blended learning

Real talk: This is what successful blended learning actually looks like

A superintendent charts his district’s journey from brick-and-mortar to sustainable blended learning—and offers a roadmap for others to follow.

[Editor’s Note: This story is Part 2 of our April series on Blended Learning. Click here to read Part 1 on what makes a blended learning initiative fail. Check back every Thursday this month for the next installment!]

In theory, blended learning sounds straightforward: You replace a portion of the traditional face-to-face instruction with web-based online instruction. In practice, though, launching and sustaining a blended learning initiative takes planning, training, tech tools, and the flexibility to change course midstream. Colorado District 49, where I am superintendent of the iConnect Zone, started down the road to blended learning in 2009, and we are still learning. Here are five lessons we can share from our years of experience on sustaining a blended learning initiative.

1) Infrastructure and budgeting look at the big picture.

The first step to any tech initiative is to take stock of your bandwidth and infrastructure. Devices should definitely be considered but also look at how students and teachers are going to engage with them, and make sure that your infrastructure is up to the task. You don’t have to be 1:1 to make blended classrooms work. Most of our students have their own devices, and for those who don’t, we can provide them.

When you address budgeting, I would advise staying big-picture focused. For example, funding in Colorado is broken down into “in-school” and “online.” As you might expect, in-school is more expensive. Back in 2009, District 49 was looking for ways to provide more flexible learning opportunities. We wanted to include as many students as possible, both to alleviate overcrowding in our brick-and-mortar schools and to attract students for whom a virtual model was the only way to retain them in the district. The result was Falcon Virtual Academy, a multidistrict online K-12 school.

Over the years, we discovered that we got better results when our students spent time with us, in a shared physical environment with teacher interaction. In response to this, we changed the name of Falcon Virtual Academy to Springs Studio for Academic Excellence and shifted to a blended model. Moving from virtual to blended involved taking on more overhead costs, but for us, the improved student outcomes were worth the increased expense.

At Springs Studio today, content is delivered primarily online and students can go as a fast as they want—but not as slowly. They are held responsible by meeting with their actual instructors who monitor their progress and provide support when needed.

2) Hire the right teachers—and support them with people and PD.

It takes very specific teachers to teach blended classes and we are fortunate to have some outstanding educators. We offer them professional development before they start working in the blended environment, and ongoing online courses help us make sure that all of the staff are on the same page.

We also have a team of specialists called the iSolutions team. They work with groups of teachers to model what instruction should look like in our blended learning environment, as well as working one-on-one with specific teachers. They help create lesson plans, set up classrooms, and work through any issues the teachers encounter.

(Next page: 3 more tips for a successful blended learning initiative)

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