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Teachers create own blended learning courses

Districts interested in implementing blended learning sometimes turn to teachers rather than outside providers to create online curriculum to integrate with in-class instruction. This method may save costs, but requires continuous professional development and access to devices for all students. Here are two districts just beginning to create blended learning solutions with teachers at the helm.

Students take control of learning

In Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut, tenth grade English and social studies teachers began using blended learning this past fall for all of their classes. The district received a $450,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and is using the funds to change the way students are taught to make them more responsible for their education, including through blended learning. Meriden also began a BYOD program this year to help with the blended initiative.

Teachers had professional development sessions over the summer, and created blended learning units in the learning management system Moodle. “Teachers have taken their current curriculum and looked at how it can be made more interactive and appropriate for blended learning,” says Barbara Haeffner, the district’s instructional technology director. For example, students may post in an online class forum and respond to each other’s comments there, rather than an in-class discussion.

The blended initiative involves more choices for students, Haeffner says. For example, at the end of every unit of study a project allows students to demonstrate the skills they have learned in any way they choose. Instead of a required written assessment or PowerPoint presentation, they can create videos, podcasts, or digital posters, as long as they meet certain assignment criteria.

It’s too early to tell if student achievement is increasing, Haeffner says, but the high school teachers say their students are more engaged in class than ever before. Students who are usually uncomfortable speaking in class or need extra time to reflect are more involved with online discussions than they were during class, she adds.

The district plans to roll out blended learning for more subjects next year and continue with the BYOD program, says Superintendent Mark Benigni. “Our referral and discipline numbers are much improved—we’re no longer arguing with students about bringing devices to school,” Benigni says. “We’re using them as learning tools. This is where learning is going, and our students are standing there waiting for us to take the lead.”

Teacher volunteers

Superintendent Lawrence Mussoline from the Downingtown Area School District in Pennsylvania wanted to change the instructional delivery system for high school students without forcing teachers into technology. He asked for volunteers interested in transitioning their traditional face-to-face courses to blended courses, and 35 teachers from the district’s two comprehensive high schools rose to the occasion.

“When school opens in August, we will have 20 or 30 courses that will be blended in our high school catalogue,” Mussoline says. The courses will meet in person two days per week, and be fully online the rest of the time. They will also still be offered in a traditional format, so students can choose what’s best for their learning style.

Mussoline plans to create a college-like commons area in the school building for students to stay while working on online assignments, which the district already has in its high school STEM academy. “We’re trying to break this concept of constantly watching over every child every minute,” he says. “It will be more like a college campus than a lock-down high school.”

Teachers in all departments, including art and music, want to participate. “At first we couldn’t imagine a class with instruments in the blended program,” says district cyber coordinator Kristie Burke. But new software programs allow students to learn music notes and play virtual instruments, or march in band formation on an interactive pad connected to the computer. “It’s really exciting that it was open to all teachers, including some areas we didn’t imagine,” she says.

Burke guided the volunteer teachers through a three-week online course in November to better understand what students will be experiencing with online curriculum, and discussed how to build a learning community and foster online discussion. Moving forward, the district plans to give teachers time to build and develop their courses, collaborate, and work with a librarian on the technology tools they can incorporate. They will also discuss how to best support students on and offline. Professional development will continue at least once a month next year when the courses are running, Burke says.

The costs are minimal, since the district is using its own tech-savvy teachers to create the courses and not purchasing curriculum or devices for every student, Mussoline says.

Administrators need to be courageous and start blended programs, he adds. “The more we sit back on our heels the more that outside groups are going to challenge public education and possibly overtake public education,” Mussoline says. “We can’t say we’ll just send students to charter schools, because it will cost the taxpayers money, and we can provide those options ourselves.”