To Make Blended Learning Work, Teachers Try Different Tactics

| November 2, 2012 | 32 Comments
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By now, most would agree that technology has the potential to be a useful tool for learning. Many schools have invested in some form of technology, whether it’s in computer labs, tablets, or a laptop for every student, depending on their budget.

But for many schools, finding a way to integrate the use of tech in a traditional setting — teacher-centered classrooms — is proving to be a challenge. What educational software should be used? What criteria should the software be judged against? And what happens to the role of the teacher and classroom activities when students are using software for practice exercises?

At this point, just a couple of years into the movement, there are no definitive answers yet. Different schools are trying different blended learning models. Most schools allot a designated computer lab time when students use computers for math, literacy, or other type of software. But teachers who are more advanced in using technology and more comfortable with experimenting have students rotate through different learning modalities at different times, including time for online learning, working with the teacher face-to-face, and working on projects in groups fluidly. In the most extreme cases, students spend most of their day on computers, just as they would in the workplace.

“It’s going to be more about teachers having nimble classrooms.”

But for any of those tactics to work, educators agree that the key is to have a clear vision of what the technology is being used for, and how that will affect the teacher’s role. For schools just beginning to dabble in classroom technology, that’s a daunting idea. Many aren’t willing to upend the existing systems for this new model.

Catlin Tucker, an English teacher in Windsor, Calif., who integrates tech into her students’ school and homework, takes full advantage of what the technology affords her. “Shifting some work online to complement traditional classrooms creates much needed time and space in the classroom,” Tucker said. If technology can replace elements of in-class instruction, classroom time can be leveraged to deepen learning. “[Teachers] can embrace project-based learning and create student-centered classrooms to build on the work that’s completed online.”

That might be easier said than done. While Tucker has come up with a strategy that works for her, it doesn’t always work for others. Liz Arney, Director of Innovative Learning at Aspire Schools, which has a small group instruction model, says students follow the teacher’s pacing guide, which doesn’t always align with what level they’ve progressed to on the software. Kids could be coming into the teacher-taught space at very different points in their online learning. It’s up to the teacher to figure out how to reconcile the two.

What’s more, the quality of the available software isn’t always great. “The programs are just really mediocre,” Arney said. “No one has any business in my mind letting the program tell them what to teach. The programs are just not strong enough.”

The software also promises to provide educators with valuable information on students’ progress day by day, but Arney doesn’t believe the data on student comprehension is reliable.

“It’s a fair question to ask if the technology is good enough or the system is strong enough,” said Brian Greenberg, a Bay Area educator who’s been practicing different ways of using tech in schools.

He’s optimistic that the software will get better, but he’d like to see small-scale experimentation before disseminating ideas to schools everywhere.

CHALLENGES ARE OPPORTUNITIES

One of the biggest challenges of blended learning is also what excites advocates most — allowing kids to progress at their own level and pace. “We will move to a model where we don’t assume all kids are learning the same concept in any given day or week,” Greenberg said. “It’s going to be more about teachers having nimble classrooms.”

“Learning does not take place in the act of listening to information explained, but rather in the moments when we are asked to make sense of that information, to wrestle with ideas.”

But teachers already have a mountain of work and asking them to keep track of where each learner is on the software — which may or may not correlate to core standards — is a tall order. Greenberg says the teacher is crucial to ensuring that blended learning is effective. The technology should free educators to do more of what only they can do — give context to concepts.

Tucker says the teacher needs to have a strong sense of what the technology accomplishes and how her teaching can encourage students to think creatively. “Computer programs alone will not radically change the teaching paradigm,” Tucker said. “Learning does not take place in the act of listening to (or viewing) information explained, but rather in the moments when we are asked to make sense of that information, to wrestle with ideas, to apply, evaluate, synthesize and use what we have learned to create something,” Tucker said.

CASE BY CASE

It’s important that schools show a commitment to the coming change, Arney said — and to have a strong staff and principal.

“The tech is going to kill you the first year. Everything is going to go wrong. You have to have the stomach for that,” she said.

Greenberg’s organization, Silicon Schools Fund, will experiment with blended learning models to find what works for different kinds of school structures and populations. He doesn’t believe anyone has gotten it quite right yet.

“I think the right tone in this world is to be cautiously optimistic. Anyone who says this is easy you should walk away from,” Greenberg said.

 

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  • Buist Bunch

    I love Greenberg’s quote about teachers having “nimble classrooms.” I’m definitely taking this to heart.

