Rolling out blended learning

Rolling out blended learning

7 steps for choosing platforms and changing the game in K12 achievement
Students in algebra class at Free State High School at Lawrence schools take part in blended learning lessons.

Blended and online learning platforms are changing K12 pedagogy by providing students with some control over their path, time, pace and place of learning.

This sharp departure from the traditional factory-based model of teaching and learning is increasing student engagement and freeing up time so that teachers can provide one-on-one instruction with each of their students.

The tools available within many of the blended learning systems are helping teachers make the move to data-driven instruction by including diagnostic assessment features that help pinpoint areas of student weakness. In turn, students are being given the type of instruction they need, a shift that is being reflected in achievement scores.

For example, when Principal David Norment walked into New York’s P.S. 140 school in Queens three years ago, tools weren’t being used to drive lesson and unit planning. Without formative and summative assessments there wasn’t much data available regarding its 623 PreK-5 students, and teachers didn’t really know their students academically.

But just one year after implementing the online and blended learning platform from Curriculum Associates, the fourth-grade class at P.S. 140 saw its mathematics percentile ranking increase by six points, while the fifth grade’s jumped 12 points.

“Blended learning is about creating a different—and improved—experience for students,” says Mark Belles, senior vice president of K12 at Blackboard.

Belles says the most important aspects of blended learning involve personalization; standards-based alignment, assessment and measurement; professional development; and social learning and mobile access.

Here are seven main considerations for rolling out a successful blended learning platform:

Consider bandwidth

Prior to purchasing a blended learning platform, districts must ensure that bandwidth in a school building’s infrastructure is strong enough to handle multiple users.

At P.S. 140, Norment had to spend between $30,000 and $40,000 of the school’s funds to switch from a very slow, dial-up connection to Verizon Fios’ fiber optics system. The year-long process was necessary so the school’s bandwidth could handle the 75 to 100 students he knew would eventually be taking online courses at once.

Norment says he wanted to use Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready product but knew his school needed the upgrade first to be able to support the platform’s interactive courses. “The staff wasn’t technologically savvy because of our poor bandwidth,” says Norment.

Use multiple platforms

The concept of the “one-stop-shop” as it applies to blended learning is murky because no one program can truly supplant face-to-face instruction and guidance. Different approaches and platforms may work better in some districts than in others.

Technology is an instructional tool, not a silver bullet, and blended learning models should include face-to-face experiences with and support from peers and educators, says Julia Freeland, a research fellow at the non-profit Clayton Christensen Institute.

The a la carte model is a good entry into blended learning for schools that don’t feel ready to redesign their entire instructional model, says Freeland, because it still mainly keeps students locked into the brick-and-mortar classroom with only one or just a few online courses woven into instruction.

Meanwhile, companies such as Apex Learning or K12 Inc. provide a fully integrated online curriculum that schools can implement to build a flex-blended learning model in which the backbone of learning is online and students work with teachers and one another for additional support and on offline projects, she says.

Alternatively, some companies, such as Education Elements, work directly with school systems transitioning to blended learning. They are not a curriculum provider but they help schools in redesigning their instructional model and choosing online learning programs, and provide clients with data analytics tools, says Freeland.

Start small

Start with a small roll-out so that it eases teachers into this new way of delivering instruction and engaging with students.

Teachers at Lawrence Public Schools in Kansas had to abandon the traditional 43-minute direct-instruction classroom model they were used to when the district began rolling out a blended learning program with Blackboard’s platform.

They modified their approach to now include station rotation models, in which students participate in various learning modalities within the classroom. And they have flipped classrooms where the students take a course online at home and then attend the classroom to practice with their teacher face-to-face.

“We wanted to increase the amount of quality time the teachers spend with each student,” says Angelique Kobler, Lawrence’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. “We are so trained to listen passively and this is a real shift from what we define as teaching.”

Now, instead of talking the entire session, Lawrence second-grade teacher Paula Barr sometimes works one-on-one with students or allows them to watch math curriculum she has created in Blackboard either during class or at home. They are often encouraged to work with a fellow student where one assumes the teacher role.

Leverage the data

Select teachers who are drawn to data-driven instruction to pilot a blended learning program. This will create a group of in-house specialists who can train other teachers.

At the Bend-La Pine School District in Oregon, two teachers, one covering Advanced Placement language and composition and the other covering history, spent the past year testing different instructional models available through the blended learning platform offered by Fuel Education (formerly K12 for Schools and Districts).

Tres Tyvand, the student services coordinator for the district’s Online Plus blended and online learning program, says they were the best teachers to have lead the pilot due to their willingness to explore a new method of teaching and their natural problem-solving abilities. They had already been recognized as “master teachers” at the district having taught for over 20 years, says Tyvand.

Stay flexibile

Keep the blended learning program flexible so it can be used in different implementations based on how many modalities the district or school is using for learning.

When it comes to blended learning, Freeman says district administrators should first invest the time and resources into thinking how computers will change the instructional model within their district and schools before rolling out massive hardware programs.

“One of the most popular headlines these days is about school systems celebrating the adoption of 1-to-1 programs. But the fact that a district has a 1-to-1 program tells us nothing about what kind of teaching and learning is happening in schools,” says Freeland. “In fact, a number of blended learning models can be implemented with higher ratios of students to computers, like models that rotate students through stations or learning labs.”

Use collaboration

Let IT/network experts and curriculum experts collaborate. IT departments are becoming a more strategic voice in school systems that are at the leading edge of technology integration.

The Christensen Institute has identified a trend in those schools that are at the leading edge of technology integration—they are allowing their IT departments to become a more strategic voice in school administration, says Freeland. Therefore, to accomplish a well-run blended learning implementation, “the silos between IT/network folks and curriculum folks are starting to break down,” she says.

“Moreover, CIOs and IT leadership increasingly bring combined technology and instructional expertise,” says Freeland. “To this end, we encourage CIOs to first and foremost focus on the instructional models that schools in the district are aiming to build, and then ask how technology can support and enhance that model.”

Get buy-in

Ease into blended learning, piloting platforms with willing teachers in small doses. The most successful implementations are the ones that aren’t forced.

According to Nadia Pierce, vice president of iReady for Curriculum Associates, one misconception regarding blended learning programs is that they can be simply a plug-and-play implementation.

In fact, Pierce says the best implementations are the ones where teachers and districts take the time to be trained on the platform and how to best use the data it provides to drive the instruction.

“A successful implementation comes from being involved and making the program a part of the culture,” says Pierce.

At Lawrence Public Schools it took hundreds of hours of teacher planning and the rearranging of classrooms before blended learning could start. Kobler says having teachers that were early adopters and willing to slowly take risks with the concept was the key to its success there.

“Pick the right people. Hard work doesn’t scare them and perseverance is their middle name,” says Kobler.

Lawrence has been successful because the “talented staff” was willing to try it. “I’ve been in touch with other districts that have launched blended learning,” Kobler says, “and where it was forced on teachers, it hasn’t had the healthy momentum that we have experienced.”

Stephanie Fagnani is a freelance writer based in Wappingers Falls, N.Y.


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