How to Kick Off Blended Learning (Hint: It’s Not Just About Tech)

How to Kick Off Blended Learning (Hint: It’s Not Just About Tech)

“Quantity of devices and well-developed adaptive software is the key to a successful blended learning implementation,” said no one ever! 

What is key? Teacher appetite and readiness to rethink what is possible. 

Over the last four years, Aspire Public Schools has rolled out blended learning classrooms in 23 of its 38 schools in California and Tennessee. Along the way, we've learned some hard lessons about converting whole schools to station rotation blended learning models in short periods of time. 

Not all teachers are ready to launch blended learning in their classrooms. That doesn’t mean they won’t be; it just means that schools have to individualize the approach to integrating technology. If you believe in differentiated instruction for students, you should also assume that as professionals, teachers deserve the space and flexibility to rollout out new initiatives at their own pace.

Certainly, the choice of devices and their deployment should be thoughtfully vetted; but technology and personalized learning models need to support great teaching, not undermine it. So we’ve adopted an approach that allows teachers to develop strong class culture and tight management prior to adding technology.

Always “launch” WITHOUT technology

It's important to front load procedures, expectations, and mindsets before bringing in the tech; this will lay the groundwork for student success when blended rotations start. Every teacher will have a different pace for building relationships, developing culture, and managing the classroom; that’s perfectly fine–the process should not be rushed!

In K - 5 schools, Aspire uses 21 lessons to help set up these procedures and expectations. These lessons aren’t a science and not all lessons are relevant to all classrooms, but they offer a general framework for launching a successful K - 5 station rotation model. Launching technology practices with great attention to detail levels the playing field for students that may not use technology at home.

The lessons are:

1. Location of workstations 12. Correct keyboarding position
2. Noise level at workstations 13. Using the track pad or mouse
3. Correct behavior at computers 14. Logging in
4. Correct behavior at workstations 15. Logging out
5. Necessary materials at workstations 16. What to do when the computer is loading
6. Quiet and efficient rotations
17. Troubleshooting problems during login
7. Computer workstation etiquette 18. Closing the program and logging in again
8. Preparing to rotate
19. What to do when there’s a computer problem
9. Staying comfortable at the computers 20. Adjusting the volume
10. Caring for the computers, part 1 21. Handling headphones
11. Caring for the computers, part 2

As students use computers to work through challenging lessons, their experiences help them develop grit, optimism, and perseverance. Understanding these concepts helps them go through a series of questions that encourage personal reflection such as, “How am I doing on my blended learning programs? Why? What am I doing well? What can I do to improve?” This Blended Learning Peer Data Reflection goes hand in hand with developing a growth mindset.

Go[ne] blended! Now what?

Once we’ve established mindset around independent learning and adaptive content, and have solidified procedures and built up our students’ work stamina, we can seamlessly integrate a blended learning station rotation model. Here are just a few things we consider as we launch:

When’s the last time you learned a lot from someone exactly like you?

In a blended classroom, multiple learning environments occur simultaneously; it’s critical to have a vision for the conversations, supports, and peer teaching structures that will best serve students. At any given moment, there are at least three grouping systems taking place: a group of students receiving personalized instruction on computers, a group of students receiving smaller group mini-lessons with the teacher, and another group of students working independently or collaboratively.

Because students spend a significant amount of time working independently on computers, it’s important that teachers also value and encourage discussion and collaboration. Working in small groups (with or without technology) gives students a structured experience to practice, for example, the speaking and listening skills particularly critical to students who are English language learners.

When teachers start blended learning, some find it easier to quickly differentiate instruction by creating homogenous groups – that is, having a “high” group and a “low” group. After some time, however, many blended teachers decide that homogenous groupings no longer benefit their class as a whole; there is value in students who are above grade level supporting other students who are not yet at their level. Thus, many blended classrooms transition to a heterogeneous mix, taking into consideration personality types and students with special needs. These groupings are designed to promote language acquisition and academic literacy, as well as reciprocal teaching where all learners of various abilities benefit from heterogeneous mixing.

Feedback and Data  -- The metronome of a blended classroom

Integrating technology into a classroom holds the promise of having real-time access to robust and actionable data. The word “promise” is used intentionally, since most blended learning teachers know that data quality and accessibility vary greatly between online learning programs. Nevertheless, student data from online learning should always inform instruction. If teachers think programs are worthwhile for students, they must also invest in understanding the backend of these programs--by attending PD from the vendors, conferring with district support staff, or exploring online programs on their own.

In Aspire’s blended classrooms, teachers receive both formative and summative data from many sources; using that data strategically is key to providing targeted instruction. On any particular school day, data comes from homework done the previous night, exit tickets, quizzes, the day’s exams, blended learning dashboards, classroom behavior monitoring systems, and computer apps like Class Dojo. Conferring with students provides anecdotal information that can also inform instruction. With so much data, teachers can continually reflect on what is working, what needs to change, whose needs are met, who needs to be challenged, and who needs further intervention.

That said, teachers may also experience information overload. When first going blended, it’s important that they stick to a few key data points as the main drivers for instruction. They should also speak up when data doesn’t make sense and give their principal, vendor, coach, or district admin the opportunity to help collaboratively problem-solve.

At Aspire, teachers tend to prioritize the following data: reading levels, student growth and mastery in blended programs, and behavioral trends identified in class reflections, conversations with students, and parent updates. Since students self-monitor their data on a daily basis, they can increasingly identify their own next steps and are more likely take charge of their learning. The purposeful and strategic use of data in a blended classroom is a powerful tool to motivate students and transform their trajectories.

The Closer

Self-monitoring also contributes to a meaningful closing after a lesson, which is critical in classrooms with numerous flexible rotations. The closing serves two purposes; it reiterates what students have learned and anticipates what they are going to do in future lessons. Whole class and peer-to-peer reflections bring a sense of purpose and community to a blended classroom. 

Teachers who take time to build culture and management, who purposefully group students, and who utilize data to inform their practices can find great success with blended. At Aspire, we also constantly strive to improve our practices and welcome any ideas on making blended rollouts streamlined and successful.

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