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)

3) Teach students how to learn as early as you can.

Before they can learn the content, students need to learn how to engage with each other and their teachers in a blended environment. To help them get started, we offer a “How to Be a Blended Online Student” course. The earlier students start in a blended environment, the easier it is for them to become owners of their education and learning.

We work with students on their independent learning skills, which include how to read and read well. Reading is essential in a blended environment, and that’s why we chose the Reading Horizons curriculum. It met our need to go back to building strong foundations in reading, and we knew students would be highly engaged by their multisensory content.

Our commitment to building the foundations of reading in all of our students is reflected in our early literacy initiative. The goal is that all students will be reading at grade level by the end of their 3rd-grade year. For older students who come to us in the upper grades, we now have the resources that will support them in becoming successful readers as well.

4) Educate parents, too.

When parents come to us about enrolling their children in a blended program, we make sure they understand the expectations. Students will need to become experts at independent learning because that’s what it takes. Parents don’t always realize at the start how involved they’ll have to be, but we work with them to support their children in fulfilling the goals that are established.

Before students begin course work, we hold an orientation for parents. One purpose of this is to find out what the families’ capability is to support our systems when the student is not at school. This includes access to internet connectivity and a device. A small percentage of our families need financial support in this area, and we help them so that all students have equal opportunities.

5) Adapt to serve the community, even if that means changing your focus.

Since our initial plan to create a virtual school, our goals have shifted. Our initial goal was to maximize the number of students; now it’s really about improving achievement among all types of students. Today, District 49 offers blended learning not only in Springs Studio but in two other environments.

Our alternative education center, Patriot High School, uses online curriculum from Edgenuity as well as the Reading Horizons software for school-wide reading assessment and instruction. Educators provide direct classroom instruction with an emphasis on mastery learning to connect with students at risk.

Pikes Peak Early College prepares students for college by combining individualized blended learning with early college options. Students can engage in college course work and earn up to 60 credits or earn their associate’s degree while still in high school at no cost to the student.

As we look to the future, we want to make sure that we’re offering a multitude of opportunities for our kids. The structure is in place; now we can look at how to advance learning for each demographic within that structure. We likely won’t increase our student population, but we are increasing the number of opportunities we can offer them.

To learn more about how District 49 has implemented blended learning, click here to access Superintendent Franko’s recent webcast.

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