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In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

What Does Blended Learning Look Like in a Distance Learning Environment?

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 21, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

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.

In Part One, Today, Alfonso Gonzalez, Janice Wyatt-Ross, and Kait Gentry shared their advice.

Today, Dr. Alva Lefevre, Laurie Manville, Luisa Palacio, and Amanda Kipnis are contributing their commentaries.

First, though, here are some of my own reflections:

Elements of successful blended learning

“Blended learning” has typically meant combining instruction in the physical classroom with asynchronous instruction online with videos or interactive tools.

In this era of distance learning, it could still have that same meaning in hybrid environments where students are spending part of the time at the physical school and other hours working online at home.

But it can also mean, like in my situation, where we are spending part fo the time in live video-conference classes and students do “on-demand” activities online at other times.

I was somewhat successful in the spring’s distance learning (if you define successful as having most students participate—in terms of learning, I think we managed more of a “holding pattern” and not much of a gain).

I hope to define “successful” this year by having most students participate and also learn new skills and knowledge.

Toward those two ends, here are the perspectives that will guide my work:

* Emphasize online student cooperation in asynchronous time by having group projects like jigsaws, presentations to demonstrate learning, creating timelines, etc. In other words, reducing the amount of individual student work and increasing the amount of time that students can work with their classmates on learning together through the use of collaborative tools like Google Slides, Google Docs, and Padlet, and then subsequently present their creations in small breakout rooms or full class virtual gallery walks. “Relatedness” is a key element of intrinsic motivation, and student motivation is going to be the name of the game this year.

* SInce recent research, and teacher experience, shows that a majority of students find answers to homework via tech instead of using retrieval practice to come up with their own responses, I plan on emphasizing to students that the number of answers they have correct on any asynchronous reinforcing work will have no impact on grades. In fact, I will be more impressed with seeing some errors! What’s more important is that they actually do the “homework” so it can be a helpful form of formative assessment to inform my future teaching and their future learning.

* Since it may be a challenge for some students to change their mindset to one where they are OK showing mistakes, I will also be applying other forms of formative assessment, including student self-assessment and peer assessment. You can read more about those strategies in the free chapter on distance learning from Katie Hull Sypnieski and my upcoming book.

* Because so many of our high school students are spending at least 20 hours each week either caring for younger siblings or working at a job to help support their family during the recession, I plan on keeping the total amount of work for my class (including live Zoom sessions) to five or six hours each week.

* I am going to keep the number of online tools to a minimum and be focused on ones that are very simple and versatile. In addition to Zoom, Google Docs (I recently was thrilled to learn how easy it is for students to collectively annotate PDFs in it), Google Slides, Brainpop, Nearpod, and Padlet should easily handle any and all interactive learning activities we’ll be doing this year.

* Of course, two other critical elements are needed to make successful blended learning—and just about any kind of learning—work emphasizing relationship-building and making the content student-driven (as much as possible). Relevance is another element needed for intrinsic motivation: Will students see what is being taught as relevant to their interests and hopes and dreams?

I’ll definitely be reporting back here about my successes, and what I’m sure will be many failures, this year...

The flipped classroom

Dr. Alva Lefevre has been a language teacher, administrator, university professor, and teacher trainer for almost 40 years. She is passionate about working with English-learners and finding ways to apply educational research to the classroom. In her spare time, Alva enjoys traveling, gardening, and art.

Laurie Manville is an ELD/AVID Excel teacher and ed-tech virtual tech team coach at Brookhurst Junior High, as well as a 7th grade ELA teacher with Cambridge Virtual Academy both in the Anaheim Union High School District in California. She enjoys helping her students figure out what they are meant to do in life and guiding teachers in lesson-design creation. In her free time, you will find her backstage (or near a stage) assisting with line memorization, costumes or concessions, analyzing a screenplay, or at home journaling or mastering PiYo.

Dr. Alva Lefevre blogs with Laurie Manville at L&M Educational Consulting on their Facebook page and their new website, Educators in the Know:

So what is blended learning? It is a model of delivery of instruction combining classroom and online education, enhanced by synchronous and asynchronous learning. It has been around for many years, but the trend has propelled it forward by the reality of our technology-immersed lifestyles and the exigencies of a pandemic. In addition, blended learning is the natural next step in more individualized education.

Originally, the idea of the flipped classroom appealed to me because it was the merger of constructivist learning with direct instruction and it caters to each of the three distinct roles in constructivism: the active learner, the social learner, and the creative learner. Flipping my classroom could allow all three to flourish.

During discussions, students take an active role instead of just listening to a lecture and taking notes or reading the textbook and answering questions. Through the constant interaction of the constructivist approach, students discuss ideas, debate hypotheses, investigate and design and work on projects that are meaningful to them. The collaborative activities bring into play the social learner. Knowledge and understanding are constructed through dialogue with others and through the application to real-life scenarios. Finally, as creative learners, students take what they have learned from all avenues and apply it to a real-life situation or problem. This engages them in a discovery process and yields deeper understanding as they learn to make connections between what they learned and their “real” environment. It’s one way of engaging learners in an active problem-solving exercise that connects the knowledge they are acquiring with a real-world application.

The flipped classroom has many positives and a few challenges. Starting with the good stuff, blended learning fosters an environment where students take responsibility for their own learning. They can work at their own pace and review the original materials as often as they need since the content is archived for easy retrieval. For differentiation, students who are more familiar with the content can go through the direct instruction at a faster pace while those who are not native speakers of English, for example, can take their time and look up words they don’t understand or check other resources for explanations of concepts. Blended learning also raises the level of engagement because it allows activities to be personalized and provides time for clarification and idea exchange. Finally, students do not fall behind if absent.

