Lessons From the Frontier: How to Make Blended Learning Truly Work

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Four years ago, Aspire Public Schools senior leadership decided that we should explore the use of blended learning in our schools to find out if it was “right” for us and asked me to lead the effort. I was not a particularly techie educator, but I did believe that it was time for us to figure out what role technology should play in our instructional model, which I cared deeply about, having coached Aspire teachers for years.

I was what colleagues politely called a “healthy skeptic.” I had spent six years in the classroom as a teacher, and then another 10 years coaching teachers and developing curriculum. Like my colleagues at Aspire, I deeply believed that we needed to teach the individual student--or to use the industry jargon, that “differentiated and individualized instruction” would help our students.

But we had yet to be sold on the power of technology in our instructional program for increasing student achievement. Models hadn’t been proven; software had little research behind it. The enthusiasm of national and family foundations (which have traditionally funded different teaching and learning initiatives) was both a blessing and a curse: They were excited about funding us to try changing the ways in which education could be delivered, yet many were also very interested in blended learning as a cost-cutting device, which in California with its low per pupil funding amount, added an extra burden to this work.

And yet, there was that tantalizing promise: We recognized that as adults, our lives depend heavily on technology. We knew that our students who we sent off to college each year would use technology in everything they did in college. And even though we knew our teaching practices were really good, they were not getting all of our students adequately prepared to succeed in and graduate from college--and that we needed new strategies and tools to increase our students’ achievement. Blended learning was unproven, yes. But it just might offer us a way to give students greater access and experience with technology, learning experiences that were truly differentiated to their level with real-time feedback, and give teachers more immediate and individualized student data. On many days, I felt something like a cowgirl out on the cutting edge of the untamed prairie or an astronaut on the distant edge of the universe.

I wasn’t alone, however. At schools scattered across the US, teams of other teachers and instructional design coaches were beginning to work through the same problems. I began connecting with folks from the KIPP Foundation, Summit Public Schools, Rocketship Education, E. L. Haynes Public Charter School, the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Cornerstone Charter Schools, Highline Public Schools (Washington), Mastery Schools and FirstLine Schools. We started slowly--sharing with each other our software choices and lessons learned. We spent a great deal of time commiserating over the phone. Gradually, we began meeting twice a year to dig more deeply into the work with each other: our models, our teacher training plans, our human capital strategies, our scaling plans. We started to believe that technology could deliver on its promise within our instructional programs.

As our teachers started piloting the work, they began providing powerful examples of how “going blended” was changing the work of teaching for them. “I feel my job has been more purposeful,” shared Nancy Castro, kindergarten teacher at Aspire Titan Academy. “The data that is provided through the software has allowed me to focus more on my guided reading groups and also target my student needs. I feel blended learning has allowed me to use my guided reading and math time more effectively. I get to spend a little more time with my guided reading groups, I get to teach my math lessons during computer time, and I get to pull small groups to work with my low students.”

The most fundamental lesson we learned was that blended learning is a model that puts student learning at the center of learning. That makes blended learning a critical step towards whatever the future of teaching and learning in our schools will be. Blended learning sets up teachers and students to continually adapt and iterate in ways that previous school reforms have not. It uses technology but keeps a strong emphasis on learning. Realistically, it means not “going blended” because you think it’s a good idea. Rather, you’re going blended because you want to figure out how technology can help you solve a targeted problem: increase student achievement given your context, school culture, and the overall willingness of your teachers to tackle the challenges your students face.

These days, I’m still thinking about how to improve on this work as more Aspire schools adopt the blended learning model. And I’ve pulled together the lessons and observations from our teachers and the dozens of other cowboys and cowgirls who have been trying to tame blended learning into a new book, Go Blended! A Handbook for Blending Technology in Schools. Part of Aspire’s mission is to share promising practices with other forward-thinking educators, and this book allows us to share what we’re learning in a much broader way.

In Go Blended, I’ve amassed a ton of lesson plans and other resources to support educators through this process. Among the questions the book tackles:

  • What are the fundamental decisions schools need to make before deciding to “go blended”?
  • How do teachers and school leaders choose a blended learning model and craft pilots, find the right software and hardware to meet student learning needs, make use of student data, set up classroom learning spaces and get a network up to speed?
  • How do school leaders train teachers and identify when teachers and classrooms are ready for blended learning?

I hope you’ll take this journey with us, and share back your lessons, so we can learn from you, too.

Liz Arney is the Director of Innovative Learning at Aspire Public Schools, a high-performing charter school management organization. After 11 years at Aspire, Liz Arney is joining the NewSchools Venture Fund in March 2015. Visit Liz Arney at www.goblended.com. 

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