Teachers blend online and in-person instruction to engage students and increase college and career readiness.
Tim Brewer, science department chairman at St. George’s Technical High School in Middletown, Delaware, had had his students using computers for research and for sharing documents for eight years and considered himself to be “technology savvy.” Then, in the fall of 2013, he was asked to begin meeting with teachers from three other districts to design lessons that blended traditional instruction and online learning and gave students choices as to how to do their work.
The experience was an eye-opener. “It had never occurred to me to teach this way,” he said. “It really shook me to my foundation.”
Brewer was one of 40 teachers from 10 high schools who met with experts and worked on designing blended learning lessons between 2013 and 2015. The BRINC Consortium—an acronym of Brandywine, Indian River, New Castle County Vocational Technical, and Colonial—was formed to ensure that districts’ technology brought about instructional changes that would close achievement gaps and increase students’ college and career readiness by personalizing teaching and learning in Kindergarten through 12th grade.
Blended learning is an approach in which teachers deliver some instruction in traditional ways but also expect students to learn via digital and online media in and outside of class. Students are encouraged to follow a path of their choosing at a pace that is comfortable to them, as long as they meet expectations. That required Brewer and other teachers to make some major changes. “I had to take everything I was doing and reinvent it,” said Tara Saladyga, who teaches ninth grade physical science at Delcastle Technical High School in Wilmington. But, she said, “I’m comfortable with change. I don’t want to wait and keep doing something that is not giving me optimal results.”
The consortium used a portion of the 59 million dollar grant provided by Race to the Top funds and a 2013 Delaware Department of Education innovation grant to purchase technology, build a new learning management system, and to deliver high quality professional learning for educators. The learning management system, powered by Schoology and the professional development, provided by Modern Teacher, were invaluable in providing access for Delaware’s students to learn in a personalized environment. Three more districts—Appoquinimink, Caesar Rodney, and Red Clay—joined the consortium at the beginning of last year, the consortium now serves about 52% of the State’s public school students. All seven districts are continuing the training using local and Federal Title II grants with a goal of having all teachers at the 20 high schools in the seven districts using the blended learning approach by the end of school year (SY) 2016–2017.
As a result of this partnership, the Delaware Department of Education recently selected Schoology’s learning management system to replace its existing system to power online and blended learning for the entire state to shift education from being teacher-driven to student-centered, making active, engaged learners with access to the best, most effective technology.
“The business community is telling us that many of their employees are conducting work outside of office walls and using information and technology to produce reports, build relationships and, ultimately, achieve outcomes that positively impact the company and the customer,” said Mark Holodick, superintendent of the 11,000-student Brandywine School District in Wilmington.
“Now, we’re doing the same with blended learning—recognizing that students can access information and demonstrate they’ve acquired knowledge and skills outside the four walls of the classroom wherever and whenever they want,” he said.
Urban, rural, suburban and vocational-technical school districts are involved and each has different strengths, which they share through collaboration. Eventually, the lesson plans and curricula the teachers are developing will be made available across the consortium. “For the first time that I am aware of, you have districts from across the State collaborating entirely voluntarily, and they are seeing the benefits,” Holodick said.
“The opportunity to collaborate at every level, from superintendents to administrators, teachers to students, has pushed our thinking and progress on blended learning best practices,” said Mike League, Indian River’s instructional technology specialist. “It’s that collaborative spirit of the BRINC Constortium which has encouraged the sharing of ideas, lessons learned, and resources across district lines to improve the learning experience in our classrooms.”
In a blended classroom, Superintendent Holodick noted, a teacher might start a unit with a lecture and a syllabus describing learning goals and options, such as watching a video, participating in a discussion group, reading online documents or doing research, for how to reach them. “The key is that there is a formalized structure in place and the students know very clearly the expected outcomes and they are given choices as to how they access information and then, equally important, how they demonstrate their proficiency.”
“Some people say technology minimizes the role of the teacher,” he said. “But I think that, more than ever in a model like this, you’re going to need someone who understands teaching and quality lesson planning and who knows how young people learn and what interests them.”
A New Approach to Teaching
What Brewer was learning in the BRINC sessions inspired him to change his interactions with students—literally. He no longer lectures from the front of the class. Instead, he put a small desk for himself in the middle of the room and rearranged students’ desks from rows into clusters. Moving the furniture was a physical manifestation of how his approach to teaching has changed. (Here is a video showing blended learning in Brewer’s classroom.)
