This week’s question is:
What is blended learning, is there value in it and, if so, how do I do it?
“Blended learning” is a phrase tossed around a lot in education these days, but what exactly does it mean and does it work?
This column will explore those two questions with contributions from Angel Cintron Jr., Connie Parham, Catlin Tucker, Sheri Edwards, Cheryl Costello, William J. Tolley and George Station. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Roxanna, Dave and Julia on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
Response From Connie Parham & Angel Cintron Jr.
Connie Parham is an eighth grade math teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. Prior to teaching at E.L. Haynes, Connie taught middle school math in D.C. and was a Teach For America corps member. She received a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in culture and politics from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in teaching secondary math from American University. Follow her on Twitter at @cparham_ms.
Angel L. Cintron Jr. is an enrichment teacher at Jefferson Academy Middle School. He is currently piloting an eighth grade education-based video game design course for DC Public Schools; in addition to teaching video game design, he is also implementing a blended learning model in his seventh grade elective course. Angel received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Palm Beach Atlantic University and a master’s degree in international relations from Webster University. Follow him on Twitter at @angelcintronjr:
What is blended learning?
As with many of the latest education buzzwords, there’s a pretty vague understanding of what blended learning really is. There are some unproductive models out there trying to pass as “blended,” while there other inspiring approaches are really changing the game for kids.
In short, blended learning is a model of instruction that allows a teachers to leverage technology, within his or her classrooms, to maximize student outcomes and increase deeper learning. All too often, the traditional model - teacher as “sage on the stage” -places too high a premium on the teacher’s role, and not enough on the student’s responsibility to master a necessary skill. This imbalance is the cause of great consternation and frustration. Blended learning, however, allows for a shift in student accountability and responsibility. Although the teacher must ensure a conducive learning environment and spend quality time planning purposeful stations (i.e. data-driven personalized learning pathways), the primary onus for learning falls more on the student’s shoulders...as it should.
Is there any value to BL?
Aside from some promising early results, blended learning forces students to become active learners, as opposed to mere passive ones. In other words, learning within a blended learning classroom is not a spectator sport. As a result, there’s a great deal of value in holding students accountable for their own learning. This doesn’t mean or suggest that blended learning is a “plug-in and play” approach to teaching. To the contrary, blended learning requires more strategic and meaningful planning than designing whole-class instruction with the trappings of differentiated products (i.e. mild, medium, and spicy questions or problems).
How do I blend learning?
Start with a vision. Without one, you risk falling into the category of blended “imposters,” who put students in front of a screen because it is “easy” or the latest fad. What do you want your students to know and be able to do? I’m not talking about Common Core math and reading standards -- I’m talking about the skills and mindsets you want them to have to be successful in their futures. Keep that vision at the forefront throughout the process you’re about to undertake.
The next step isn’t always going to feel good, but you need to research the program that seems to support your vision, and then just start. You will make mistakes at the beginning and it will be messy, but there’s no success without the battle scars. Track your learning (both your successes and your failures) and be ready to quickly adjust. Survey your students to see what elements of your redesigned classroom are working for them and which aren’t.
Response From Catlin Tucker
Catlin Tucker is a Google Certified Teacher, bestselling author, and speaker, who currently teaches in Sonoma County where she was named Teacher of the Year in 2010. Catlin’s most recent book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology was published in June 2015. Catlin is active on Twitter @Catlin_Tucker and writes an internationally ranked education blog at CatlinTucker.com:
Most teachers face a perpetual race against the bell, with too much to cover and not enough time in each class. Add large class sizes, limited resources, and varied ability levels and it’s no wonder many teachers are overwhelmed, exhausted and disillusioned.
Blended learning provides new ways to approach both teaching and learning to mitigate many of these challenges. Blended learning combines classroom learning with online learning, in which students can, in part, control the time, pace, and place of their learning.
My excitement about blended learning stemmed from the realization that learning, inside and outside the classroom, can take many forms, not just the traditional one-way flow of information from teacher to student. Blended learning can engage every voice in the classroom.
That said, there’s little preparation required for the teacher who spends class time telling students everything they know about a topic they’ve been teaching for 10, 15, or 20 years. It’s more challenging to design learning experiences that allow students to discover, research, discuss, and create to learn.
The way I view my role shifted dramatically as I embraced blended learning. I no longer felt intense pressure to know everything. Today information is all around us. Students can, and should, be able to find information. My time is better spent designing learning experiences that encourage students to do something meaningful with information. Now, I consider myself an architect of learning experiences rather than a fountain of knowledge.
I use a range of blended learning strategies and love the flexibility that comes with blending learning mediums. Often a lesson will begin in class continue online then wrap up the following day.
