In blended-learning environments, where students learn partly online and partly in a face-to-face classroom, how do teachers work together to best support their learning?
That’s a question educators at the Chicago Virtual Charter School have spent five years answering.
“We’ve really been pioneering this path of hybrid education,” said Leah Rodgers, the academic administrator for the 600-student school. “And we’ve figured a lot of this out as we’ve gone.”
At CVCS, which is operated in partnership with K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based e-learning company, each student spends two hours and 15 minutes in a classroom one day a week and spends the rest of the school week working virtually from home. The school works with students in grades K-12.
For two years, the school operated under a model in which students met with one teacher during their face-to-face sessions and different ones in their online classes. But over time, the school found that “when [students] had two different teachers, it was difficult for those two teachers to be on the same page,” said Ms. Rodgers. “[Teachers] weren’t able to really identify what the student knew and didn’t know.”
Students, as well as parents, became confused about which teacher should be approached for which questions, and parents felt that their relationships with the teachers weren’t as strong as they could be, she said.
As a result, the school moved to a new model, in which the the virtual and face-to-face instructor for each student is one and the same. High school students have different teachers for each subject.
“We’ve been able to streamline the communication and formulate a much stronger relationship [between teachers and students],” Ms. Rodgers said.
What ‘Blended’ Means
Blended, or hybrid, learning has caught the eye of many looking into the potential of online learning, especially after the release of a meta-analysis and review of online-learning research by the U.S. Department of Education in May 2009. The authors found that “instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage” than either purely online or entirely face-to-face instruction.
Understanding what blended learning really means, however, and how it can best be used to support students, is still largely up in the air, experts say.
“Everybody’s talking about blended, but you talk to ten different people, and there are ten definitions of what it is,” said Steven Guttentag, the executive vice president and chief education officer of the Baltimore-based Connections Academy, which operates online schools in 21 states.
As shown by CVCS’ experience, even knowing who is responsible for teaching the students is up for debate.
At the Florida Virtual School, or FLVS, for instance, there are several models of blended teaching and learning, said Julie Young, the executive director of the 97,000-student school, which operates as its own district within the state.
In one model, FLVS students convene in a classroom or computer lab to take their online courses from an off-site instructor. They are joined by a site facilitator, who is on hand to help with any technical issues and answer basic questions, Ms. Young said.
“The facilitator is being [the online instructor’s] eyes and ears,” she said. Facilitators are trained to make sure students are engaged in their courses, and the sites where they work are equipped with phones that online instructors can use to call and check if a student is having trouble.
In another model, a site facilitator works with students who are all taking the same online class to set up experiments, for instance, or help with collaborative, in-person activities.
In yet another approach, online instructors can team up with face-to-face teachers to co-teach a course, said Ms. Young.
Although that model is more expensive for schools, “it’s a really awesome opportunity for teachers who are new to the profession or new to the subject area,” she said.
While students receive the benefit of being taught by an experienced online instructor, the in-person teacher simultaneously receives training in how to teach the course.
That model is exactly what the Louisiana Virtual School turned to, spurred by a lack of certified Algebra 1 teachers.
The Louisiana Algebra 1 Online Program pairs up an uncertified, face-to-face mathematics teacher with an online certified Algebra 1 instructor.
“It gives students the advantage of high-quality instruction delivered by a certified teacher, and the advantage of having a teacher in the classroom to provide immediate assistance if it is requested,” said Dianne Gauthier, an educational technology consultant for the 7,000-student Louisiana Virtual School, or LVS, based in Baton Rouge. “The classroom teacher is provided with pedagogy training and mentoring that helps to build capacity for high-quality instruction.”
The two teachers meet in a two-day, face-to-face workshop during the summer that lets them “start the bonding process and determine roles and responsibilities,” Ms. Gauthier said. “They also decide upon the best practices and strategies that will be used for classroom management, technology and materials dissemination, and file management that would result in a good learning experience for the students.”
Throughout the school year, the teachers communicate daily through e-mail and follow up with phone conversations if needed, she said.
The online instructor provides the initial lesson, and the classroom teacher works with students to complete activities that reinforce the concepts.
The in-class teacher also monitors the classroom activity labs with students; they break into groups of three or four and work together to complete a lab. The results of the lab are then sent to the online instructor for review.
The model has since been replicated in the school’s AP English Literature and Composition, AP Biology, and AP Calculus classes.
Coaching Virtual Students
Iowa’s state-led high school distance-learning program, Iowa Learning Online, requires each student enrolled in an online course to be assigned a coach who will help him or her stay on track, said Gwen Nagel, the director of the program.
The coach must be a school district employee and is usually a teacher, she said, and so far, the presence of a good mentor for each student is the greatest predictor of student success in the program.
Since the online courses taken through Iowa Learning Online are supplemental,often a student will be the only one in the school taking the course, said Ms. Nagel, and it helps to have an involved adult to encourage the student and keep him or her focused.
The coach communicates frequently with the online instructor through the program’s learning-management system to track the student’s progress, she said. In addition, the coach serves as a liaison between the students’ parents and the online instructor. The coach is expected to e-mail a weekly progress report to the parents and inform the online instructor of any personal events in the student’s life that may be affecting academic performance.
“The coach is the person who really is the ‘mom,’ ” Ms. Nagel said. “They’re the person there checking in so that the student doesn’t drift.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as ‘Blended’ Learning Seeks the Right Mix