Four Essential Principles of Blended Learning

| August 21, 2013 | 42 Comments
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As schools become more savvy about blended-learning tactics– the practice of mixing online and in-person instruction — guidelines and best practices are emerging from lessons learned. Here are four crucial factors to keep in mind as schools plunge in.

1.  EVERY SCHOOL NEEDS A VISION.

The single biggest piece of advice offered by most blended learning pioneers is to have a cohesive vision for how the technology will enhance specific learning goals, how it will ease the burden on teachers, and how it can make both teachers and students more creative learners.

A big part of creating that vision is having strong leadership at all levels. A district superintendent who sees the value in a model will help remove old policies that inhibit the work. A strong leader will remove barriers, support professional development for teachers, celebrate successes and help move past challenges. And that person will value the student experience most. “We put students behind the wheel with our guidance, recognizing they will make mistakes, but we’ll be there to get them back on track,” said Eric Williams, Superintendent of York County School Division in Virginia.

Equally important is to have that same kind of visionary leadership from principals and teachers willing to lead by example in the classroom. A shared vision means each tier of a school’s hierarchy must work towards the same goals. Teachers and principals must be given room to try new things, fail, innovate and evolve until they find the right balance. That requires a lot of flexibility, another important feature of implementing this new style of learning that will seem foreign to many parents, students and teachers. Moving to a blended learning model won’t work perfectly just because it’s being done on a tablet or through a new learning management system.

 “Shifting some work online to complement traditional classrooms creates much needed time and space in the classroom.”

Part of the overall vision needs to include considering how to give students more agency over their learning. If the technology is canned content meant to turn out strong test takers who can’t apply the knowledge they’ve learned, is it meeting the broader learning goals? Similarly, how can the technology help teachers become the most inspired, passionate and creative classroom facilitators possible? How can it encourage them to stay in the profession and offer creative outlets for their passions?

2.  ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL.

There’s no one best way to integrate digital learning into a classroom. If the vision, goals and desired outcomes are clear, there’s lots of room to experiment with what works best. It will depend on the student population and needs; some schools are dealing with vastly different kinds of student populations, while others may be trying to transition to a project-based learning model. Nothing is mutually exclusive, but needs are different and will determine the learning goals.

Blended learning also works differently for a variety of subjects. Overall, software developers have had more luck helping students to learn math concepts through a program than they have had with Language Arts, which requires many skills at once that are not easily parsed. “The biggest issue I still see is that people are still trying to break it down when it needs to be combined,” said Chris Liang-Vergara, director of instructional technology for personalized learning at Firstline, a public charter school company in New Orleans. Firstline depends on software to help its students catch up, but hasn’t found any really satisfactory software for Language Arts. This might be a subject where a patchwork of free or inexpensive web tools can better fill the need.

3.  DON’T LET SOFTWARE DICTATE LEARNING GOALS.

As illustrated by Frontline’s frustrating experience finding Language Arts software that could help students with reading comprehension, writing, synthesis, and vocabulary at the same time, software isn’t always the answer. The tools are slowly improving, but they aren’t infallible and many are directed at a specific problem and don’t offer a cohesive learning strategy.

A program like ALEKS or Khan Academy videos might help student understand how to do certain math problems, but will they have the opportunity to show whether they can apply the knowledge in real-life scenarios? The flood of data from software can be helpful, if applied to agreed-upon learning outcomes, but that data might not be able to measure those outcomes.

4.  SUPPORT TEACHERS AND INCLUDE THEM IN DECISION-MAKING PROCESS.

Teachers will always be the heart and soul of a classroom, and they should be considered a critical factor in deciding on what blended tactics to use.

No matter what kind of technology is being used, classrooms are full of rambunctious kids who need a teacher with strong classroom management skills and the ability to set a positive classroom culture.

The most common arguments in favor of blended learning center on its ability to help schools tailor learning to the individual learner. The potential for that kind of differentiation is there, but it’s up to the teacher to find challenging learning opportunities for a kid ready to zoom ahead or to spend a little extra time with a struggling student. Not only does the teacher need to keep track of where each student is, but he or she also need to help each learner feel valued and connected to the community.

The biggest takeaway about implementing a blended learning program is that it won’t be easier. Some functions might be automated, like quiz grading, but only an energetic and passionate teacher can make the most of that new-found time. It’s unrealistic to plop a kid down at a computer and expect him to learn. In a blended classroom the teacher is constantly there providing support, helping students access new tools, pushing for more depth of understanding.

Educators are paying attention all the time and they are using the data they can get from software or other tools to help direct their energies. Teachers of the future are going to need stronger data analyzing skills, but they will also need to pull their heads out of the spreadsheet and recognize the social and emotional needs of their students, a function that only a real live teacher can offer.

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