I flip my vocabulary and writing instruction to maximize my face-to-face time with students. They watch videos at home where they can pause, rewind, or watch a video more than once. We spend our valuable class time applying that information where they can work together or directly with me.
I no longer create one-size-fits-all lessons where students move lockstep through activities. I use the Station Rotation Model to break students into smaller groups, and they rotate through learning stations. One station is an online learning station and another station is always a teacher-led station, which I call “Tucker Time.” I use this station to reinforce concepts, clarify confusion, model learning strategies and provide additional scaffolding.
Blended learning strategies make it possible to create smaller learning communities within the larger class, extend learning online, customize activities to challenge every student, and work with small groups of students to ensure they progress towards mastery.
Although there are many groups attempting to define blended learning, it’s evolving as technology advances. Even traditional teachers with very limited access to technology in the classroom, like me, can capitalize on their students’ connectivity and devices to shift to a blended model. Blended learning is not confined to technology-rich schools. It’s the next generation of education that takes the best aspects of face-to-face learning and blends them with the advantages of online learning.
Response From Sheri Edwards
Sheri Edwards [ @grammasheri ] is a Middle School Language Arts teacher and Google Apps for Education Administrator for a rural public school in North Central Washington State. She has a passion for engaging students in connected learning projects, communicating and collaborating with students around the world to prepare them for futures we can only imagine:
Returning home from a conference, I saw a sign on a small town community center: Tibetan Buddhists Music and Mandala. I stopped for an amazing cultural experience completely out of place in the rural mountains, listening to Tibetan dungchen and deep-throated chants and watching the delicate pouring of colored sand forming an intricately-designed mandala soon to be dusted away to show the transitory nature of our lives. This stop was an interruption in my journey, but an experience of reflection often remembered.
Have you ever planned a trip, and at sometime, found an interesting side adventure that you enjoyed and shared with later?
Have you ever taken a class, and in doing research found yourself side-tracked in a related, but relevant issue that didn’t quite fit the original assignment, but was just as valuable?
In blended learning, a combination of traditional and personalized learning provides an umbrella of curriculum through which students have many choices: in content organization, in learning goals, and in products that show mastery of those goals and content. It provides an opportunity to move from the traditional, rigid teacher-centered classroom to a more open, learner-centered environment. The teacher is a co-learner, facilitating learning choices designed by the learner while pursuing a curricular goal. It is not individualized nor differentiated, which are teacher-directed, but rather personalized, because the learner has voice and choice. It allows for those side trips of interest that add value to the intended learning; blended learning extends the classroom to online and even off campus experiences as students pursue their chosen goals emerging from the curricular goal. The availability of online texts and information, collaborative documents and online classrooms, and tools and apps makes the planning, sharing, and feedback for blended learning possible.
Blended learning provides a context within which students can chose content, goals. and products to examine that context and demonstrate learning, with frequent feedback, conferences, peer collaboration and feedback, and revision. Instead of the curriculum dictating what we study, a focus chosen by the students on an issue within that curriculum is researched and explained through individual and collaborative team choices that result in a product demonstrating mastery of learning goals chosen during their creative choices.
For example, in any current events article, students choose a path to understand an aspect of their choice with peers to create an artifact that explains their goal for an audience and purpose of their choice; throughout the process, students learn language arts, communication, collaboration, and content skills, documenting the goals they choose and master. A project each quarter [5-8 weeks] driven by learner choice provides the venue to complete required curricular goals. All of this is possible because of the available and ubiquitous web tools [Google Apps for Education, Wikis] and management systems [Google Classroom] that teachers and students access and apply to complete the learning journey.
Blended learning develops learner agency as each learner or learner teams, with teacher guidance, choose, organize, create, revise, and document the path that meets learner needs, with side trips expected to enrich the experience. Wouldn’t your interests - your side-trips- have enhanced the value of your own learning experiences?
Response From Cheryl Costello
Cheryl Costello is the Academic Technology Coordinator at Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, CT. She is a teacher at heart, mom of three amazing kids and a strong believer in the benefits of using technology to enhance the student experience:
I think of blended learning as the love child of the flipped classroom and online learning. A flipped class has both online and traditional daily face to face time with a teacher. Online learning is asynchronous and, depending on how it’s structured, students may never have a face-to-face interaction with the teacher. A blended classroom mixes synchronous and asynchronous instruction, allowing students to take charge of their own learning, while still having the support of class time with their teacher. The value in blended learning comes from the ability to create student centered lessons that give students opportunity to practice skills they need to develop at their own pace. Since only a portion of the class takes place online, it provides gradual exposure to online learning while still allowing for teacher-student contact.
