Using Blended Learning in the Classroom

March 9, 2015 by

ChairsYou don’t have to be part of a proficiency-based learning (PBL) environment for very long to see the benefit of using technology. PBL shifts learning from the “sage on the stage” method to one where students are direct stakeholders. They are asked to be in charge of their learning, making decisions about how, where, and often when they will work through content.

Many schools in Maine are making this transformational leap. My district is one of them. We recognized right away the importance of providing an “anytime, anywhere” learning platform that gives students access to standards and content around the clock. What we haven’t given enough time to, however, is dealing with the difference between posting information in the school’s learning management system and structuring the blended learning environment to maximize learning rather than access.

Blended learning is more than just making a website, posting assignments, and waiting for the magic to happen. It’s a model of teaching and learning that helps move the walls of the classroom and provides learning opportunities (as opposed to homework opportunities) both in and out of the classroom. It is designed intentionally to require students to engage with the content in a variety of ways that suit their learning style. Collaboration is essential. Good blended learning uses strategies that provide opportunities for students to revisit their learning, reflecting on what they’ve learned, and that allow time to think about how all this becomes personal. It helps students apply what they learn rather than memorize facts. The tools and resources available in a blended learning environment maximize learning, plain and simple.

In a perfect world, developing a blended learning environment would look like this:

Teams of teachers, technology integrators, curriculum coordinators, administrators, and students sit down to determine student learning needs. They identify global learning goals for all students. They identify specific learning needs at different levels, using data to drive decisions. They agree on a format and a platform to use across curriculum and in all learning areas for continuity, with customization at different levels to accommodate maturity and access to technology. Tools are chosen intentionally to allow for cross content learning and collaboration between teams of students and teachers. The structure of the learning allows for movement beyond the traditional grade level structure as students show mastery of the standards.

More often, here’s what really happens: Tech savvy teachers develop tools to meet the needs of their students in isolation. This leads to different tools used in each classroom, multiple logins for students, and varying navigation systems and expectations for use. The success of the tool is dependent on the teacher’s grasp of taxonomy and design, both visual and from an information organization standpoint. Students adapt with varying degrees of success. Those who don’t adapt use the excuse that they can’t find anything on the teacher’s site.

Hopefully, your district falls into the first category; however, if it doesn’t, and you recognize the power of blended learning, you can still step in. Take a deep breath and read on.

Getting Started

First and foremost, start where you are. Designing blended learning takes practice. It takes an understanding of taxonomy of learning as it pertains to your district’s standards-based teaching and learning practices. It takes a healthy dose of humbleness and a willingness to say, “Well, that didn’t work”—then analyze why.

Evaluate Your Content

You’ve already got a good grip on how your standards relate to each other. How is your content scaffolded (or is it)? Are there standards that students will use throughout several units, or is it “one and done?” Are the standards written in language that students will readily understand, or are they written in teacher-speak? You may find that classtime is well spent unpacking standards for understanding. Ensuring that students are crystal clear on what they need to know and be able to do will go a long way towards getting students to the mastery level.

Don’t feel like you need to have an entire semester’s worth of work ready to go before you get started. It’s perfectly all right to start with just one unit or group of competencies. This will have two bonuses: Students will not feel overwhelmed with the amount of work they have to do, and neither will you. You can test the waters in both how students react to being blended learners and what you need to do to be a blended learning teacher.

Use a Model

Choose a model for your design. Backwards Design fits nicely in the competency-based environment because it starts with the goal of the learning—then asks you to work backwards identifying skills and levels of learning along the way. It provides an easy way to scaffold your content and aids in your organization. I also like Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping model. It includes a step that identifies WHY students have struggled to reach proficiency in the past. This allows you to build in the necessary skill practice/content connections so students can be more successful. This is crucial when asking learners to behave independently.

Look at your scaffolded content with a critical eye to taxonomy. Many competency-based schools use Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to determine the difficulty of a task based on the level of critical thinking involved. Those lower level skills and concepts are pieces that lend themselves to work outside of the classroom. Make this the work students do outside of class. This might be vocabulary, basic content knowledge, or any other memorizeable information. Provide the resources (in multiple formats if possible), ask them to document their questions, create the necessary formative assessments, and let them go. Some tools that may be helpful for you will be those that provide drill and practice opportunities, readings with online graphic organizers, labeling activities, and written responses to content.

Once your students have the skill and content knowledge they need, you can use your blended learning environment to provide ways for them to apply that knowledge. Introduce new tasks that require higher level thinking but be careful not to toss your students to the wind. The leap from skills and content acquisition to strategic thinking and reasoning can be a big one and requires a level of independence that may be a bit of a stretch for some students. Support in the form of collaborative tools, face to face conversations, frequent formative assessments, and access to multiple resources for content will be important as you ask students to make this move. Be sure students understand how to access the help they need.

Activities that fall into these categories could be analysis of student-collected data, research projects, creation of infograms, collaborative writing projects, social media campaigns addressing student solutions to real world problems, and original student created multi-media projects.

Use your inclass time to facilitate questions and discussions about content application tasks. You’ll still do some direct instruction but will find that your classroom time becomes more like a learning lab, where your instruction will get small groups of students “over a hump” and moving forward again on their own. You’ll need to develop a workflow that uses the information from your formative assessments to flexibly group students when you meet face to face. This will keep you from answering the same questions over and over again throughout the room and will provide smaller learning communities within your classroom that students can access as they need help.

Ideally you and your students will develop a cyclical workflow that moves online and offline as they identify where and when they need help to complete tasks required to show mastery of content.

Evaluate Student Readiness for Blended Learning

Many of our students have been in a digital freefall for years, moving around the web and interacting as they see fit. Don’t assume they know how to interact in a collaborative online environment just because they are on Facebook or play multi-player games. The rules are very different. You will need to work with them to set expectations and discuss acceptable ways to participate in discussions, and give positive and negative feedback. They will all be able to tell you how to be a good digital citizen; for some, following through is more difficult.

The best way to do this is to ask your students to asses their skills. I use a three point learning continuum designed to let students identify strengths and weaknesses when it comes to working independently. It looks at goal setting, managing distractions, creating a workflow, and finding quality resources. It will give you an idea of where your students are as a class and as individuals so you can provide opportunities for large and small group instruction. It also gives them an idea of the skills they will need to work on to be successful in a blended learning environment. If you use the continuum as a starting point for individual discussions, you may be surprised at the barriers students identify.

The 16 Habits of Mind are skills that are important for students to have if they are going to independently direct their learning; they are also difficult to assess and are sometimes overlooked in the push to implement standards. Don’t ignore them! As you move to increase the use of blended learning you’ll want to consider your students’ strength level in each of these categories. For many students, this requires active instruction in how to manage distractions, work through problems, and apply prior knowledge intentionally. Improving students’ thinking and working skills will open doors to rigor, application, and authenticity of learning.

About the Author

A self-proclaimed "competent problem solver with a large dose of curiosity and stubbornness to find solutions," Lydia held her first teaching job at Hall-Dale High School as a computer teacher. She is now the K-12 Technology Integrationist for all three Hall-Dale schools. In this venue she is tasked with finding ways to leverage technology to improve teaching, learning, and student achievement. Lydia recently finished a second Master's degree - this time in Instructional Design and Technology from Emporia State University. She enjoys collaborating with others and relishes the opportunity to expand her personal learning network. She can be contacted via email at lleimbach@kidsrsu.org, Twitter as @lleimbach, and Google+ as Lydia Leimbach.

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