    • briecee

      That’s just a cooler way of saying “differentiated instruction”, and you don’t need computers to do it.

  • Gerald Ardito

    I just finished blogging about this.

    Here is my full response:
    http://teachingownership.blogspot.com/2012/11/isnt-it-time.html#.UJUnOLTA8y4

  • trena

    It needs to become less of teachers lecturing, and more of teachers doing intensive research and pointing their students toward reliable sources for their own research; that, combined with lots of classroom dialogue… sharing, documenting and debating information and ideas…, facilitated by the teacher.

  • bstone

    Why do these articles always lack evidential justification? I’m tired of seeing so much ado about alternative education models without a single mention of a peer reviewed study with sound methodology. Maybe it’s a good idea, maybe it’s not. There’s no reason to decide either way based on the article.

    • healthofusall

      bstone, your comment is valid, but for myself, I’m glad they’re at least posting the article to raise awareness of the intention.
      As a teacher and former student, I like the individual progress idea, and it worked for me in upper elementary school, but people who want to make money on computers at the expense of quality student-teacher interaction make me angry.

    • Sydney

      Because the research that you are asking for, takes time. First researchers need to identify that this is going on (they often seem to be a bit behind the fast moving technology-world). After that, someone needs to be interested, design a research, do some experiments, write an article about it, have it peer-reviewed and publish it. Because this is a relatively new phenomenon, we just have to wait for academic research. I guess in a few years time, we will have answers, but we will probably be one step further ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffrey.dearruda Jeffrey DeArruda

    People have been debating how to best add computers to the classroom since I was in middle school. And you know what? I have a revolutionary idea.

    Don’t. Just do not add computers to the classroom. People are letting the novelty of the technology entrance them, and ignoring the idea of teaching kids basic math, basic science, basic problem solving, history, and civics. The technology is great for research and for typing up reports. But it does not replace actual mentoring. And at this time, we are still having a difficult time figuring out how to use it to augment mentoring.

    Research ways to use it? Sure. But until you have some real results, find a successful approach and use that.

    • bsaunders

      I have a learning disability but am fortunate enough to have made it successfully through school despite it. Technology is nothing short of a miracle for some of us. From the first time I used one in 1984, I recognized the computer as an assistive device. (Though I wouldn’t have used those words.) I am heartsick every time I hear people go on and on about kids needing to “try harder” to “master the basics” when at least some of them are struggling with processing difficulties. I have excellent math reasoning skills; I miscalculate because I switch numbers. I’ve won awards for professional writing; still I have trouble reading because the letters switch before my eyes. I could not read a map to save my life. For the learning disabled among us, keeping computers out of the classroom on principle is like keeping canes away from kids with walking problems or keeping eyeglasses away from kids with myopia.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jeffrey.dearruda Jeffrey DeArruda

        You misunderstand me. Kids who have problems like yours should be exposed to several different approaches to see what works for you/them. What I’m against is the idea that we should just throw money at the idea of putting computers in the classroom without clear ideas of how or even if it is effective on a large scale. Traditional techniques work for most students, and are surprisingly cheap.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Julian-Penrod/100003232038763 Julian Penrod

    There are a number of problems with the decisions made to re-engineer the “educational” system.

    One is that many of those deciding what to implement, on “school boards” and in “government” still can’t locate Italy on a map! They live by “the game”, the give-and-take connivery of back room deals and bribes, all to foist another piece of garbage on the lower level populace who aren’t in a position to say “no”. Everything from Montessori, to “whole language”, to calculators in kindergarten, to self esteem, to role models, to relevance, to expansive classrooms, to LATIC has been the same, a craven arrangement to pay out huge amounts of taxpayers dollars for junk, then taking a cut. And being guaranteed an “educational” system as shoddy as before, setting the stage for more back room deals!

    And all facilitated by the “wunderkind” scam. Someone comes in with a new system. They get a lot of attention. They pull out a few well chosen “testimonials”. There’s a lot of enthusiasm. For the first few weeks, there is good response. The person behind the fraud grabs the money fast. Then, by the time the novelty wears off and it’s obvious it was a fraud, the person in selling another scam in another state or country, using the god press from the first few weeks of the last swindle as “recommendation”.

    Traditional teaching produced Shakespeare, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Galileo, Kepler, Keats, Newton, Twain, Kipling, Maxwell, Constable, Sargent, Yeats, Pasteur. What major name has the new “teaching” produced? In fact, there has been absolutely nothing new since about 1925. Every development builds on material understood up until that time.

