Why my school switched from virtual to blended learning

An instructional coach shares 3 important lessons about balancing online and in-person teaching

Online learning has transformed contemporary education. It has opened the doors for students to digest information in an entirely new way, learn on their own time and at their own pace, and do it all in the comfort of their own home. However, online schooling can also be isolating, since many students benefit from having face-to-face (F2F) time with a teacher and peers. For us, the answer was  blended learning, which gives students a mixture of online and F2F instruction.

At Springs Studio for Academic Excellence (previously named Falcon Virtual Academy) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, we started out as an online-only school with one day a week of F2F tutoring. As a virtual school for grades K–12, our goal was to make sure we met the needs of students who did not succeed in a traditional school setting.

When we looked at data points—course completion, course grade, and assessment scores—we realized that students who regularly came to the school for even one day a week of F2F time were far more successful than those who were strictly online/virtual. This made it clear that our students needed more options, so we moved to an enhanced blended model, offering in-person teacher support and direct instruction two days a week. In addition, teachers are now in the building five days a week to offer interventions and support for students who need additional F2F time.

On our journey from virtual to blended, we learned three important lessons.

(Next page: How to develop a blended learning program)

    1. Blended learning only works with the right mix of technology and in-person instruction.
      When I first began teaching online, I stuck to the curriculum and found myself more in a tutoring role. Students would have problems with an assignment or need help on a test, and I would meet with them online or in the building. The big shift for me came when we switched to the blended model. To make the blended model work, we had to offer higher-level thinking practices and opportunities for students when they were with us in person. We used a variety of technology tools to implement our blended model, including Reading Horizons as a reading intervention and ALEKS as a parallel math program to Edgenuity, an online curriculum provider.Depending on their grade level, students work on the online portion of the curriculum prior to coming to class in the building, where they take their online learning to a deeper level through a project, lab, or other activity. For example, our math students learn online with ALEKS and Edgenuity. In the building, they work with their classmates on deeper-level problems that often require a project or other form of demonstration.
    2. Teaching is teaching, no matter what the model.
      One thing I would say to districts pursuing a blended model is that best practices in brick-and-mortar schools are still best practices in the online (or blended) world. The key is to provide students with direct-instruction opportunities in the building. We witnessed students take their education to a deeper level through hands-on projects and experiential learning. Blended learning freed me to allow the online curriculum to deliver the knowledge-based content, which I could then use to steer students to deeper levels of synthesis when we met in person. Our teaching style was no longer an inch deep and a mile wide.
    3. Blended learning requires blended professional development (PD).
      In our early years, we had a regular staff meeting on the one day we were all in the building. PD would sometimes be offered on those days, but mostly we would have PD offsite on a day we were not meeting with students. This year, we are using a blended learning model for PD sessions.We were noticing, for instance, that teachers had different needs as they began to work in blended-learning environments. They needed lesson-planning support and instructional strategies for taking students to deeper levels and maximizing the limited F2F time we have with students.One of the biggest problems with traditional PD is that many of the sessions last just a day. Teachers are inspired to make changes and try new things, but they are left largely on their own to act on the newfound knowledge. With a blended PD session, the materials are always available and there is still a place for teachers to try something new and collaborate with their colleagues as well as their facilitators.

We are still trying to identify all the best practices for the blended model, especially for math and English, in a more intentional matter. With blended schools expanding in our district, it’s time for those schools to learn from our previous mistakes and impart our positive lessons. I’m working more and more with individual teachers on how to do this, and it is fantastic. Ultimately, the goal is to continue to evolve these blended schools to meet the needs of our students and, in turn, deliver a quality education for everyone.

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