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Important considerations for blended learning

“We have to think of students differently,” Brooks said—“as creators, researchers, investigators, and even designers.”

As blended learning programs grow in popularity, proponents of the approach—which involves a combination of computer-based learning and face-to-face instruction—say there are a few key considerations school leaders should keep in mind as they set up blended learning models.

Alabama’s Mountain Brook Schools is in its third year of a blended learning program.

“Education is really changing, and we’ve got to change with it—and in order to do that, we’ve really been working hard to … customize the learning of each one of our students,” said Missy Brooks, the district’s director of instruction, during a Consortium for School Networking webinar.

“Blended learning is not all about the technology—it really is a blend of technology and instruction, so that the two work hand-in-hand so that we can meet the needs of our students,” she said. The district’s leaders bear in mind that blended learning is facilitated by an effective and intentional combination of face-to-face classroom methods and computer-based activities.

For blended learning to be successful, Brooks said, teachers must be mindful of their intentions and should be purposeful about the work they design for students: They should be able to articulate exactly why they are using blended learning in a particular instance. And the more teachers come to know their students, the better they are able to tailor instruction to students’ needs and interests.

While many agree on the basics of blended learning, Brooks pointed out that blended learning is not:

  • Simply putting a digital device in the hands of teachers and students.
  • Scanning worksheets and uploading them for students to print and complete.
  • Sharing digital versions of class notes.
  • Experiencing a mastering of technology tools.
  • Thinking of students as being simply information consumers.

That last point is especially important, Brooks said. “We have to think of students differently,” she said—“as creators, researchers, investigators, and even designers.”

The district took several important steps to ensure that its blended learning program would succeed.

First, leaders adjusted school board policy to permit students to bring their own devices to school. This prompted a review of the district’s infrastructure and available bandwidth, which were upgraded to handle the demands presented by an influx of internet-ready devices.

Teacher professional development received an overhaul, too.

“One of the things we found is that teachers are really good at collaborating among their colleagues, but when you ask them to collaborate with students and make students a part of that, you deal with control and teachers giving up control,” Brooks said, adding that the district has done a great deal of work teaching students and teachers how to collaborate with one another, as well as teaching students how to collaborate with each other in appropriate ways.

Teachers also receive instruction on classroom management and procedures—in particular, a pilot is under way to help teachers learn how to handle device glitches or network problems without losing instructional time.

The California Learning Resource Network (CLRN), a state-funded effort, gives educators a place to review and select supplemental electronic resources—a valuable resource if educators want to use electronic resources in their blended instruction. California educators must meet certain qualifications and then complete a rigorous training program before they are qualified to review materials.

CLRN aims to identify and review supplemental electronic learning resources, including courses, software, video, Web 2.0 tools, and mobile apps. It also identifies learning units aligned with resources and state academic content standards. Its interactive website offers a searchable database with relevant links to help educators find what they’re looking for.

About two-thirds of districts in California are using online or blended learning this school year, said Brian Bridges, CLRN’s director.

Bridges said schools must use strategic planning and a needs analysis to determine what their “customers”—students, teachers, and stakeholders—need from a blended learning program. Identifying deficiencies, such as potential network weaknesses or bandwidth performance, will help determine important steps, he said. Getting input from stakeholders, identifying possible blended learning models, and then piloting a selected model are key parts.

Most schools with successful blended learning programs “don’t jump in whole-hog; they pilot a few models, collect data from that, and at the end, determine whether or not the pilot needs to be expanded or changed in some aspect,” he said.

Selecting reputable and well-designed resources and courses can help a blended learning program succeed, he added, because students are working with high-quality materials.

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Laura Ascione

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