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Districts find new ways to integrate technology into the classroom

With Blackboard as an online base, blended learning initiatives blossom

Blended learning, the integration of online instructional and planning resources with traditional classroom activities, emerged with the advent of the Web in the 1990s. Now, educators are seeing the benefits of adopting a formal structure for tying their various blended learning initiatives together.

At Poway USD in southern California, for instance, the need for a common, easy-to-use platform for integrating technology became apparent when the 33,000-student district offered all teachers a personal Web page about 10 years ago. There were few takers, said Stacy Campo, the district's instructional technology specialist, who explained that early Website creation tools were just too difficult to use.

And at Pine Crest School in Florida, the need to organize online resources emerged after the independent school adopted a one-to-one laptop program several years ago. "When you do that, you open a whole range of possibilities," said Eleanor Brown, director of technology integration for the two-campus school, which serves 2,500 students. "A formalized approach to blended learning became vital for us."

Both Poway and Pine Crest turned to Blackboard for a solution. The company offers a K12 technology integration platform, which allows schools and districts to manage a wide variety of Web 2.0 tools using a common portal and interface.

At Poway, which was one of the first K12 districts to adopt Blackboard, teachers quickly used it to post assignments and class information, which eliminated the need to create separate classroom Web pages with other tools. They also use Blackboard to post PowerPoint presentations, lesson notes, quizzes and other learning resources for students. "Essentially we use Blackboard as an umbrella for everything we do online," said Andrew Shean, the district's technology integration specialist.

And at Pine Crest, teachers use Blackboard to disseminate information to students and parents; to manage discussion boards for collaborative learning activities; to share lesson plans and other files, and to enrich the classroom experience. "We're using blogs as a way to get alternative assessments," said Brown. "We have an English teacher who is writing a non-fiction book with his class and the students are pooling their research with a Blackboard wiki."

Seeing students collaborate with wikis and other online tools provides educators at Pine Crest, Poway and elsewhere with strong evidence about the value of blended learning. "With blogging, students are extending the conversation outside the classroom," Brown said. "With Blackboard, they're uploading their papers, commenting on each other's work and sharing their knowledge. Kids who may be reluctant to speak in class can still be part of the conversation."

"Essentially we use Blackboard as an umbrella for everything we do online."

As the tools and opportunities for blended learning have grown in recent years, so too has the need to coordinate assignments and activities for busy teachers and students. At Poway USD, Blackboard serves as the central information depot. "When students are using their laptops, you'll see the Blackboard site open on every computer," said Campo. "They use it get their lesson notes, their assignments, links to Web pages, their daily agenda. It's their starting point for wherever it is that their learning activities are taking them."

Educators at Poway and Pine Crest say that by using Blackboard to adopt a formal structure to blended learning, educators are finding it easier to infuse technology into the curriculum, and thus to help students learn the same way they live.

"When a teacher can extend learning beyond the traditional boundaries of the classroom with purposeful content and relevant activities, it's very powerful," said Poway's Campo.

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