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Blended 2.0 shifts learning in schools

Next phase of tech-infused teaching model goes deeper on personalization and authenticity
Students at Coalinga-Huron USD in California are taught with personalization and Common Core combined, resulting in more authentic activities.
Students at Coalinga-Huron USD in California are taught with personalization and Common Core combined, resulting in more authentic activities.

A third-grader studying the Spanish settlement of California found a virtual tour online and shared the trip with her classmates by slipping a smartphone into a Google Cardboard viewing device.

Such limitless online resources represent a big, blended leap beyond the essays students in Coalinga-Huron USD in Central California used to write. Blended learning for the district’s 4,400 students began three years ago, and in the past year has gravitated to blended 2.0, says Joe Casarez, associate superintendent for instructional services.

“If you define blended learning in the first iteration as a combination of technology and print,” Casarez says, “then what we are seeing when you marry 2.0 personalization with the Common Core standards are more authentic activities in the classroom.”

A survey of 1,381 students in the district showed nearly 74 percent were more engaged, and 89 percent agreed they could solve problems or create presentations by researching online, he adds.

Across the country in New York, all 7,300 students in the Middletown City School District engage in variations of blended 2.0. Students begin researching topics online at home and then get guidance from teachers in the classroom, says Superintendent Kenneth Eastwood.

“Kids go online, watch films and view PowerPoints in preparation for a deeper conversation in the classroom,” Eastwood says. “This flips the lecture piece to the outside of class. The class itself is for clarification and expansion of concepts.”

Playlist-based learning

The tech-powered combination of face-to-face classroom instruction with online inquiry that students pursue on their own has progressed into a new phase. But what constitutes blended learning 2.0 varies widely across districts.

Blending learning models

Blended 2.0 represents a mix of four learning models:

  • Rotation: Students collaborate at classroom stations where specific types of learning occur. Instruction is driven by data that identifies each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Flex: Combines in-school activity and homework as each student progresses, or repeats work until it is mastered.
  • À la carte: Students take an online course that supplements classroom instruction.
  • Enriched virtual model: Starts with required face-to-face study with a teacher and transitions to online work outside of the classroom.

Generally, it means more personalized work directed by students and suited to their individual academic abilities, says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of International Association for K-12 Online Learning, (iNACOL).

In blended 2.0, students work at their own pace and rely on the internet and technology as well as the teacher to inform instruction. They may work in groups, individually and with coaching from the teacher.

It also means deeper instruction focused on projects and collaboration, says Anthony Kim, founder and CEO of Education Elements, a personalized learning company that works with districts nationwide.

Most district leaders add content and tools through a mix of homegrown apps and vendor-provided services, such as learning management, student information and content delivery systems. That’s in addition to providing tech labs and providing or having BYOD policies with tablets. And the scale of blended 2.0 varies, with many districts developing only pockets of such instruction.

At Hanford-Dole Elementary School, South High School and other classrooms in the Rowan-Salisbury School System in North Carolina, about a quarter of the district’s 20,000 students reap the rewards of an advanced combination of blended 2.0 models.

At Hanford-Dole, elementary students create a web-based “playlist,” an online menu of different digital resources and assignments they can choose from to meet specific learning objectives. Teachers provide one-on-one coaching, and students work in groups to create e-Books about the topics they are studying. All of these elements play a part in teachers’ final assessments.

The results are telling: In the 2015-16 school year, Hanford-Dole’s third-, fourth- and fifth-graders improved by nearly four times the expected rate in reading, says Julie Morrow, Rowan-Salisbury’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

“A blended 2.0 model allows us to personalize learning at the highest level so that we can truly meet the needs of students every day,” Morrow says.

‘Powering personalization’

Though some districts see progress with blended 2.0, others bypass it in favor of more advanced personalization, focusing on every student’s strengths, needs and interests. Increased flexibility in managing time independently, with the teacher and in small groups allows students to move at their own pace to achieve mastery of the highest standards possible, says Patrick of iNACOL.

“I think it would be fair to say blended learning 2.0 models are powering personalization,” Patrick adds. “In the past two years, we are finding that school leaders are talking less about ‘blended 2.0’ and more about the goals of personalization and ensuring mastery for all students.”

This fall, leaders at Pasadena ISD near Houston hope to expand personalized learning from 325 students to 1,700, and to 9,000 within five years, says Vickie Vallet-McWilliams, director of innovation and development at the 55,400-student district.

In a traditional classroom, a student can move on to the next learning objective with a passing score in the 70s, Vallet-McWilliams says. With personalization, students can review the content and take the assessments again until they show mastery.

The result? Students move forward at a pace that suits their abilities and objectives, attendance improves, and discipline problems become minimal, she says.

One ninth-grader who failed the state assessment for algebra was able to pass the test by working on specific objectives within so-called “focus areas” in math. A single playlist, with digital resources, was available to him and fellow students to meet specific goals, says Vallet-McWilliams and Toni Lopez, executive director of curriculum and instruction.

Every student engaged in personalized learning chooses from that menu of resources based on their interests and learning styles.

For instance, one digital resource for algebra is a video game called “Snake On A Plane.” In the game, a player moves a snake through a square region in the plane, trying to eat the white pellets as they appear. This sets up online word problems in which students have to do math computations, Vallet-McWilliams explains.

Students work at their own pace and with a teacher 1-on-1 and in small groups. The combination of approaches, in the end, results in mastering the content, Vallet-McWilliams and Lopez say.

Tackling the transition

Teachers have had to adapt to blended and personalized learning, and some districts use outside consultants and peer coaching for professional development, district leaders say.

The Rowan-Salisbury district invests heavily in PD, putting coaches at all schools, Morrow says.

Pasadena ISD started filling blended and personalized classrooms with teachers who were ready to shift from being the source of all information to serving as a learning guide, says Lopez. The district provides teachers with personalized learning training through the Summit Public Schools charter system. The system has a Basecamp pilot program in California, Vallet-McWilliams says.

Developed by Summit teachers, the personalized learning plan enables teachers to work as instructional coaches while students set individual goals, create roadmaps to achieve them, learn at their own pace and dive into projects that connect to the real world. Teachers are selected for this learning because it’s more for those who can “guide on the side,” Vallet-McWilliams says.

The difficulty for teachers lies in no longer relaying all the information students are learning; instead, students learn through online sources and resources in the playlists, Lopez says. Once teachers get over not having to provide all information, “they begin to settle into the coaching role of knowing when to step in and help the student, and what type of support to provide, Lopez says.

While transitions can be “messy” and “tough,” Morrow and Vallet-McWilliams say teachers who have used personalized learning don’t want to return to the traditional classroom model.

“The biggest win is when you walk into the classroom, students’ projects are different, their vocabulary is off the charts and they can respectfully debate subjects,” Vallet-McWilliams says.

Ultimately, labels aren’t important, says Patrick of iNACOL.

“In 2030 and 2050, we’re not going to talk about blended learning because all schools will be blended,” Patrick says. “The focus will be about ensuring there are really powerful learning experiences for students every day—and mastery of the work.” DA

Patricia Daddona is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.

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