Can Administrators Lead Innovation Without Blended Learning Experience?

column | EdSurge Podcast

Can Administrators Lead Innovation Without Blended Learning Experience?

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Feb 1, 2017

Can Administrators Lead Innovation Without Blended Learning Experience?

A few years back, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) found itself in the news for the rollout of iPads districtwide, which some readers out there might remember. Since then, what’s going on with technology in Southern California’s biggest public school district?

Well, in one region—the Local District Northwest sector of the district—administrators, schools and teachers have been busy expanding efforts for blended learning implementation in collaboration with Stepan Mekhitarian. Mekhitarian is currently the Blended Learning Coordinator for that LAUSD sector, but that’s not the only education role on his resume. He’s been a math teacher, an administrator and conducted a doctoral research study on the skills and training needed to implement blended learning effectively and as such, he’s got advice for district admins on how to connect with all of those respective groups.

Mekhitarian is the first to admit that it can be challenging for administrators to lead blended learning initiatives when they themselves don’t have classroom experience or haven’t use blended tools before. But there’s hope, he adds. EdSurge caught up with Mekhitarian to hear about his best practices for leading edtech professional development and what advice he has for schools new to blended learning.

Here’s a Q&A excerpt from the transcript. For the full interview, check out the EdSurge podcast below.

EdSurge: Welcome to the podcast, Stepan! Now, before you and I hopped into this podcast, we discussed what it takes to be an administrator in a big district, like the one that you work in. What do you see as the biggest challenge or challenges that administrators have to figure out when it comes to helping educators adapt blended learning?

Stepan Mekhitarian: Well, I do professional development for 129 schools in our local district.

Oh my goodness.

They have differing levels of interest in blended learning. The principals who are really onboard want their staff to experience it, and to start adapting technology in their classrooms.

Now, the big challenge I see there is you're never going to come across a school where the entire faculty wants to jump on it at once. Some teachers are interested, others are not. That, then, raises the question of, what does professional development look like when some teachers want to use this approach and others don't?

The best way, I think, to combat that challenge is to stay focused on instruction, and not necessarily technology. Focus on specific pedagogical practices, whether it'd be strategic grouping, or rigorous questioning, or aligning objectives to what students really need to learn for the 21st Century. Cover that content that's applicable to all the teachers. While you're doing that though, incorporate technology where it makes sense to really bring that learning alive for the teachers. As they experience that as learners, they'll begin to see the power of that differentiation, and how their own learning is enhanced by using technology.

In a perfect world, if I worked in a district, I would hope that the administrators providing that profession development would have done blended learning themselves. But that’s not often the case. I was in a classroom three years ago, and now, I already feel like I have a very outdated understanding of the technologies that are out there. How do administrators service these instructional leaders if they have either limited or outdated experience with blended learning or tools?

It's a great question. We're actually living in a time where I think there's a serious transition taking place, where a principal is being asked to be an instructional leader for an approach that he or she may not have any experience with. In fact, I'd say virtually all the principals that I meet have that same challenge. They’ve bought into the idea of blended learning, and they believe in enhancing instruction, but they don't know how to support it. It's going to be difficult for them to lead professional development in a blended format, as I mentioned earlier.

Now, the best way to do that is to build the capacity of the teachers that you have on your campus who have strengths. They've been working with blended learning, and they have strategies that they can share. Tap into that, and co-plan and co-lead professional development with them. It will build their capacity. It will give you an opportunity to learn as an administrator.

Of course, doing classroom observations to see effective pedagogy helps, too. For principals, you see the things that students need to learn, and whether technology is being used or not. I think that will help them if they are in classrooms, where they're seeing technology being used. Hopefully, they'll start seeing the power of that, and be able to apply that in collaboration with the other teachers.

I heard you use the word "principal,” but what about the superintendent, the CTO, pr blended learning coordinators like yourself—what role do they play in professional development? Is it just all about the principal or should everyone be involved?

I'm a big believer in building capacity when it comes to adult learning, in the same way that the teacher is taking on the role of a facilitator in a blended learning classroom.

The principal doesn't have all the information, especially on something like blended learning, which is so new. There are few experts out there, and most principals have left the classroom at this point before blended learning really took off. I think it makes more sense than ever to build the capacity of others, and to work with them on professional development.

I also think having the support of the superintendent really goes a long way because it guides where funding goes in term of hardware and software, and in terms of the type of professional development the district wants to invest in. I would say that in a district as large as ours, schools are different. They're all over the place in terms of where they are in this work. Some schools have been doing this for several years. Others are very interested. When that is varied, you localize what that process looks like in terms of blended learning implementation, and what professional development looks like. I think it's hard to have one district-wide PD that will work for others. Like anything else, you want to differentiate.

I have one last big question for you. You've been with the district now for how many years?

For four.

Around the start of your term, LAUSD was looking into extending technology in classrooms and since then, I imagine a few lessons came out of that in regards to launching full-scale blended programs. What's one of the biggest pieces of advice that you would give to another administrator who wants to bring blended learning into their district, but doesn't even know where to start? Should they focus on talking to teachers? Should they talk to other districts that have done it beforehand?

You have to start with instruction—what do you want your students to know? There needs to be some common understanding about what skills you want students to live with. There are always the basics, and I don't just mean content area. What skills? One big disconnect I've noticed, for example, is that in K-12, students do very little research. Then, you go off to college, and that's all you're doing. We always talk about preparing students for college, but if research is missing. That's one element that I think we need to reconsider.

Once schools determine that, then you have to start talking about how technology can help make that a reality. I think you have to find a critical mass in your district—that's going to be a combination of teachers, and obviously, school leaders. It also really helps to hear from parents and students, as well. At this point, blended learning is not a fringe idea anymore. A lot of parents will know about it. Kids, obviously, use technology all the time. They're going to get on board, but I think that they will feel more invested if they have an opportunity to give their side, as well.

Then, start small. In every classroom and school I've seen where blended learning has really taken off, they started small. They all started introducing one program into their class, getting students on board, introducing another piece, or maybe doing one grade level at a time in terms of implementation.

And most importantly, don't make it a separate thing. Blended learning is not a content area. It's not a what—it's a how.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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