[Editor’s Note: This story is Part 1 of our April series on Blended Learning. Check back every Thursday this month for the next installment!]
Too often, educators who are considering investing in blended learning pull back after hearing horror stories of good programs gone bad. Whether it’s botched rollouts, network snafus, or general apathy that kills an initiative, many telling signs can be traced back to the planning and initial support stages.
We won’t pretend that our district has everything figured out, but after seven years of blended learning, going 1:1 at our four secondary schools and all fifth grades, and having our model elementary school recognized by the International Center for Education and Learning, Meriden Public Schools has seen rising graduation and attendance rates, and we are better off than we were before our blended journey began.
As we have discovered through trial and plenty of errors, without staff and community buy-in, many otherwise well-intentioned programs hit the skids before they’ve really gotten up to speed. We are proud to share some of the challenges we’ve encountered, along with best practices for ensuring that your program remains on the road to success.
1. Some programs start too fast.
Creating a successful blended learning program isn’t a race, and ours has taken nearly a decade to achieve. When we began our foray into blended learning about seven years ago, nobody was even talking about a device program, and the thought of going 1:1 seemed light-years away from where we were. Instead of jumping in feet first, we laid the groundwork and did the small things we thought we could accomplish.
We upgraded our WiFi, making it more robust than ever, and prepared for future growth. Then we implemented a district-wide BYOD program where kids as young as kindergarten were bringing in devices to share with their class. But as a district with a large free-and-reduced meals program, we knew BYOD was leaving gaps in access that were best addressed by going 1:1.
Now, all secondary students are issued a Chromebook that is theirs to keep—even during the summer. We use Chromebook carts for K-5 students and offer iPad carts that teachers can check out on demand.
2. There’s no staff buy-in.
Teachers are understandably wary about fly-by-night initiatives that take time and attention away from their teaching and give back little appreciable benefits. We wanted to make sure our teachers would embrace the change, see its benefit, and be comfortable with what we were asking them to do.
In response, we created a tech team from among our staff to help advise the teachers and students with questions as they came up. We also used students as on-site coaches to help teachers and peers with any tech issues. Providing that on-site support allowed us to offer tiered interventions for our staff.
We were clear and upfront with sharing the data collected. We want our teachers to see the success. By sharing this information openly, we showed teachers that students really were progressing at higher levels.
(Next page: 3 more ways blended learning programs fail)
3) Tools aren’t chosen strategically.
Buy-in doesn’t end with getting teachers on board at the start of a program. It impacts everything, including how they will embrace the technology and software you implement.
At Meriden, the teacher buy-in process starts early. We include teachers when we’re looking at new products, bringing teachers with us to weigh in on what they need in their classrooms. We can ask them if the product addresses a need they’re seeing, instead of asking them to make something fit after the fact.
We also make sure the digital content we use is embedded in the core curriculum. Once we look at usage, then we ask what type of supports we need to put in place to make sure our teachers and students improve.
4) Students don’t feel invested.
We never want learning to feel forced upon students, any more than we want it to feel forced upon teachers. In the same way we give teachers a voice in how a program is constructed, we also strive to give students a measure of control over their own learning.
Literacy is a big part of our blended learning program, which encourages students to engage with texts in a variety of ways to help sharpen their literacy skills, all the while providing valuable feedback in the form of data that teachers can use to target instruction.
In general, the whole process goes more smoothly when students enjoy what they’re reading. Using literacy software like myON, students are able to select from thousands of books, and best of all, they can recommend their favorites to others. With Imagine Learning also embedded into our literacy curriculum, we have forged a powerful literacy connection from which everyone benefits.
5) The org chart looks the same as before.
We believe it’s essential to make connections between the data we’re collecting and the teachers. Since blended learning is so critical to our district’s success overall, we created a staff position at Meriden called the blended learning supervisor. It’s this person’s job to analyze ways to maximize teacher use of our digital curriculum products and give assistance as needed. Our first blended learning supervisor was someone from within the teacher’s union who became an expert with our programs, and who can really work closely with teachers and technology integration specialists to make sure we’re tracking and following up on the right things.
We also combined our technology supervisor and curriculum director positions, eliminating debates about where digital content fit into the curriculum. We like our administration to be accessible to teachers so we can discover whether or not the technology is easy for them to use or gives them what they need. In the end, having one person in charge has expedited our mission.
Finally, we have used teachers as leaders to help scale up our program. When some of our teachers who have been working with the model for a while meet specific criterion, they become “I’m Charged” teachers and are recognized as pioneers in digital content. We ask them to open their classrooms and teach other teachers. Because, as we’ve found, when our teachers learn, our students learn.