Where Principals Go to Get Schooled in Blended Learning

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On a recent August summer day, I had the opportunity to join an enthusiastic group of over 30 principals and assistant principals who were focused on leading a transition to blended learning in their schools. They brainstormed ideas using sticky notes (both paper and electronic versions), created screen cast “elevator speeches” to share their vision for blended learning, and discussed their highest hopes and greatest fears for their blended learning initiatives.

The day was organized by five school and district leaders who were working with the Rhode Island Association of School Principals (RIASP) and who were trained as facilitators by the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, as part of the Leadership in Blended Learning initiative funded by The Learning Accelerator. I was there in my role as a digital learning consultant for the Friday Institute.

Jessie Butash, an assistant principal at Cumberland High School, kicked off the session with challenging questions to frame the learning: “What are we hiring blended learning to fix? What blended learning model is the best fit for your school and why?”

As the Rhode Island principals grappled with these and other questions throughout the day, it was a constant reminder of the need for well-prepared, effective leaders who can engage the school community in successful blended learning implementation.

Learning By Doing

Usually, principals are developing their blended learning leadership skills on the job; they most likely completed pre-service programs which did not specifically address designing for digital or blended learning. Graduate education programs which specifically target leadership in blended learning remain limited; however, new courses and pedagogical approaches that address this need are emerging in colleges of education.

For example, the Technology, Innovation and Education (TIE) M.Ed. program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education includes a range of courses that prepare students for varied leadership roles in schools and other settings that involve educational technology, innovation and new learning models. TIE courses enable M.Ed. students to directly engage with the tools and strategies used in schools implementing new blended learning models.

I’m teaching a new course in this program, Connected Teaching in the Digital Age, which provides students with a focused exploration of key approaches frequently associated with digital learning: online, blended, personalized, competency based and massive online learning. The course includes a rich online community that students facilitate in between our face-to-face meetings, and conversations via the course’s Twitter hashtag and chats. Students collaboratively curate a shared collection of resources and artifacts they create over the course of the semester in a Google+ community, which they can access even after the course is over. The pedagogical approach of the course mirrors the approaches we are studying, providing students with hands-on experience with the skills and practices of a blended environment.

Professional Learning Opportunities

The Friday Institute, based at the College of Education at North Carolina State University, is addressing the need to grow more blended learning leaders through professional learning opportunities. Its Leadership in Blended Learning program (LBL) targets in-service principals, assistant principals and other school leaders. In addition to Rhode Island, sites across the country currently involved in this program include Ohio Blended Learning Network in partnership with Mentor Public Schools,Oakland Unified School District in partnership with Rogers Family Foundation (CA), Fulton County Schools (GA), Greeley-Evans (CO) and LEAP Innovations (IL).

LBL is designed in a blended model, with carefully selected technology tools embedded in the training. It addresses challenges such as fostering a blended learning culture and designing professional development. Says LBL project director Mary Ann Wolf, “Principals really appreciate the protected time this program provides to learn about blended learning and work on planning and implementation strategies while at the same time, having the opportunity to collaborate and share with other principals from across the country who are engaged in similar work.”

Leadership in Blended Learning employs a capacity-building approach with a train-the-trainer model where local facilitators are prepared to lead and customize the course for their principals, setting the stage for blended leadership development to scale across a district, state, network or other organization.

Leadership Standards for New Learning Models

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is also zeroing in on the importance of the school leader in the success of blended learning and other new digital learning models, with an initiative to develop a set of Leadership Standards for new learning models ready sometime in 2016.

Allison Powell, Vice President of iNACOL, stressed the importance of this work, “Leaders of new school models such as blended learning are creating innovative approaches to teaching and learning in their schools. iNACOL is committed to bringing stakeholders together to support these leaders and to understand the competencies successful leaders of these new models need.”

School leaders are breaking new ground as they engage their schools and communities in the transition to blended learning. The success of these initiatives is often tied to their ability to navigate the complexities of this largely uncharted, rapidly changing landscape.

Barbara Treacy is an adjunct lecturer in the Technology, Innovation and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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