Julia Gitis is a Product Manager at Edmodo. She taught at Leadership Public Schools in Richmond, CA and serves on the board of East Bay Innovation Academy in Oakland.
As a Product Manager in an education technology company, it’s important for me to understand the latest trends in education. What’s on teacher’s minds? If I don’t know the answer to that, I’m not doing my job.
Though it’s embarrassing to admit, I never really knew much about blended learning. So when I heard about the California Blended Learning Leaders Forum, I jumped at the chance to attend (not because I’m a leader in blended learning, but because I wanted to learn from leaders). The event was a professional development opportunity for teachers in California, offering credit toward their CEU, or continuing education units.
I thought it would give me a chance to meet teachers interested in blended learning, learn some best practices, and get a glimpse into how blended learning is perceived. Outside of work, it would also help me in my role as a board member of a school where blended learning is a core part of the learning model.
Here’s everything I knew before I attended the event: Blended learning is when students learn online. (Yep, that’s it.)
I wasn’t even sure how it is different from a flipped classroom (where a teacher assigns online content for students to study at home before they come to class). Needless to say, I learned a lot after a day of immersion into this topic, guided by some of the foremost experts in the field!
Here are 6 things I didn’t know about blended learning (and 1 I did).
First of all I learned the definition of blended learning: learning that occurs both online and in person, with some element of student control.
Students should have some control over at least one of these four factors: time, place, path, or pace. So if a teacher finds a video of another teacher giving a lecture and makes their students watch it, that is not blended learning. Simply putting a textbook or recording online is not enough.
Not only does blended learning introduce new technology and more ownership for the student, but it also means a new role for the teacher. With blended learning, the teacher goes from being “the sage on stage” to “the guide on the side.” The job of teachers who use blended learning is to help their students learn on their own rather than feeding them information.
Blended learning is important for many reasons:
Blended learning is a lot more advanced than my naive impression that it’s just “when students learn online.” These four models put blended learning in deeper context. The first two are models that individual teachers can implement on their own in their classrooms whenever they are ready to dip their toes in the water:
The second two models are whole school transformations that start top-down at the school or district level.
The biggest difference between these two models– and many schools choose to do a blend of both– is that one emphasizes a dedicated physical space on campus, and one emphasizes dedicated days of the week.
Keynote speaker Heather Hiebsch gave a dynamic presentation with lessons learned from her experience launching and leading a blended learning school in Colorado. She talked about research on student achievement that demonstrates that one of the most important factors in student achievement is the student’s perceived relationship with their teacher.
Heather emphasized that teachers who teach online should not be held to a lower standard than in-person teachers; in fact, they especially need to be able to form strong relationships with students. Many students come to blended learning environments because they were not adequately served by a traditional school, so it is even more important that the blended learning teachers can build rapport with them.
David Knoche, who also launched and leads a Colorado blended learning school, described how his students form strong relationships with both in-person and online teachers in a blended learning environment. The in-person teachers have a new dynamic with their students because they’re walking around in an open space with them, rather than lecturing from up front. The relationship becomes more like that of a peer than a top-down one. And with the right structure in place, David agrees that online teachers can really get to know their students, even if they never meet them in person.
In fact, both Heather and David shared that teachers often feel they get to know their students better when they teach them online.
A big question with blended learning is where to find the right digital content. Some experts strongly believe that schools and districts should purchase third party provider content for all their teachers. When I asked David about teacher-created content, he said, “I firmly believe teachers should not be creating content. They weren’t hired as instructional designers. We purchased the online curriculum to prevent us from having to do all that work.” He discourages teachers from making custom content and would rather they spend their time on honing their teaching craft rather than content creation.
Heather agrees– “Teachers can’t create the same level of content in a couple weeks over the summer as big content providers can with $5 million toward R&D.” Heather acknowledges that teachers have always modified their lesson plans even if they are following a textbook, but they should not be expected to come up with an entire curriculum. “Twenty years ago, no one would have asked me to write my own textbook and find photos and bind it together. But we do that to teachers now for some reason just because content is online.”
Despite more online publishers and content providers that schools can choose from, many teachers still spend a significant amount of time crafting their own lesson plans and searching online for ideas from other teachers. And when provider content becomes too costly, open educational resources are more appealing.
Many math teachers, for example, use Khan Academy as their first stepping stone into blended learning. The strong demand for more content is the reason Edmodo launched Edmodo Spotlight in 2015– a resource-sharing platform for teachers, where they can share and download both paid and open educational resources.
The great thing about attending a teacher training on blended learning is the ability to see how teachers responded to what they heard. Teachers raised a number of questions about implementing blended learning. Blended learning looks different at different schools so many teachers are not sure where to start. Some who taught art or foreign language were not sure whether their subject was a good match for blended learning and even if it is, how to get buy-in from stakeholders like parents and school administrators.
Getting buy-in for something so new and different can be tricky. Heather Hiebsch emphasized that we should be patient with one another– “This is the first generation of parents who parent social media and the first generation of teachers who teach online.” For many generations, parents could repeat the same techniques used by their own parents, and teachers could teach the same way they were taught. Now with the rise of social media and online learning, we are asking this generation to raise children differently from how they were raised and teach children differently from how they were taught. We should acknowledge how inherently challenging this shift is.
Another big concern for teachers is whether blended learning will help them support their hard to reach students, such as English language learners, special education students, and students who are struggling academically. One teacher shared that when he started using blended learning, a student who began the year reading three grades below grade level ended the year three grades below grade level– they were not able to catch up.
In theory, differentiating instruction is one of the benefits of blended learning– David Knoche says he uses it for both remediation and acceleration. In practice, differentiating instruction is still a big challenge for teachers. They need to be able to get the right data to support different students, and they often need to find supplemental tools and content if the main curriculum is not serving the needs of certain students.
One of the benefits of blended learning is that it allows for a certain level of anonymity between students about their skill levels. Unlike traditional schools where special education students are “pulled out” of the classroom for support, all students can learn together in blended learning environments. The high-performing student and the low-performing student can sit right next to each other in the same group, working on the same project, but online learning provides the differentiation.
For example, many teachers love Achieve3000, a tool which allows a group of students to read the same article, but shows the article to each student at their own lexile level. They can then have a discussion about the article having all read the same content. While many teachers are eager to dive into blended learning, their concerns about getting started and reaching all students illustrate a gap in how these tools and frameworks are introduced.
Ok, I knew this one, but this event only reinforced the fact. Have I mentioned that teachers are my favorite people? They truly want to engage all their students in learning and accommodate every edge case.
It strikes me how different this teacher attitude is from the one I see in the corporate world. In companies, there is a point at which if a client or a partner is too different, too demanding, too much of an outlier and not enough to significantly affect the business, they will be ignored.
Teachers do not think that way. Teachers bend over backwards to support individual students, no matter how unique their needs are. They dive deep into using the latest technology and want to engage their students however they can. I left this event inspired by the best practices of blended learning and by the teachers who are dedicated to using it in their classrooms despite the challenges and new ways of thinking it brings.