Planning a blended learning class requires that a teacher rethink the way they deliver content. Teachers need to identify learning objectives and then decide which goals will be met with the online coursework and which will be achieved in class. Having an LMS (learning management system) is essential to success. The LMS allows you to deliver content; video, documents, links to websites, and assignments to students in one platform. If you school doesn’t have an LMS, there are programs such as Schoology or Edmodo which allow you and your class to communicate and collaborate. You should plan for frequent formative assessment which will let you know if students are on track so you can adjust your instruction to make sure learning goals are being met. When designed well, blended learning elevates student engagement. Have fun, be creative, and enjoy learning along with your students!
Response From William J. Tolley
Bill Tolley, a New York Times Teacher Who Makes a Difference, and a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University is currently a teacher and learner at the International School of Beijing. He is also writes for the Center for Teaching Quality at his blog, Mindsets for Modern Learning. His professional interests include innovative learning strategies, future-building and redefining learning space/time. Connect with him @wjtolley:
What is blended learning?
We have to start by approaching this question broadly on two levels:
- For some, blended learning refers to large hybrid learning platforms and experiences offered by universities and some school districts. Writ large, it’s distance learning with a face to face element.
- For the teacher on the street, blended learning speaks to the combination of strategies and technologies that allows for a similar split between face to face encounters and online exploration of course content, but facilitates so much more of value in our day-to-day learning with our students.
As important as the first definition is becoming in the greater scheme of learning, definition two is the one most relevant to the classroom teacher who wants to transform her learning environment into space of choice and opportunity.
The Value of Blended Learning:
In short, the value of blended learning resides in its ability to empower teachers and students to do what excites them most in learning. There is no denying that the demands (for better or worse) on teachers and students have grown over past decades, whether they are subject to the rise of accountability measures, pressure for admission into higher education or the need to bridge gaps between the performance of their students and national or international standards. Adopting blended learning strategies frees up space and time to meet such demands, while still allowing for individualization and differentiation. Most importantly, when done right, it involves students in the shaping of their learning, reviving democracy in what so easily becomes an environment of oppression and standardization.
How to start?
The blended learning environment that described my own practice last December has transmogrified--it is barely recognizable within my current practice. My commitment to empowering students in democratic space and time remains the same, but the trappings have evolved. One of my favorite old techniques, the “mastery quest” system, has been completely replaced by assessment apps like Memrise that allow me to design purely formative retention activities with my students.
I have previously offered suggestions for creating successful blended learning classrooms, and I am sure that taken together, the responses to this edition of Q&A will offer plenty of tools you can take into class on Monday. But buyer beware: if one thing is certain, it’s that in blended learning, the old notion of developing a routine over a few years is obsolete. The true value of blended learning, done right, is not that it gives you a toolbox that will serve you until you retire, but that it prevents your workroom from becoming an anachronism by always keeping it in flux, by not only facing, but fashioning the future.
Response From George Station
George Station is a lecturer at Cal State University, Monterey Bay. His undergrad teaching experience includes physics and lower division technology courses. He currently teaches a First Year Seminar with a technology and society theme [Editor’s Note: George wrote this after listening to the BAM! Radio Show accompanying this column]:
In the podcast, “Blended Learning: What Is It, Does It Work?” what I did not hear was as intriguing as what I did hear.
The guests define blended learning as a model allowing teachers “to leverage technology... to increase differentiation and personalization” (Connie Parham) and achieve “more student ownership and accountability” (Angel Cintron, Jr.). These descriptions are useful up to a point, but ultimately I sought more inspiration. I would add two elements: blended learning as a fundamental redesign that transforms teaching and learning for the better; and as an integration of classroom and online experiences that is more engaging than either on its own.
While we agree that blended learning is more than just using technology in the classroom, I would be explicit about its intentionality. Good blended learning design asks you to take a deep, deliberate look at your curriculum--then design your class to offer face-to-face what is best done face-to-face, and offer online what would work best online, whether in the classroom (e.g. as part of Station Rotation as discussed in the podcast) or off-site. In practice, I have seen this given short shrift in “hybrid” classes when scheduling overrode pedagogical good sense. Let the curriculum seek its own face-to-face/online balance. Better, let your students in on it.
As to the potential transcendent nature of blended learning, I was influenced by several researchers, especially Randy Garrison and Norman Vaughan of the University of Calgary. They called blended learning a “unique fusion,” saying:
“Blended learning is no more about reshaping and enhancing the traditional classroom than it is about making e-learning more acceptable. In both contexts one is left with essentially either face-to-face or online learning. Blended learning combines the properties and possibilities of both to go beyond the capabilities of each separately.”
By acknowledging in our definition the integrative potential that is more than the sum of its parts, we allow room for true student ownership of the learning experience.
Garrison, D. R. and Vaughan, N. D. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Thanks to Angel, Connie, Catlin, Sheri, Cheryl, William and George for their contributions!
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