This school year (and likely the early part of 2021) continues to look different for each and every school, and even if those schools are in the same district. Despite these differences, we all shared three major challenges: the need to teach both face-to-face and online (sometimes concurrently); collaborate and connect while social distancing; and remain fluid, flexible, and agile in an evolving learning environment.
For many, the solution to all three of these problems is blended learning, where students learn both through electronic/online media and traditional face-to-face teaching. An educational style that was gaining ground long before the pandemic entered the picture, blended learning is playing a prominent role in the K-12 environment right now.
For example, smaller districts may not be able to offer full virtual programs with full-time teachers. And even if students are back in class 100 percent of the time, there may still be students who have to quarantine at home. Responsible for keeping the learning going for these youngsters, schools have to be ready to teach both online and face-to-face.
4 steps to success
We all have to be so agile and flexible this year. We need to be able to move fluidly from one mode of learning to a new environment, and then back again. And even though we’re well into the school year, we’re still not sure what the rest of the year will really look like. We need to be able to move between those environments with minimal disruption.
The bottom line is that we can’t let students get behind any further than they have in the spring. Blended learning is going to help us survive the year and work toward a positive, productive future. Here are five ways we’re making sure that happens:
1. Choose your face-to-face versus online content. Teachers should choose what’s going to be offered face-to-face and what will be taught online. This looks different across subjects and grade levels. It’s also important to understand that on-demand learning is just as much teaching and learning as the “live” time is. If we don’t acknowledge this, we’ll try to fit an entire school year into two days out of a week in the hybrid model. Ask yourself, “What is the thing that only a human can do, live with students?” If we really think about our live time with students in that way, then we’re going to shift from putting the lecture on a pedestal to prioritizing relationship building, differentiation, and active learning.
2. Design differently for the online environment. Be intentional about the “live time” with students and what content you’re live-streaming. Whole-group, online, synchronous instruction is difficult, and mainly because good online learning isn’t just face-to-face learning put behind a screen. When we think of it that way, the online learning itself just isn’t quite as good. Unfortunately, when people don’t believe in online learning, or they don’t think that it’s as equitable, it’s because that’s the version of it they have in their head. We really have to design differently for the online environment. Part of that means leveraging high-quality, highly interactive asynchronous online instruction and using the data from those lessons to drive our limited live time with students.
3. Go beyond the passive consumption of learning. For blended learning to work, we need to create access to digital materials for students that go beyond just the “passive consumption of learning.” Instead of just presenting a video, for example, I will include an Edpuzzle so that students have the interactivity throughout the video. And, if I want them to read a specific text and do something with it—even just a quick reflection or metacognitive activity—I’ll have them actively engage with the materials (versus just providing a laundry list of resources). It’s about creating interactive content that students can engage with on platforms like Lexia Learning, which provides myriad learning activities to go along with its literacy content.
4. Balance the cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount of effort it takes for your working memory to process information. Young adults can process about three to five things at one time. When we’re designing digital lessons, we often will put everything in one place on one page in order to reduce the number of clicks that someone has to make. The problem is that students can’t process all of that. To avoid this problem, we scaffold the information and provide opportunities for students to check in—using quick checks, reflection activities, retrieval practices—and balance the cognitive load. When you achieve this balance, you wind up with high-quality digital lessons that are just as good as if you were standing in front of a classroom.
Throw out what doesn’t work
Right now, all schools have the chance to toss out what isn’t working and replace it with more effective, engaging learning approaches. We’re almost forced to do this because of the constraints of living and working through a pandemic, but the changes made now will actually pay off in the long run—once we’re not working under these current constraints. This year is going to be a lot of work, flexibility, and stress management, but we have an opportunity to make substantial change to what learning looks like for students. Let’s take it.