“Before, I would say to the students, ‘I’m going to ask you to do this’ and ‘Here’s how you’re going to do it,’ and they’d do it,” Brewer said. “I always knew that I was doing the vast majority of the work, and the students never really took ownership of their learning, but I always got good results.”
Now, he briefly introduces new concepts and then guides the class to YouTube, the Khan Academy, online journals, websites or materials he has loaded onto the digital learning platform that all of the BRINC districts are using. As he rolls from cluster to cluster, monitoring students’ progress and helping if needed, he hears “students asking ‘What does this mean?’ or ‘How do you figure this out?’ I’ve never had that type of engagement in the content before.”
“I’m not up there rattling off in front of the kids and they’re all bobbing their heads like they’re getting it, but they’re not,” he said.
Differentiating Instruction to Meet Students’ Needs
The introduction to blended learning also came as a revelation for Sue Scott, a ninth grade English teacher at Paul Hodgson Vocational-Technical High School in Newark who was in her 34th year in the classroom when the sessions started. “I thought I should be coasting at this point,” she said. Instead, she is customizing lessons for individual students.
Scott has honors students, non-honors students and students with disabilities in her classes. She is using an online learning platform the BRINC districts provided to “take the same story and design activities for kids who have reading difficulties, those who are moving along at a regular pace and for the honors kids,” she said. “They can all discuss the same book, the same story, the same poem because I’ve made the questions leading up to the discussion at their level.”
Students also choose from a variety of ways to show what they have learned: using a PowerPoint or a Prezi in writing, or by recording their answers on video or audio.
When her class was studying the Great Depression, she had her students download a video on the era, asked them to post several comments on what they had learned and respond to comments made by others. The students’ ideas then became the basis of an in-class discussion. She said that example shows how she blends both online and in-class learning. “It’s not all one or the other,” she said. “It’s a blend.”
Planning to Meet Students’ Needs
Terri Villa, the director of instruction for the New Castle County Vocational Technical school district, maintains that the shift to blended learning requires extensive planning—teachers can’t just take what they’ve been doing and put it on computers. Teachers have to decide what to deliver in class in the traditional way, what to make available digitally, what resources from the Internet to suggest, what students at different levels will be asked to do and how students’ performance will be evaluated. “It really is thinking about the students first and what they need … rather than what content can I give them and hope they get it,” she said.
The BRINC trainings were designed to help teachers with that planning. Another purpose was for the teachers to develop lessons collaboratively, try them out and refine them. In addition, the teachers were trained to use the learning management platform where students do much of their work and teachers keep track of their progress. The Modern Teacher platform gives teachers access to professional development resources on blended learning, including video demonstrations of lessons. Eventually, the lessons created through BRINC will be shared with peers across the consortium districts.
Villa, who represents her district in BRINC strategic planning sessions, said the consortium still has a long way to go to fulfill its ambitions. Eventually, all high schools will have access to units, curricula and resources created by teachers from all seven districts. All of the high schools will have “model classrooms” that teachers will be able to visit to observe colleagues model blended learning techniques. Another goal is for students to be able to take classes from teachers in other districts, via technology.
Villa said it’s not only the teachers who need help to shift how they approach their work. Students need to learn the vocabulary and etiquette of academic discussions and how they differ from talking socially online. “You can’t just tell them to go to a discussion board and start chatting away,” Villa said.
“Feedback we’re getting from students and teachers is very positive and is keeping the momentum going,” Villa said.
- Embrace a new way of teaching. The key benefit of blended learning is not the technology itself but the student-centered teaching that it makes possible.
- Plan, plan, plan. Blended learning requires extensive planning. Teachers have to create new lessons that meet the needs of different students, not just take what they’re doing now and present the information on computers.
- Experiment, reflect, refine. Experimentation, reflection and refinements are important. There is no single right way to implement blended learning. Teachers need to pay close attention to whether their lessons are working for all students.
- Take your time. Teachers need time to prepare for change and access to high-quality professional learning opportunities.
- Prepare students for success. Students have to be guided on how to be independent learners, how to participate properly in online discussions and how to collaborate with others.