Special Report
Classroom Technology

Blended PD Emphasizes Differentiated Instruction

By Robin L. Flanigan — October 23, 2012 7 min read
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Officials in the 24,100- student Academy School District 20 school system in Colorado Springs, Colo., came to this conclusion in the spring of 2011: If blended learning is one of the biggest trends in education, it should offer a way for teachers to practice the approach themselves.

Using federal Title II, Part A funds, the district offered a professional-development course that combined four online modules, including Moodle, which took teachers through a series of online tutorials and face-to-face activities over six months in 2011-12. It then expanded the blended learning model to many of its 2012 summer institute courses for teachers, and has begun offering a round of professional development to another batch of teachers—31, roughly the size of the waiting list—in 2012-13.

“The training put us in touch with what our students go through,” said Wanda Lepillez, a 4th grade teacher at the 568-student Academy International Elementary School, who took part in the inaugural training. “It has changed my teaching forever.”

The more she learned, added Ms. Lepillez, “the more I began to see the possibilities.”

Despite having to watch tutorial videos up to four times on occasion before she could understand certain concepts, she recalls last school year as one of the most powerful of her 11-year teaching career. She started with the goal of creating one blended course by the end of her training, and she wound up with four.

Whether such training comes from school districts, nonprofit education organizations, or for-profit businesses, the overarching message is consistent: Professional development for educational technology has to move away from its historical focus on technical training and toward a broader focus on what educational approaches work best.

“Is it better to make a podcast? Or should it be a video? Teachers need to know how to help students make these decisions,” said Barbara Treacy, the director of EdTech Leaders Online, a national program affiliated with the nonprofit Education Development Center based in Waltham, Mass.

In other words, teachers not only need to be proficient at integrating virtual experiences into the classroom, they must also be confident in why they’re doing so.

“One of the biggest reasons why technology initiatives tend to fail is because they’re all about the tool and not about the learning,” said Amy Michalowski, the director of academic affairs for the VHS Collaborative, a nonprofit organization in Maynard, Mass., that allows districts to share online courses and access to virtual teachers. “With many blended initiatives, the failure is not because of a lack of interest, but a lack of outcome-oriented training for teachers.”

The 308,000-student Clark County district in Nevada, the nation’s fifth-largest school district, launched an online and blended certification program in March 2012 in part to make that shift in mindset among educators. The spur was the district’s goal of having 100,000 students learning in an online or blended environment by 2015.

“What we found was that we had a lot of people deploying our curriculum, but they hadn’t changed their pedagogy,” said Kimberly K. Loomis, the program’s executive leader. “Their teaching had to change.”

By design, the certification program is split into two tiers. The first includes foundational courses aimed at helping teachers understand various strategies for online and blended learning and make decisions about how to use them to create engaging, differentiated classrooms. The second tier provides instruction in the tools and techniques for turning those ideas into reality.

Fawn Canady, an English teacher at the 1,300-student West Career and Technical Academy in Las Vegas who helped create the program, said her priorities were making sure that teachers already pressed for time were being given relevant information, self-directed activities, and the chance for collaboration.

“It’s a learning process,” she said. “I began blending my classroom about five years ago, and I feel that I am only now starting to delve into the full potential of this model.”

No longer solely a teacher, “I am facilitator, fellow learner, and curator,” added Ms. Canady. “I’m becoming more focused on giving my students more bang for their buck, more time. I don’t want them to do anything they don’t need in order to grow.”

Realistic Expectations

Such an evolution doesn’t happen overnight, and professional-development trainers who specialize in blended learning warn teachers to be realistic.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your blended classroom be,” said Ms. Michalowski of the VHS Collaborative. “This is a process, one that takes incremental successes to help fuel enthusiasm in the kids and confidence in the teacher.”

That’s exactly why Education Elements, a for-profit developer of blended learning programs based in Palo Alto, Calif., starts out slow when working with schools on incorporating technology into the classroom.

“This is about teaching differently, so we start with a readiness assessment,” said Jane Bryson, the director of Education Elements’ education team. “We start by asking, ‘What are the outcomes you might get? How willing are you to think outside the box?’ We want them to think about how they’d implement this in the classroom before we even touch the landscape of digital content that’s out there.”

The team generally kicks off the design process anywhere from six to 12 months before the first day of school. The process includes identifying instructional objectives, choosing a classroom model, selecting curriculum providers, preparing infrastructure, and setting up teacher professional development. Once school starts, the team provides ongoing support to help teachers transition to the new model.

While it’s possible for disciplined teachers to incorporate blended learning strategies into the classroom on their own, particularly given the wealth of free Web applications available, chances of success dramatically increase with support from colleagues with varying levels of technological expertise, instructional coaches who can offer consistent guidance and encouragement, and administrators who understand the value of taking a risk.

Nevada’s Clark County district is addressing that last piece, in fact, by expanding the fall version of its new certification program to include administrators and support staff.

Meanwhile, the 141,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina has outlined clear tactics for increasing the number of Web-based and blended professional development courses for teachers. It exceeded one of its goals, to increase the number of courses by 20 percent annually, in 2011-12 by adding 15 instead of the planned six, brining the total number that year to 43. In addition, by June 30, 2014, the district wants to train 60 percent of its course designers in online course development and delivery, as well as achieve an 85 percent satisfaction rate with online learning opportunities on annual teacher surveys.

“We’re going to see huge growth and real student success,” said Hope Johnston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s specialist for online learning. “We’re teaching teachers how to facilitate a classroom with a lot of different learning styles and modalities happening at the same time.”

‘Valuable Information’

Ms. Lepillez, the 4th grade teacher in Colorado, pointed out that a side benefit to knowing how to use blended learning in meaningful ways is that she can better assess her students.

“Some of our most shy children who don’t perform well in class just shine when contributing their ideas online,” she said. “Now we can track that. It’s such valuable information to have.”

Professional-development courses for blended learning are evolving, and have a huge potential for growth in the coming years, experts predict.

CFY, a national education nonprofit with headquarters in New York City that emphasizes the use of digital tools to help children succeed in school, piloted a PD program in 2011-12 that placed a “digital classroom coach” inside the 274-student Bea Fuller Rodgers Intermediate School in Manhattan. Primarily on hand for math teachers multiple times a week, the coach helped them implement blended-learning models to differentiate instruction, extend learning beyond the classroom, and engage families in the learning process.

CFY has already expanded its reach for 2012-13. It’s assigned coaches to additional schools in New York City and to schools in the Atlanta metropolitan region, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Tristan Wright, a special education resource teacher at Bea Fuller Rodgers Intermediate, described herself as being “very inhibited by technology” before being introduced to CFY. But between familiarizing herself on weekends with the organization’s online learning platform and receiving guidance from both the coach and her tech-savvy 9-year-old daughter, she felt comfortable using blended learning techniques “within a month or two.”

Now when Ms. Wright pushes into a classroom and sees a student with his head on the desk, she can pull up the same type of instruction his classmates are getting—in the form of a computerized game or video instead—and within seconds the student is eagerly working quietly on his own.

“Without blended learning, differentiation is just a buzzword,” she said. “Now I feel like I’m living up to my position. I’m finally doing what I was always supposed to be doing.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Building Blended PD into Schools


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