    • http://twitter.com/JohnMC312 John MC

      Get off my lawn!

  • briecee

    I think the biggest challenge, and blessing, that tech brings to the classroom is that the teacher is no longer the primary source of information. Teachers need to model *how* to think, how and when to use the computer as a tool, how to compare sources, how to form a question and research it. But teachers *don’t* need to be the ones with all the answers.

    That said, kids in elementary school shouldn’t be spending much time on the computer at all. It’s bad for their development, and there’s no evidence that kids who use fingerpaint instead of MS Paint (or, heaven help us, Kid Pix) can’t catch up quickly if introduced to the computer later- around middle school is just fine. Some limited use for fact memorization- math facts, phonics- in the early grades may be okay, but most of the time early childhood computer use is just distraction from more developmentally appropriate learning activities.

    • healthofusall

      Children, especially under age 8, need real-life experiences, mud, chalk, singing, talking with adults, sitting under a tree; some teachers know this, and continue to bring children to those experiences. Thank you, teachers!

  • http://www.facebook.com/linda.guttilla Linda Simon Guttilla

    The key, in teaching anything, is to generate thought. To engage the child in the process of deciphering. Many american children sit in the classroom awaiting knowledge to be bestowed on them, as if it were a tangible thing. We, as teachers and parents both, need to instead teach the child to question everything. This is the begining of learning.

    • http://twitter.com/jennifer_collie Jennifer Collins

      I agree. Times change and we all need to adapt, but the essence of teaching remains the same – to generate thought and engage children in the process of learning.

  • Leopard

    biggest problem is the institutional mindset of administrators,
    next problem is in most poorer school districts, the students don’t have access
    third problem is the resistance to change from more senior teachers
    fourth problem will be the students unwillingness to be held accountable for work assigned
    there will be many problems, there are teachers in the pipeline ready for this and willing to adapt, but they end up in schools which require that you conform to their way of doing thus killing any type of creativity or innovation idealistic teachers are wanting to bring into the classroom.
    They either conform or are doomed to be blackballed by the districts throughout the state, so they die a slow death of mediocrity…

  • http://twitter.com/jerryhamilt Jerry

    It will not be for the Better, if they are not taught the basic’s first! Pencil and Paper are the basic’s, I was in a gas station last week that lost power, The girl behind the register could not sell me anything because the power was out?
    I asked her if she had a pencil and paper and a calculator, What would I do with that, she asked?
    Her Manager was standing behind her and instructed her how to use a calculator to add tax, write down what was sold, and took our cash money for the sale!
    EVERY YEAR OUR CHILDREN GET MORE STUPID THAN THE YEAR BEFORE! We are to blame, I watched a 13 year old boy on a riding mower, NOT know how to mow grass? God Help Us.

  • William

    My friends in S’pore don’t think computer based teaching is so good. They noticed with their two children that they did well using a computer to study math, but when these kids had to use a pencil and paper they could not do the problems so well. So, they are dumping the computer and going back to what works.

  • JoeKaus

    Katrina, I think you highlighted a very great point regarding technology’s
    ability to free up instructors’ time to deepen learning. There is a common
    misconception that technology will take place of instruction and magically
    provide learners with the knowledge they require; providing a learner with an
    iPad or laptop does not mean they will grasp the concepts any better than with
    a book. We need to be careful when blaming the software or technology for being
    mediocre or subpar. Instructors and curricula developers need to utilize the
    tools and technology to enhance their course and instruction methods; creating a
    proper environment that incorporates different avenues of learning, visual,
    audible, etc., in addition to creating examples with repetition, real-world
    meaning, and peer input so the information will be retained in the learners’
    long-term memory. Technology is not the one-size-fits-all answer for material
    not being learned or retained, but it does provide new attention grabbers and
    modes of instruction that were not available in years past.

  • Zoe

    I’m enjoying reading all the passionate comments on this post, it’s a really interesting topic, and I do think that things like BYOD will change how students learn in the future http://ow.ly/f88R2

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  • Zachary Blois

    Blended learning definitely helps our students prepare for the world they will enter post-K12. But, the true beauty of blended learning is that the teacher finally is given the opportunity to scaffold higher-level thinking and application skills, while nurturing self-learned basic skills provided by individual digital instruction. This allows technology to be a means of basic instruction, instead of THE means of instruction.

    If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around how this looks in grade school classes (which can definitely be done), check out http://blog.wowzers.com/bid/265822/Flip-your-Classroom-with-Blended-Learning.

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