There are also challenges to blended instruction. Some are external, such as the level of technology or internet connection/bandwidth available to teachers and students. Others are internal, such as changing our perception of how and why we do things in a certain way.

The most difficult thing for us to do was to let go of control. We needed to trust that our students would do what was necessary in order to actively participate and focus, and we needed to take advantage of every face-to-face moment to prepare them for the next step. But we also had to be realistic.That required providing a means of participating in activities while some students were catching up, One excellent way to do that was through collaborative groups. That means students holding each other accountable in ways that teachers never can (peer pressure).

Another challenge is the huge time investment involved in creating either a fully online class or a hybrid class. More now than ever we cannot do teaching alone. In online teaching, our lessons need to be frontloaded with screencasts or videos, discussion-board questions, slide decks for real-time synchronous teaching, and slide decks for independent student learning.

Splitting up the online workload is crucial. We did this when we worked with colleagues in a summer enrichment course, designating a lead designer for each week. We kept track of synchronous and asynchronous components by sharing a lesson template, which included standards, essential questions, and discussion-board questions. The nonlead designer teammates collaborated on the off weeks by helping create shared synchronous slide decks. They also split up the daily emails and follow-up announcements for students, interns, and tutors on our teams. The same could be done by grade-level teams in the fall.

“The station-rotation model”

Luisa Palacio is an ESL and Spanish teacher from Colombia with 19 years of teaching experience. Luisa holds a bachelor’s degree in modern languages: English and French, and an M.A. in TESOL from Greensboro College. Currently, she teaches K-12 at Northampton County schools, in North Carolina, and Spanish with South Carolina Virtual Education:

Blended learning is combining e-learning with traditional pedagogical classrooms methods. We are not leaving all the strategies used in a “traditional” classroom setting behind; what we are doing is combining all those strategies and methodologies with the tools we have available now thanks to technology.

I enjoy blended learning when I use it through the station-rotation model, which, as defined by C. Christensen (2015), is “a course or subject in which students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion between learning modalities, at least one of which is online learning.” In the ESL classroom, I choose to have my stations either by domain, subject area, or learning target. I communicate with content teachers to see which standards they are covering at the time and I create my stations in such a way that students practice academic language specific to those standards. In the stations, students can be led by the teacher, collaborate in small groups, do online research, or design and create. There can be games, role play, or practice activities that allow students to get familiar with the academic vocabulary so when they go to their content teacher, they can make connections between the new content and what they learned in the ESL classroom.

One of the greatest advantages of incorporating technology is that it eases communication, even when several languages are spoken in one classroom. Students might be familiar with technology, but we have to guide them on how to effectively use academic tools to improve learning. It is important to keep in mind that we can provide students with all the technological devices there are, but we gain nothing if we do not teach them how to use them. Students need guidance and structure.

Blended learning and students with moderate to severe disabilities

Amanda Kipnis is a passionate educator who teaches a 3rd-5th grade special day class for students with moderate to severe disabilities in Lemon Grove, Calif. She enjoys finding new ways to incorporate social-emotional learning into curriculum and spends her little free time coaching softball & Girls on the Run. Amanda was named to the 2020 class of Curriculum Associates Extraordinary Educators:

Blended learning simply means blending the digital world with the face-to-face world. But there’s nothing simple about it. Blended learning is one of the few ways in our scripted curricula world to let teachers’ creativity shine. As a teacher of students with moderate to severe disabilities, I was hesitant to try this model. Could my students access academic technology? Would they be motivated to do so? Is it reasonable to expect them to learn via independent learning?

The answer to these questions and more is YES! Blended learning has forever changed the way my classroom runs. There are two primary ways this method has revolutionized my teaching. First, it allows me to break my students into smaller groups to further differentiate my instruction to their unique learning styles. This doesn’t happen overnight. The beginning of the year is busy with explicitly teaching the students how to log in, what to access, and how long to access it for. Once in, online curriculum “automatically” differentiates instruction to my students’ individual needs. For example, many of my students receive instruction at a higher level in sight words than they do in comprehension. This is especially true for students with autism spectrum disorder who often have difficulties with language and/or auditory processing. As an added bonus, the online programs tend to increase academic vocabulary, preventing us from unintentionally “dumbing it down” to our students’ level. For example, I never thought I’d be teaching acute and obtuse angles to students still learning to count to 20. But online curriculum provides us the opportunity to analyze performance on individual content standards, thus pushing me to push them forward.

In addition to smaller work groups, blended learning has opened a whole new world of opportunities for mainstreaming within the general education setting. Traditionally, many students with more severe disabilities have very limited access to a general education setting. Are lunch, recess, PE, and library really the best we can do? Not with online instruction! Armed with a Chromebook, my 5th grade student can proudly walk to “his” (general ed) class and blend in with his peers. An outside observer would see that all students using Chromebooks are engaged in the same program, with the same characters. But my student may be working on kindergarten standards while the child next to him is working on grade-level standards. After a while, many of my students are even able to mainstream independently, without the conspicuous teacher’s aide standing at their side. I knew online instruction would be engaging and interactive. I knew it would provide intense, comprehensive data. However, I never predicted the influence it would have on children’s self-esteem and ability to work independently. So what is blended learning? A game changer.

Thanks to Alva, Laurie, Luisa, and Amanda 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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