Leading Rhode Island Districts on the Quest Towards Blended Learning

Leading Rhode Island Districts on the Quest Towards Blended Learning

Shawn Rubin

As spring finally makes its appearance here in New England, personalized learning frameworks are sprouting like tulip bulbs across the country. New infographics, progressions and guidelines are constantly being introduced to help educators define, plan and implement personalized learning models. At the Highlander Institute, we love cross-walking these frameworks with our own belief systems to calibrate our thinking and fine-tune our messaging to the district partners we support.

We put a lot of stock in competency frameworks to simplify complex concepts and help identify priorities. These frameworks make critical distinctions between tech integration, blended learning, and personalized learning, and provide leaders with essential questions and action steps as they scale new practices.

However, a common limitation of many frameworks we’ve seen recently is their utility for districts just beginning the journey towards blended and personalized learning. For district leaders who are unfamiliar with the terminology, unclear on their vision, and uncertain about the path forward, many frameworks and associated resources are overwhelming. They can seem abstract and disconnected from the roles, responsibilities, and realities of a traditional district.

But Rhode Island is attempting to change that.

The Highlander Institute has been supporting a range of districts and building leaders through our blended learning consulting work and Fuse RI statewide initiative. We work with district teams from their unique starting points to define their goals around blended and personalized learning, and support them as they craft their roadmap for achieving that vision. Through this work, we have realized that early-stage districts need examples, tools, and strategies presented in manageable chunks, and accompanied by brief and relevant resources.

Identifying District Competencies That Support Blended Learning

Our first approach to this need was to outline a database of district competencies. It was originally informed by what we saw happening in innovative districts across the country; however, it has evolved based on new ideas and best practices we’re observing in our own local districts in Rhode Island.

For example, in one of our Fuse RI districts, Bristol/Warren, Assistant Superintendent and Curriculum Director Diane Sanna is leveraging her district’s long-standing culture of lab classrooms to empower teachers to create blended learning model classrooms. She started by offering training and devices to teams of teachers in each building that volunteered to be a part of the district’s “Digital Learning Team”. These teachers will be trained and expected to run blended learning classrooms during the 2015-2016 school year--a practice that falls perfectly into the “Professional Learning Gear --> 21st Century Teaching Skills --> On-Site Support” competency category. District leaders will leverage these classrooms for learning walks and job embedded professional development that will seed interest and excitement across the district.

In another RI district, Barrington, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Assessment Paula Dillon and the Director of Technology Katie Miller work closely together to create professional development with a personalized approach. Rather than having all teachers sit through half-day or full-day workshops in lock-step, they have adopted an “unconference approach”. On one such day, they asked technology-savvy teachers from across the district to host various informal sessions on a variety of topics ranging from basic tech skills to advanced tech integration and blended learning. Teachers are empowered to make choices about how to spend their time on these days, based on their needs and goals.

These innovative approaches to supporting the advancement of blended learning would not occur without district leaders that are strong in competencies like Vision & Planning, Modeling, Blended PD, & On-Site Support. This kind of leadership is critical in taking next generation teaching and learning to scale.

Highlighting the Importance of Distributed Leadership

The image that is most often used to highlight the need for a new vision for teaching and learning is a black and white photograph of students sitting in rows listening to a teacher lecture. It’s usually coupled with a statement like, “While everything else in the world has changed, our classrooms have not.” But while this point is well-taken, we want to highlight the fact that it’s not just instruction that has remained achingly traditional in most districts.

Consider district leadership roles. For decades, the typical district organizational chart has included Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum Director, Technology Administrator, and CFO, collectively reporting back to a school board or school committee. While there are advantages to this structure, we worry that these traditional and sometimes siloed roles can be limiting. In order for blended learning to truly take root in a district, it cannot fall solely on the shoulders of the Tech Director. It has to be embraced by and seen as the work of every member of the district administrative team working collaboratively and in tandem.

Leaders like Sanna, Dillon, and Miller have recognized this and taken it upon themselves to shift their roles to incorporate this work--much in the same way as many early-adopter teachers adopted technology once relegated to the computer lab and integrated it into their pedagogy. But what about districts in which no one sees this work as part of their role? Or districts in which no one possesses the skillsets necessary to lead it?

We believe our database of district competencies can provide a starting place for these districts. They can use it to identify their existing strengths, as well as their gaps and needs. Then, they can use this information to make informed decisions about how to shift roles to maximize the impact of existing strengths and to hire new staff or consultants to support their needs.

Providing a Tech-Supported Database

We’ve built and are leveraging a digital tracking system called Metryx to generate dashboards showing how each district is doing across these competencies. District mastery scores are then linked to a resource engine containing frameworks, videos, and research that are all tagged back to the competencies that we tracked. Ultimately, we want to expand this database for districts that are interested in moving toward blended but are unsure of how to begin, and leverage it for districts who have made strides toward blended but who need data to demonstrate growth or decide where to focus energy next.

We are encouraged by how we’ve see this process work through the Institute’s district initiatives. The data from our readiness assessments has helped us frame face-to-face conversations and track ongoing progress. We know that our system needs tweaking and we are constantly reconfiguring our competencies and restating our “look fors” as we learn and receive feedback from districts about what’s helpful and what’s not. We are continuing to study the successes of blended learning leaders across RI and nationally to build a resource bank of examples that can be used by districts ready to tackle blended learning.

If you are interested exploring these resources in more detail, please check out our white paper “School District 2.0: Redesigning Districts to Support Blended Learning”. It represents our latest thinking about these questions, but it is certainly a beginning, rather than an end, of a conversation. We welcome feedback on these tools, and we are eager to learn from others who are wrestling with these same questions as they engage in this important work.

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