Part Two of Our Special Blog Series
Schools across the country are using blended learning not just to supplement, but also to transform and improve the learning process by personalizing each student’s learning experience. The blended learning model has proven successful for a wide variety of school districts, from the classic American small town, Missouri, to the city blocks of Chicago. Across the many variations of blended learning implementations, one truth is evident: the combination of effective pedagogy and cutting-edge technology is key to ensuring student success.
Most blended learning initiatives begin small, with a district and a community’s shared interest in offering more opportunities for technology-based learning to their students. “When it comes to expanding blended learning efforts, though, another mindset shift has to happen: technology is an essential tool for going blended, but strong pedagogy will always be the backbone of a great blended program,” write Julia Freeland Fisher and Jenny White (From Maverick to Mainstream: Takeaways from the 2017 Blended and Personalized Learning Conference. 2017, p.7).
Understanding that the effectiveness of the blended model depends on much more than technology-rich instruction and delivery, it is beneficial to learn from common mistakes that have caused some blended programs to come to a grinding halt before they even had the chance to get started. By exploring what not to do, we gain insight into what it takes to build an impactful blended learning program that can help drive better student outcomes and overall positive change in a district.
As you prepare to launch your blended learning program, be sure to look out for these 5 red flags. If you can relate to any or all of these, now is the time to right the vessel on your journey to a blended learning experience that is sure to benefit your staff, students, and community.
1. Relationship-building isn’t a priority.
Many students look to a blended learning environment for fulfillment where they were underserved by the traditional school model in some way. Naturally, they will have a strong need to build relationships with their instructors in order to feel comfortable and grow in their new setting. A grave mistake is assuming that students can navigate the blended learning world on their own; interpersonal connections will always be an important part of any learning environment.
Educators with experience in a blended setting agree that how students perceive their relationship with their teacher plays a significant role in program success:
- Heather Hiebsch, founding principal of PSD Global Academy, a blended learning school in Colorado “emphasized that teachers who teach online should not be held to a lower standard than in-person teachers; in fact, they especially need to be able to form strong relationships with students” (6 Things I Didn’t Know About Blended Learning (and 1 I Did). Gitis, Julia. Edmodo Blog. 2017).
- Carol Robinson, Technology Director at the Progressive Leadership Academy in Chicago, reflects*: “The relationships that we build with those students in the beginning of the program gives them that comfort level in knowing that they can do this. And once they have that comfort level, they flourish.”
- Jossis Tobey, Coordinator of Digital Learning at The Rebound School of Opportunity in Idaho, also discussed her program’s success*: “The building of relationships with our students by all staff members is what’s bringing this program to levels we’re so proud of for the students.”
2. You’re not tracking student progress.
If you’re not tracking student progress in your blended learning program, you are ignoring one of the greatest advantages of technology—the ability to know at any given time where your students stand so that you can constantly modify your approach to help them achieve better results. Real-time data helps teachers determine which concepts students are and are not grasping and can aid them in personalizing instruction and adjusting individual student goals.
Tracking progress also encourages students to reflect on their learning and self-assess. Catlin R. Tucker writes: “Asking students to track and evaluate their own work online using participation reports puts a degree of responsibility on them.… Students rarely take the time to reflect on their work, so building this practice into your class can help them recognize their progress. When they see that they are in fact growing and improving, they appreciate and value their work more” (Blended Learning in Grades K-12. Corwin, 2012. Print. p. 206).
3. You’re not encouraging students to be agents of their own learning.
Students cannot begin to learn digital content until they first learn how to actively engage with their teachers and fellow students in a blended environment. Over time, students will discover they have more input and choice in a blended setting, and they can take more ownership of their education—but they will need you to show them how to do this in the beginning.
Tom Vander Ark offers some tips for developing student agency for blended learners in 10 Tips for Developing Student Agency (Education Week, 2015), including:
- “Press students to think deeply instead of superficially about their lessons”
- “Be attentive and sensitive” while encouraging students to take ownership, and
- “Strive to achieve respectful, orderly, on-task student behavior … instead of merely controlling students through intimidation or coercion”
Encouraging students to be active engagers in their learning rather than passive bystanders fosters an environment of growth and opportunity. “When students begin redefining their role in a class from passive observer to active participant, they also begin to recognize each other as valuable resources and understand that teachers are not the only source of wisdom and ‘correct answers,’” says Tucker (Blended Learning in Grades K-12. p.20).
4. Expectations were not set.
Without clear expectations for all stakeholders in the program—students, staff, and parents—a new blended learning initiative can quickly go awry. When all individuals involved understand from the get-go what is expected of them and why, the transition to a blended model will go significantly smoother.
Everyone should understand that the program is a work in progress and things will change, but here are some steps you can take to set the stage:
- Be sure to first explain the goals for your program and how you intend to accomplish them.
- Make sure teachers are on the same page before implementation. Determine checkpoints for evaluating progress and what outcomes they will need to report back.
- Then, focus your efforts on fostering a culture of support. Work together, communicate often, and stay positive!
- Explain the blended learning model to parents. Remind them that online learning doesn’t replace the teacher; it is another tool for teachers to better support each child’s needs. Help prepare parents to be involved in their child’s online learning at home.
5. You don’t have goals for the program.
“The truth is, the efficacy of blended learning greatly depends on its specific implementation and the particular problem it is designed to solve.”
You can’t have a successful blended learning program without being able to answer these questions: What changes are you striving for? What student needs are you working to meet? Is there data to support the need? It is absolutely key that you define the problems you’re trying to solve before any changes are implemented.
This also applies when structuring individual courses within the blended program. In 6 Elements of An Effective Blended Learning Classroom, Harish Agrawal writes, “An effective blended learning classroom mandates a definite understanding of course goals before educators can begin creating content. The objectives serve as a roadmap, helping everyone understand where learning is headed and the topics that need to be covered to successfully achieve course objectives” (eLearning Industry, 2017).
Elizabeth Anthony, Blended Learning Coordinator at The University of Notre Dame, expressed* that a lot of classrooms get technology just for the sake of getting technology, but it’s extremely vital to understand how that technology is being used. “Students are using technology, whether they’re doing so in our classrooms or not—it is about what they’re doing with that technology and how it’s affecting their learning process that makes the difference.”
Click here to learn what a difference technology made for students at Wright City Academy in Missouri, where the blended program effectively helped keep kids in school and improve graduation rates.
*Source: recent telephone interviews.