The Right Blend
More schools are mixing online learning with brick-and-mortar classes. Three successful case studies show why.
As blended learning continues to grow in popularity in districts across the country, the question arises: Just what is it? There is no one model. Flipped classrooms? Blended learning. Rotation models? Blended learning. Online classes supplementing traditional courses? Blended learning. But while the models vary, says Heather Staker, senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, there are two constants. Each experience has to include online learning mixed with brick-and-mortar learning. And each must allow students to have some element of control over when they complete their work, where they do the work, and, more important, the pace at which they do the work.
Schools are finding it increasingly viable to offer students an alternative to traditional classes, largely because of rapid gains in technology and connectivity. And if administrators had lingering doubts about the validity of this learning method, those doubts were officially erased last year when a report by the RAND Corporation showed that students taking a blended learning algebra course improved by eight percentage points over those taking a more traditional classroom course.
There are three reasons blended learning is gaining in popularity, Staker says. Blended models allow for easier personalization of instruction, they offer a wide range of courses to students who might not typically have access to such classes, and they can help a district keep costs under control. At least three of every four districts already offer some form of online or blended learning, according to Keeping Pace With K–12 Online and Blended Learning, a 2013 International Association for K–12 Online Learning report. Staker says there are four official models (see bottom of page) but admits that within this framework there are an untold number of modifications schools can make to customize programs.
To illustrate how different models of blended learning can work, we present three case studies: a rotation model from the District of Columbia Public Schools, the workshop model at PS/MS 165 in New York City, and a flex model at Ohio’s New Albany High School.
When principal Tracy Foster looked at her student achievement results last year, one fact jumped out. Of the 335 students at Randle Highlands Elementary School in Washington, D.C., about four in 10 were just short of being proficient. Foster was determined to get these students the extra help they needed.
She knew the district, which has changed from proficiency-based to a whole-growth model, subscribed to a robust digital platform that would offer her students adaptive help to personalize their learning. But Randle Highlands did not have enough technology to take advantage of these programs. That’s when Foster had one of those moments that hardly ever happens outside of Hollywood. The phone rang with an offer of a $250,000 grant. “How that came about, I don’t know,” Foster admits, more than a year later. “It was almost like a blessing. Voilà.”
Foster and her staff used the money to buy Dell desktops and to push the school into a blended learning model that makes the District of Columbia Public Schools one of the few districts in the country to fully embrace blended learning for students in kindergarten through grade 12.
That explains all the cardboard blinders placed between computers in kindergarten teacher Kyra Dolison’s classroom. It turns out that teaching 5-year-olds to log in (the password is one letter and a picture of themselves) is easier than getting them to stay focused on their work and not look at what their neighbors are doing. But the low-cost cardboard barriers are doing the trick. “There’s constant learning,” Dolison says.
Her colleague Tiffany Frizzell, a first-grade teacher, agrees. “I thought it would be difficult for students, but we [already] had stations, so they are used to rotations,” she explains.
The school uses 120-minute blocks for ELA and math. Students split into three groups, with each one spending 35 minutes with their adaptive learning programs. The other two blocks consist of teacher-directed instruction and student inquiry stations, Foster says.
While Foster is anxiously awaiting student results from their first year of blended learning, David A. Rose, director of the district’s educational technology and library media office, expects the K–12 model to continue to pay off in learning gains each year.
“We think having a continuous experience in K–12 is key,” says Rose. “Students will have tech skills as they move through the grades. We don’t have to prepare them in digital citizenship, which eliminates a huge learning curve at the beginning of the year.”
But even Rose knows that locking into one blended learning model for all students isn’t wise. While it makes sense for elementary students to use the rotation model, the district uses different models in other schools.
“Blended learning is natural with today’s technology,” says Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education. “In addition to adaptive programs creating a personalized learning path, the programs can also funnel information back to the teacher and administrators.”
This factor is key for DCPS. “We’re very aggressive in being data driven,” Rose says. For the past three years, instructional coaches in each school have helped teachers and principals understand how to best use data, and the district itself utilizes the data to help weed out less effective programs. Multiple programs mean extra support. “That’s a lot of additional work,” Rose adds.
Randle Highlands uses four programs: i-Ready from Curriculum Associates, ST Math from the MIND Research Institute, myON (Capstone’s digital library software), and Rosetta Stone’s Lexia Learning reading program. Elsewhere in the district, students use Scholastic’s READ 180.
