’s Master Teacher program).

What does the future of teacher learning look like? I’m not totally sure. But if want it to be as rich and deep as what we hope it will be for students, then I’m pretty sure we’ll need blended options in our tool kits.

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