Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Basics of Blending

In the book, Blended Learning in Action, Catlin Tucker, Tiffany Wycoff, and Jason Green hit the “pulse” of the blended learning movement as they discuss the need for a shift in the way schools “puree” and present content to meet the needs of today’s learners.

They explain this by saying, “We are at the moment in education when our schools can determine if they are Netflix or Blockbuster, Amazon or Borders, Samsung or Blackberry. In each of these cases, the successful organization saw that the entire world was changing and decided they were going to change to be ready for it…shifting vision and culture at the time when it was most critical to their survival.” The point here is that current education models are “crushing” student opportunity by “chopping” key elements needed to engage students and prepare them for “shredding” the future demands of a global marketplace. In an effort to address this need, Northwest ISD has begun piloting blended learning courses where that missing link is helping to fill the gap and expose students to nontraditional forms of instruction by providing learning experiences that aid in better acquisition of future ready skills.

There are common misconceptions about blended learning and what it entails. It is not only integrating technology into the classroom, “flipping” lessons, or even implementing problem based learning strategies. Blended learning includes a “mixture” of those things and more! An article by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker described blended learning as, “any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.” Successfully implementing blended learning requires a complete shift of culture that empowers both teachers and students to be active participants in creating learning opportunities. Horn and Staker explain that making blended learning a reality requires “letting go of the idea that we always have to teach something in order for students to have learned it.” Empowering students by allowing them choice and independence within the pace and structure of the course as well as connecting the traditional, face-to-face learning time with digital learning time is all key to the success of blended learning courses and eventually strengthens student capacity for independent problem solving and critical thinking.

Jennifer Hamzy, a teacher at V.R. Eaton High School, facilitates the current blended AP Psychology course there and she feels that the digital days incorporated into the course create an opportunity for “differentiation and for students to decide what works best for them.” She also appreciates how the blended format puts more responsibility on the students to develop “better study skills” and to “learn how to independently read a college text.” Jennifer frequently encourages collaborative strategies to help guide students on digital days. They are encouraged to utilize Google Suite tools as well as various digital study aids like Quizlet, YouTube videos, and online practice assessments to learn and reinforce concepts on their own while allowing more in person class time for discussion, teacher guidance, and whole group activity. AP Psychology students, Anya and Patricia, stated that they enjoyed having “more time to get work done” independently while also having the option to “meet up to work together” with other students either digitally or in person.

Although blended learning has been largely successful in Mrs. Hamzy’s class and she is extremely well-versed in problem based learning strategies, student goal setting, and differentiation, she feels that she can improve her blended learning course by providing more specific expectations to students early on in order to guide them in productive ways to spend their digital days as well as by incorporating more flipped techniques to help ensure that students have the necessary background knowledge and preparation to complete problem-based tasks and projects. Mrs. Hamzy regularly utilizes Google Suite, Moodle, and other digital resources to engage students with content independently and collaboratively but is constantly making adjustments and trying new tools to help her create additional independent learning opportunities for students. Online resources such as Pear Deck, edpuzzle, FlipGrid, Formative, Screencastify, and even digital badging can all increase student engagement with content while allowing students room to individually and collaboratively remediate, accelerate, or manipulate their own interactions with concepts and skills. Hamzy describes the transition to a blended learning course as “a process” and says that teachers new to it should “give themselves a break the first year” as they take risks with a new role, different strategies, and unfamiliar resources. She says that as you progress, “you discover that some things work and some do not but that’s okay” because you adjust and improve for the next time.

As the availability of blended learning courses to NISD students increase over the next few years, other EHS teachers, like Renata Schlotzhauer and Ashley Harden, will be expanding this course structure to other content areas such as science and World Languages. Mrs. Harden says that she is looking forward to “students growing academically and personally as they are given more responsibility.” She also feels that it will help to deepen student understanding in science because they are allowed to cover more information at a more personalized pace.”
Prior to the course selection process for next year’s classes, both Mrs. Harden and Mrs. Schlotzhauer took time to speak with incoming students about what they could expect and Mrs. Schlotzhauer explained that she felt there were “unlimited possibilities for delivery of content, student collaboration, and exploration of new concepts.” Students will have real opportunities to grow as self-sufficient, critical thinkers as they are forced to begin thinking and working in more organic and experiential ways through these blended classrooms. Tucker, Wycoff, and Green state that, “…it is the advent of modern technology that now makes this type of learning experience possible in every classroom and for every child” and that “the rewards of student learning, engagement, and empowerment will be manifold.”

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