Special Report
Classroom Technology

Curricula All Over the Map for ‘Blended’ Classes

By Katie Ash — January 07, 2011 6 min read
The Grand Rapids district in Michigan launched blended-learning classes this school year that combine face-to-face instruction and e-learning. Students, above, do work for a blended social studies course at Ottawa Hills High School.
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Although hybrid learning, which combines face-to-face instruction with online-learning components, has begun to take hold in K-12 education, the curriculum for such courses varies significantly from program to program.

Most hybrid educators use modified versions of fully online courses or cobble together a curriculum from various online resources, prompting a push for digital curricula that are broken down into modules, rather than comprehensive, fully packaged courses.

“That’s one of the fundamental things about this industry that’s going to reshape publishing—this idea that schools are going to need to be able to access curricula at a higher level of granularity,” said John Danner, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Rocketship Education, an elementary charter school that serves more than 1,000 students at three different campuses in San Jose, Calif.

At Rocketship, students spend part of the day in a traditional face-to-face classroom and part of the day in the Learning Lab, where they use computer software to improve their literacy and math skills.

While students are in the Learning Lab, teachers circulate to help students who may be stuck, Mr. Danner said.

“The classroom really does the best for the middle 50 percent of kids,” he said. “The Learning Lab tends to be better for the bottom quartile and top quartile. They make more progress in the Learning Lab than they do in the classroom.”

Rocketship uses a variety of software programs, such as DreamBox Learning, which is a commercially produced math curriculum; Reasoning Mind, an online math curriculum developed by a nonprofit organization; and Headsprout, a literacy program developed by a for-profit learning-software company.

Which modules of each program the student works on is determined by the teacher.

“We think it’s really important for teachers to be in charge of the process,” said Mr. Danner. “They’ve got to be in charge of the student’s learning.”

Assessment data from students’ work in the Learning Lab are collected in a “teacher dashboard,” which makes recommendations about what each student should be working on, but ultimately, it is the teacher’s decision to assign students certain activities or modules of the programs.

Generally, the Learning Lab provides a better venue for basic-skills acquisition, said Mr. Danner, while the face-to-face instruction focuses on project-based learning and higher-order thinking skills.

And moving part of the school day to the Learning Lab saves the schools about $500,000 annually, Mr. Danner said, because it does not require certified teachers.

Three-Day Rotation

The 19,100-student Grand Rapids school district in Michigan launched blended-learning classes this past fall. The district has started with high school social studies and math classes.

“There was some initial resistance from the public—concerned parents with the perception that kids are just going to be stuck in computer labs—but that’s absolutely contrary to what [this] is,” said John Helmholdt, the director of communications for the district. “When you say blended, people don’t understand what that means. It took months of really trying to educate and raise awareness of really what it was we were trying to do.”

Moving to a blended model actually made teacher-student ratios better, according to Mr. Helmholdt, by layering on support-staff members to circulate when the students were completing work online.

In Grand Rapids, the blended classes go through a three-day rotation of face-to-face and online instruction. During the first day, students receive a traditional lecture-based class in a regular classroom where a new concept is introduced. On the second day, the class starts by going over the concept again and then beginning to use some of the online software and support tools that reinforce the concept. On the third day, the students work solely with digital resources.

During the days when students are working online, up to five staff members are around to help students one-on-one, Mr. Helmholdt said.

Avelino Penaloza, 16, takes notes while using a laptop to watch a video lecture on homeostasis at Ottawa Hills High School in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is participating in a hybrid classroom, which blends face-to-face and online learning.

The curriculum that students work on during the online segments of the course include online books and websites, software programs, and links to research. Teachers provide the students with a research question that they are expected to learn more about to guide their inquiry.

Curriculum specialists worked throughout the summer of 2010 to start putting together the lessons students are now using, and teachers are continuing to customize curricula as the school year progresses.

“Schools all around the state are already steps ahead in blended learning, and we are really working to catch up,” Mr. Helmholdt said. “It’s going to take a little more time for the model to start to get its sea legs, but I think we’re starting to see that the teams are coming together.”

Training teachers to work together has been one of the most challenging aspects of shifting to the hybrid model, said Bernard Taylor Jr., the superintendent of the Grand Rapids district.

“Teachers are used to being a free agent,” he said. “Now you’re asking people to work collaboratively, to share practices, and put their ability to work with students on display every day.”

“Change is difficult,” Mr. Taylor added. “But when you have to make changes, you have to go for it. Make the case for it with sound reason, data, and research. Have a well-thought-out plan and build in lots of support and professional development, and then go for it.”

The 368-student VOISE Academy in Chicago has employed a blended model since it opened in fall 2008, but unlike Rocketship Education and Grand Rapids, it primarily uses online courses through Apex Learning, a Seattle-based, for-profit provider of such courses.

“It gives [teachers] the foundation for the whole course,” said Todd R. Yarch, the principal of the academy, which is a part of the 409,000-student Chicago public schools.

Each student at VOISE, which stands for Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment, is given a laptop to use during school. Students spend 80 percent of the time working independently and 20 percent of the time in whole-class instruction, which usually occurs at the beginning of class, Mr. Yarch said.

“The majority of our students would get bored with just an online class,” he said. “That’s where the blended model comes in.”

By supplementing the online class with whole-class instruction, students stay engaged and each student can receive additional support as needed, Mr. Yarch explained.

Although students are not allowed to take the laptops home, the school has worked with a computer-refurbishing company to provide a desktop computer for each student’s home. Many students, however, do not have steady Internet access at homes. Consequently, Saturday school, where students can come to use technologies available at the school, has become an important and integral part of the academy’s success, Mr. Yarch said.

‘Specific Learning Goals’

In the 46,000-student Omaha school district in Nebraska, there is no such thing as fully online courses, said Mary Schlegelmilch, the district’s e-learning supervisor. All online courses are blended, she said.

How much of the course is taught online and how much is taught in person depends on the needs of the students and the type of course, Ms. Schlegelmilch said.

“It’s all about opportunities for students,” she said. “That percentage of what’s online and what’s face-to-face is based upon what is comfortable for the teacher and what is appropriate for the student so they can continue to achieve.”

“Each teacher has the opportunity to have an empty course shell” in a learning-management system, said Ms. Schlegelmilch. Teachers can add information themselves, post links to audio and video files, assign readings, and direct students to online books, publications, and databases.

They can also import curriculum from the district’s collection of master courses, Ms. Schlegelmilch said.

In addition to certain core classes, credit-recovery courses are blended, she said. And some courses in the district are videoconferenced to multiple campuses through a camera and a large monitor.

Teachers can also create discussion forums for their classes, Ms. Schlegelmilch said, and require essays to be turned in online.

“It’s really based on the needs of the student and what they need for their specific learning goals,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Curricula All Over the Map for ‘Blended’ Classes


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