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Blended Learning: Best Practices for Empowering Students and Educators

Ten evolving trends are driving innovations in blended learning

When best practices are engaged in blended learning, authentic personalized learning can happen for all students. Understanding ten key trends happening in the blended learning space can help educators achieve optimal results for students and schools. This web seminar, originally broadcast on March 20, 2014, featured education experts who discussed these trends and how blended learning can be successfully implemented. In addition, a principal shared his school’s interpretation of blended learning and how it has resulted in improved student achievement.

A deeply student-centered learning experience. 

Tom Vander Ark, CEO, Getting Smart: The new digital tools and school models shaping blended learning right now are helping create learning environments that are focused on students. A good example of an environment designed to meet the individual needs of students is the “rotational blended” model. 

The soaring numbers of digital learners. 

Vander Ark: Even among low-income families, the number of those with access to the internet is rising. This has created a new opportunity for learning, but it is also pressuring us to rethink some of our outdated approaches to ensuring access.

Hudson, Senior Director of Curriculum Design, DreamBox Learning: Students prefer to have some control over when they are able to access information and learning experiences. Educators need to keep in mind that the quality of digital learning is just as important as the quality of what is happening in classrooms. As lessons move to online environments, educators need to be just as discerning as they are with offline learning resources.

Supporting standards and higher-order thinking skills. 

Vander Ark: The way higher-order thinking skills and realwork readiness are incorporated into the Common Core is one of the most important things happening in education. The emphasis is on reading with comprehension, writing with clarity, and applying critical thinking skills. The CCSS invites us all to think about the outcomes we want for students and ways we can encourage deeper learning.

Hudson: There should be the expectation that students are engaged with higher-order thinking both with technology and in the classroom.

Realizing benefits for both teachers and students.

Vander Ark: Blended learning is for everyone in the classroom. I am excited about a profession where new teachers can step into a team, feel well supported, have an individual learning plan of their own, and engage in collaborative work with highly relevant challenges. I am excited about a competency-based profession where teachers can show what they know and advance rapidly. In all of those ways, we can create a better profession that’s more professionalized, collaborative, and has more interesting and rewarding opportunities.

Hudson: We want students to be eager to learn, and teachers want more time to work with students. Blended learning should be thought of as a way to optimize and enhance learning with technology. We should create in our school days more strategic time structures for teachers and students to interact with each other and technology.

Using data-driven instruction to personalize learning.

Vander Ark: Blended learning should include tailored learning experiences that get students ready to participate in team-based, authentic project work. Students should create artifacts of value and share them in a public way. The combination of smart, adaptive learning with engaging projects is a compelling vision of what is possible.

Hudson: The curriculum in DreamBox Learning is designed to engage students in pedagogically sound ways and adapt uniquely to their intuitive solution strategies. The quality of data matters. Data from digital lessons should not just be about analyzing a student’s answers on multiple choice questions. DreamBox captures how students are thinking and engaging with mathematics, models, and manipulatives. The key is the interactive experience where the data are informative about how students are making sense of things.

Personalized learning accompanied by a lean, blended, iterative approach.

Vander Ark: The important thing to remember is we are all in the early stages of blended learning. It is important to use data in short cycles to test hypotheses and to drive cycles of improvement.

Hudson: Schools are doing more with less. There’s already a built-in lean aspect. This makes it critical to be strategic about trying new things. Blended learning is a strategic decision. Technology needs to be chosen strategically to accomplish some goals. It is important to have meaningful metrics for figuring out whether approaches are effective for improving student learning.

Vander Ark: The key is developing organizational design and an integrated technology plan together. We should iterate those on at least annual cycles. Schools should have a blended model with the best tools school leaders can find, and stay flexible and make modifications on both the model and the tools being used.

Productive “gamification.”

Hudson: Many teachers are unnerved by gamification because we do not want students to just be externally motivated. But there is productive gamification that supports learning and critical thinking.

Vander Ark: There are really cool game-based products, like DreamBox, that can be used in the classroom. Make sure games and classroom instruction focus on challenging concepts. Provide productive feedback. Great games are well-calibrated to boost persistence and confidence. They are not so easy that students get bored or so hard that students get frustrated. Good games may have some reward systems, but good games also enhance intrinsic motivation. Good games are highly accessible.

The mobile world is where learners live now.

Hudson: There are key decisions administrators need to make around device selection and the limitations and strengths of mouse-based environments, touch-based environments, and smartphones.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is here and key to active, three-screen days.

Vander Ark: Three-screen days include a large screen (projector, television or interactive whiteboard), medium screen (desktop, laptop, or tablet), and then small screen on a mobile phone. At the secondary level, you are already BYOD, whether it is an official policy or not. We think it is important to update acceptable use policies and create acceptable use practices that encourage kids to use their devices responsibly and productively at school.

All schools need more broadband internet access to enable the best use of technology.

Jeremy Baugh, Founding Principal, George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academies: Our school opened on August 19, 2013. We are a K2 charter school and will expand one grade level every year until we reach 8th grade. We started with three percent of our students on-track with math at the beginning of the year. As of our midyear assessment, 51 percent of our students were ontrack. Thirty-three percent were on-track with reading at the beginning, and now 82 percent are on-track. We are a blended learning school with a station-rotation model. We are absolutely seeing the benefits of blending learning to get our students into small groups and into individualized learning. At our school, we are trying to break down the walls of a traditional school day and year. Our students attend school from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. 225 days a year. We use an exceptional curriculum and technology to individualize learning. Students have a math block for two hours a day, where they rotate from whole group instruction, online learning, small group learning and collaborative learning. Students will go into a computer lab to work in DreamBox Learning’s adaptive math software as part of their online learning.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to