The Blended Workshop
Sometimes all the studies and debate about education overwhelm a simple point. The act of learning, when a student becomes eager to improve himself or herself, is a tiny spark of hope that can quickly spread through a whole school. In a nutshell, that’s what happened at PS/MS 165 Robert E. Simon Global Scholars Academy on Manhattan’s Upper West Side last summer.
When a young student who hadn’t liked reading during the school year was given a tablet loaded with LightSail’s interactive e-reader program, the metamorphosis started, says Jessica Scanlon, the school’s literacy coach and Common Core literacy teacher. “As soon as they put LightSail in front of him, he was a different kid. I couldn’t believe he changed so much. He wouldn’t stop reading.” The newly eager reader even asked for a Wi-Fi hot spot in the cafeteria because he wanted to keep reading during lunch.
LightSail allows students to access hundreds of books, much like consumers can with a Kindle, but it also enables children to interact with and highlight text and send questions to the teacher. Likewise, the teacher can send answers back to students and keep track of their progress with student assessments and real-time data.
When Scanlon explained the value of the program to her school’s principal and vice principal, they decided all students could benefit from using it. Currently, 200 students are using the blended learning program.
Scanlon implements LightSail with the workshop model of blended learning. She begins class with a mini-lesson, connecting what the students will do that day with work they’ve previously completed. She then teaches the skill of the day and, using her iPad, shows the students exactly what she’s expecting of them in the LightSail program. Students, working on iPad Minis, try the skill of the day with a partner. They share this with the class, and then Scanlon reminds them what they are expected to do for the day.
Next, while students work on their own, Scanlon conferences with small groups. Later that day, she will respond to students’ questions. All of this work is completed within the program. The next day, students log in to read Scanlon’s feedback.
Because students type in their thoughts as they read, Scanlon gets insight into what they are thinking as they read. She also sees if their reading levels are rising or falling and how well they are doing with the skills they’re learning. And she can access assessment data in a flash to share with her principal or parents.
The students love LightSail, she says, and, “even better, they have all moved up in Lexile levels and have internalized the Common Core standards and know the skills required of them.” They have also “moved from scoring mostly at below grade level when we began the program to on grade level,” she adds.
A Flex Schedule
Blended learning may be the natural outgrowth of better technology and a demand for personalized instruction, but that doesn’t mean all the teachers in your building are ready to make a seamless transition to this new model. With that understanding, when administrators at New Albany High School in Ohio decided to try blended learning’s flex model in 2012, the first group they targeted were teachers, not students.
Teachers who want to use blended learning need to learn about it before they present it to their students, says Cathryn Chellis, New Albany’s technology learning coach and faculty instructor. Interested teachers take two graduate-level classes. First up is Introduction to Designing Online Courses. During the second semester, teachers take Supervised Practicums while they are implementing their blended learning class. “They are getting support in learning how to facilitate a blended course,” explains Chellis.
During New Albany’s spring 2014 semester, nearly 100 students took blended learning classes in English language arts, history or social studies, and science. The courses have become so popular that 17 are being offered for fall 2014, and 300 students have applied to take them.
With the school’s flex model, students spend some time in a classroom face-to-face with teachers and some time outside of the classroom. Teachers designate flex periods for students during the one or two days a week they have blended classes. If these flex periods fall during the first or last period of the school day, students may either come in later or leave the campus early, provided they have parental permission.
Students can spend their flex time working on their own in the library, in dedicated spaces for self-study throughout the school, or in the classroom where they would normally meet, as the teachers are still there to answer questions.
Because they are being given more independence with blended learning classes, students are sometimes required to sign contracts with their teachers agreeing to maintain a certain grade in the class. Not all teachers require these, though it is one way to make sure that students complete their online learning.
Chellis says the first set of students taking blended courses showed no gain over students in face-to-face classes. But nearly eight in 10 said they would take another blended course, while 97 percent said the class allowed them to work at their own pace. Students appreciate the flexibility and freedom they have, adds Chellis. “The feedback has been very positive.”
By Any Other Name
Blended learning takes many forms. Here’s a brief description of the four main models and their benefits.
The most popular blended learning model. Students rotate between learning modalities, including one that involves either online learning or working with an adaptive software program. This model includes the newly popular flipped classroom, as well as station rotation, lab rotation, and individual rotation.
Teachers serve as mentors, defining student expectations. Students, who have a high degree of independence, complete much of their learning online.
À La Carte Model
Another popular option, in which students attend a traditional school but also take at least one course online. This model can help a student alleviate a scheduling problem, or allow him or her to take a specialized class (such as an AP subject or advanced language course) that is not offered at their school.
Enriched Virtual Model
A whole-school experience in which students divide their time in all courses between in-person attendance and online learning.