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Four criteria for evaluating blended learning tools


Eileen Shihadeh, vice president at Compass Learning, shares four tips for a successful blended learning model

blended-learning-toolsBlended learning has arrived. While schools and districts across the nation are in various stages of transition, there is little doubt that the appetite for interactive tools that cultivate blended learning environments is on the rise. In fact, recent case studies published by the nonprofit organization FSG indicate that technology is so prevalent that it has some level of influence over nearly every aspect of the U.S. education system.

Now that the discussion is shifting from defining blended learning to implementing the approach effectively, it is becoming increasingly clear there is no easy answer—whether the chosen instructional model is flex, rotation, online lab, or some other variation.

Each district, school, and teacher has a list of criteria to consider when evaluating the tools available for implementing a blended learning approach in the classroom. Three common points, however, are frequently cited by educators as the most critical: proof of efficacy, alignment to standards, and cost. Each of these factors is important, but before asking the questions Does it work? Does it align? and What does it cost?, teachers and administrators first must explore What is the need? and What are we trying to achieve?

For many schools, the answers to the last two questions are to get students more engaged, to gather and use assessment data to inform instruction, to improve learning productivity by ensuring that the right resources reach the right student at the right time, and to accelerate learning toward college and career readiness. Certainly these are aggressive goals, but they are not impossible. New, innovative solutions for leveraging blended learning to improve nearly every aspect of the teaching and learning experience are available every day. When evaluating the options, consider these four keys to success.

Student-centered engagement

We know that students must be actively engaged before they can learn, so selecting digital content that is appealing and accessible is key. According to Richard Mayer’s Principle of Personalization, students perform up to 40 percent better when content is delivered in a first-person, conversational style rather than with a formal tone. Various representations of information (such as graphics, text, and video) also improve student-friendliness—encouraging a more active role in the learning process and assisting in the retention of learning. To increase student engagement, ensure that any digital tools provide these characteristics.

(Next page: Three more elements that all blended learning tools should offer)

Real-time feedback

As digital tools help students become more actively involved in their own learning process, teachers have a greater opportunity to monitor activity and ensure appropriate progress is being made. But it’s not enough simply to provide feedback to students at the end of the week. Research shows that giving students regular feedback, two to five times a week through short-cycle assessments and activities, is most effective.

That said, formative feedback is a two-way street. Effective solutions help teachers adapt activities in response to assessment results, and they also position students to perform self-assessment and ultimately become empowered to participate actively in their own education. As a result, students build confidence and become more motivated, as opposed to simply facing an “incorrect” response.

Delivery of the right content to the right student, at the right time

There are inherent challenges in providing personalized classroom learning experiences that meet individual student needs. A critical first step in facilitating personalized learning is pinpointing each student’s areas of need in order to develop an individualized learning path.

Through the use of a diagnostic assessment embedded in the software, or through sources such as NWEA™ MAP®, Scantron Performance Series®, or Renaissance Learning® STAR assessments, teachers can identify what students already know, what they need to learn, and how content can align to the areas where they struggle most. A powerful software solution will integrate seamlessly with these assessments and align results with automatically generated personalized learning paths specific to each student’s academic needs.

Change management

Effective behavioral change requires thoughtful planning starting at the top. Leaders should carefully consider the actions and components required to gain buy-in from stakeholders, who ultimately will help ensure the fidelity of blended learning implementation. The creation of a design team is one strategy that will accomplish this. A design team consisting of the principal, teachers, students, and technical (vendor) partners can set clear expectations, establish ownership, and gain commitment. This group then can communicate and confer with broader stakeholder circles, including families and the community.

Full implementation training, support, and true professional development are all non-negotiable. It is not enough for teachers simply to receive “product training” from a solutions provider. Professional development will help educators understand how best to structure their instructional time and implement best practices to ensure efficacy. And a one-time event won’t cut it. Ongoing professional development and support should be available through digital or on-site delivery methods. But it can’t start and end there.

Even the best blended learning tool can fall short unless it is implemented properly. To get the most out of a suite of software and service solutions, be sure to think about whether your district or school has the capacity to use the tools to their full potential. Be sure to ask these questions:

  • How do we increase stakeholder engagement?
  • Do leaders value the importance?
  • Do we have the right device strategy?
  • How complicated is it to use? Will teachers be able to use it on Day 1?
  • How quickly can we talk to a live person if we need help or if something goes down?
  • When and how often are updates required?

A healthy and growing adoption rate provides further validation of a particular solution, so administrators also should ask how many districts and schools are currently using it. Overall, an effective suite of software and service solutions will be purpose-built, not “one size fits all,” and will focus on strategies that have the biggest impact on the learning process.

The questions What is the need? and What are we trying to achieve? should be posed not only at the beginning of a blended learning implementation, but throughout it. Evaluations are necessary during the course of the school year to determine if the solution is driving the desired results, or if course corrections are required to make it more effective.

Blended learning is not a destination. It is a journey wherein both teachers and students continually evolve to adopt and derive benefits from the most effective and cutting-edge solutions. Blended learning is here. Are you ready?

Eileen Shihadeh is vice president of marketing and product management at Compass Learning.

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