Blended learning is not a new phrase, nor does it mean the same thing to the same people. Blended learning experiences may be teacher-designed and created, purchased software programs, or part of the online textbook series adopted by the school. Some are differentiated for student readiness from the beginning, while others are adaptive throughout the user experience. Others are a same-size-fits-all activity that is generally more of a time-filler than an authentic learning encounter. With more classrooms gaining access to digital devices, blended learning is going to become more and more part of the norm.
Blended learning must empower the learner to take charge of their learning instead of simply consuming information. In order to be truly effective, however, digital learning solutions need to follow the patterns of good teaching practice: What do I want students to learn? Delivery methods need to be engaging and interactive: How do I want them to learn it? There needs to be accountability built into the delivery of content to ensure mastery: How do I know that they’ve learned it? Multiple learning modes need to be addressed so it doesn’t become a sit-and-get activity: How does this blended learning meet my students’ learning needs? And the ultimate question before purchasing and implementing a digital learning package is this: Is this the best learning solution?
Sometimes a digital solution is the answer, but not always. Using these five essential questions to guide your planning will help ensure that you and your students aren’t just using technology for the sake of using technology.
What do I want students to learn?
Just like in a regular classroom, our first question should be, “What do I want the students to learn?” Teachers need to start with the standards, skills, and concepts they want their students to learn and master. What do I want my students to know, understand, and be able to do? After these top questions are answered, then we start to look at the lessons, strategies, and materials needed to accomplish the desired learning outcomes. After those foundational pieces are determined, then we decide if technology will enhance or strengthen the process. The digital component needs to fit with the curriculum and not just be a shiny distraction.
How do I want them to learn it?
I think back to when I first started teaching and all of the second grade teachers did learning stations during guided reading time. The veteran teachers shared enormous binders full of “activities” for the students to do during station time. I really struggled with the fact that most of these were worksheets and felt like busy work to me. It took me most of that school year to evaluate those activities and replace them with more authentic and genuine learning experiences for my students. The same can be said about blended learning experiences. I’ve seen way too many teachers excited about a new app for students to use that was really just a drill and kill game.
Best practices in teaching and learning are the same whether we use digital resources or not. What we want to see is an increase in engagement and student ownership. We need to leverage technology to empower students to become deeper critical and creative thinkers. We can increase the student-driven learning by increasing student choice. Technology makes it easier to collect data (there are many quality formative assessment tools online) and easier to use it to personalize instruction. Teachers can create individual lesson plans by utilizing tools such as HyperdDocs and Nearpod to reach students at their readiness and interest levels. They can further increase student engagement by increasing the choice students have in how they acquire knowledge and/or how they demonstrate their learning.
By allowing students to write their own guiding questions and conduct their own research, we are teaching them to be better critical thinkers and for fluent in information gathering. By offering multiple modes of presentation, we’re increasing their creativity and innovation skills to show what they know rather than being tied to the same old essay or multiple choice test required in the past. Which brings us to the next question.
How will I know they have learned it?
Digital learning options are integral to a blended learning environment. To optimize these opportunities, teachers need to work with students to create goals and personalized learning paths to help them reach their goals. Ideally, this is happening in all classrooms. This puts the focus on the student as the learner and helps students establish the habits they need to truly be lifelong learners.
Personalized learning goals are especially important when students are working independently in the blended realm. This brings in the necessity of measurable data so students can track their progress and adjust their goals as needed. Purchased software should have this component built in. When looking at virtual learning experiences created by someone outside of the school, make sure the data collected is student-friendly so learners can easily access, monitor, and utilize the information. If teachers are creating the virtual learning opportunities for their classrooms, they need to be intentional about including regular progress checks using tools that give students immediate feedback (e.g., formative, Socrative, Google Forms). Plan on quick (five to ten minutes) weekly check-ins with each student to allow them to share their progress and discuss next-steps.
Further, much data can be collected by having students present what they have learned. Students should be exposed to a variety of tools but also given the option of using a tool that may be new to the teacher. Students love creating in Adobe Spark, Microsoft Sway, G Suite, Powtoon, and Storybird to just name a few. By opening up the choice to students, teachers are forcing them to work outside their comfort zones (creating posters, essays, videos, and presentations), while simultaneously increasing their creative thinking skills and gathering data on content mastery. Teachers don’t have to be an expert on the tool in order for students to use it.
How does this blended learning meet my students’ learning needs?
Every student who walks through the classroom door has individual learning needs. These needs vary from readiness and ability levels to interest and learning style modes. Yet differentiating for individual students has never been easier! Technology provides tools for assessment and options for various learning styles.
One teacher I worked with used formative assessment data she’d collected to determine which students needed additional work, which were on level, and which ones were ready for extensions. She created three different Nearpod lessons based on these needs. The students were able to work through their lessons independently, freeing up the teacher to provide one-on-one assistance to those who needed more direct support during the process. The last slide in the lesson contained a choice board. Students could choose from a variety of options to create a product that demonstrated their knowledge. This met readiness levels as well as learning styles, while giving students the creative outlets necessary to for critical thinking, decision making, and presentation demands.
Is this the best learning solution for my school or classroom?
Blended learning options are necessary for today’s classroom. But learners demand and deserve to be offered online learning that is engaging and holds them accountable for actual learning. Often digital learning solutions are cost efficient, as long as they don’t become boring box-checker experiences. No true learning occurs in these situations, which will cost everyone in the end.
Likewise, administrators should think deeply before purchasing a software program that they expect to use with every student in the entire school. In addition to the considerations above, think about how teachers and students will use the software or system. I often see teachers frustrated because their set of class computers, which they’d like to use for student-driven, innovative work, has been monopolized by the district-purchased software requirements.
The success of any organization lies in the culture. If true learning is at the heart of blended learning experiences, then every stakeholder will be successful in the endeavor. If it’s important enough, teachers will find a way to provide high-quality, engaging digital learning solutions for their students (and themselves!) to access in order to meet personalized learning goals. When school leaders understand this and are involved in the learning process, they are able to create a blended learning program that utilizes the strengths and interests of their students for continuous growth. Everyone works harder when they are invested in the overall vision. What better way to get students invested than by empowering them to see and set their own goals for achievement?