Blended learning paves way for digital content

Panelists note that digital content, access can boost blended learning’s impact

blended-learningBlended learning is by now a well-known concept. However during a day-long ed-tech summit devoted to connecting students and teachers to the technology, broadband, and content they need to become college and career-ready, panelists explored how blended learning needs the right supports to become truly effective.

“Blended learning is not using technology to diminish the role of teaching; it enhances the role of teaching,” said panelist Bob Wise, former West Virginia governor and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Blended learning is commonly defined as a combination of face-to-face and online learning. Benefits include its ability to let students learn at a more individualized pace, as well as the chance for students to access courses that might not be offered at a traditional brick-and-mortar school, supporters say.

“Now we have the ability for students to master content and move at their own pace,” Wise said.

It is crucial for policy makers to understand that blended learning is taking place in school districts across the country, and that schools are making efforts to prepare students for college and the workforce at the same time as they are operating under constrained budgets and adapting to ever-changing technology.

“The key is really to take the core ingredient in K-12–a teacher–and to be able to support that teacher in every way possible, to develop ways the teacher can make the learning experience more effective,” said Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and CEO of Amplify. “It’s critical that the ‘blender’ be the teacher.”

(Live interaction or online learning? Take our poll on Page 2. Next page: Digital content; empowering teachers)Blended learning makes it possible for students to learn individually, for teachers to teach to smaller, directed groups of students, and for students to apply learning in collaborative stations, said Judy Burton, president and CEO of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools. The key, she noted, is to discover how using technology as a tool supports the work of teachers.

“In blended learning classrooms, you’ll see not textbooks, but digital content. You’ll see students moving away from the ‘right answer’ and moving to how they can apply what they’re learning–that’s a huge shift,” Burton said. “It’s focusing more on critical thinking and on students being aware of what they’re learning.”

One key to successful blended learning and technology use is teachers.

“They key to our success has everything to do with teachers, and teachers doing great work,” said Mark Edwards, superintendent of North Carolina’s Mooresville Graded School District and the 2013 National Superintendent of the Year.

“The blended model has to do with learning anywhere, any time–it’s teachers and students connecting outside of normal hours, creating a synergy and a relevance for students and teachers,” Edwards said.

“The focus has to be on students, but we have to empower our teachers with connectivity and resources,” Edwards added.

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Content, planning, and leadership

Content is paramount, panelists agreed. It’s important to note that blended learning does not translate to putting a textbook’s content online for students to access, Burton said. Instead, it’s about “focusing on adaptive, interactive digital content. We are constantly perfecting our theory of action about how to use technology as a tool to support the classroom teacher.”

“The sweet spot for me is the content–multimedia, multidimensional, and highly customized,” Klein said.

Effective leaders will support teachers as they adjust to changes, and will ensure that the right planning processes are followed to make blended learning initiatives successful.

“Mark proved that a creative leader who is willing to go through the change process can get it done,” Klein said. “This is entirely doable with the right leader,” he added, referencing securing teacher and stakeholder buy-in, connectivity and wiring, and policy changes.

Thoughtful and thorough planning is necessary to successfully implement any technology initiative, including blended learning, and much must be planned before technology is identified, Wise said.

“All that infrastructure goes for naught if there isn’t adequate planning. It’s not just the technology or the one-to-one device. How does that integrate with your data and software systems? You need to have a plan for what you goals are, what your challenges are, how you have planned to change the role of teaching, and finally, the appropriate technology that will address what you just outlined,” he said.

Digital content lets administrators and content providers adjust based on student and teacher data, Klein added. For instance, if data shows that students and/or teachers are not accessing particular resources, those resources can be removed and replaced with new content.

“The functionality that students and teachers have today is so robust–it’s a moral imperative,” Edwards said. “[We have] incredible content that allows for personalization, connectivity, and collaboration. It makes no sense for our country not to push this forward. If we truly want to do what’s best for students in this country, we will connect the opportunities.”

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