For a conference named after “blended learning,” many attendees were surprised to learn that they did not agree on what the term meant.
Dr. Dallas Dance, Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, was among the first to raise this during a session at the 6th Annual Blended Learning Conference, held last weekend in Rhode Island. “I was talking to a colleague who was using blended and personalized learning the same way,” says Dance. Michele Williams-George, an education consultant and researcher, claimed there were 25 words people inaccurately used interchangeably with the term, such as differentiated instruction and flipped classroom.
What “blended learning” means has certainly evolved since the Innosight Institute (now called the Clayton Christensen Institute) introduced its definition in 2012, as “formal education program in which a student learns: at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.” New technology tools and school models have emerged, offering educators more options about how to appropriately blend online and face-to-face teaching in the classroom.
Exploring this evolution was at the core of the conference, organized by the Highlander Institute, a nonprofit focused on researching and developing education strategies (in partnership with the Clayton Christensen Institute and The Learning Accelerator).
Unlike other edtech events like ISTE and SXSWedu, where people often seemed rushed from session to session, at this gathering educators take their time unpacking topics—with most sessions going on as long as 75 minutes. Product pitches are sidelined as design and practice conversations come centerfold. “What we really felt like was missing from the education landscape was a conference completely dedicated to implementers and practitioners,” explains Shawn Rubin, the chief education officer of the Highlander Institute. “We want to tackle on-the-ground lessons as conversations to grow relationships. The sessions are long because you’re supposed to go deep.”
Administrators Lead the Vision
Personalized learning strategies dominated a majority of the sessions in the conference. This comes as no surprise as officials from Rhode Island’s Office of Innovation recently released its plan to make the state a ‘lab’ for personalized learning.
One recurring theme in the personalized learning sessions was the need for administrators to have a clear implementation vision. “The basic level of the work with people is this idea of trust. If I don’t trust or believe in you, there is no way I am going to follow or let you lead change,” explains Dance to a group of administrations. According to him, it is critical for school leaders to create a vision for their schools by shifting their focus from the means to the goals of change.
Regina Winkfield, principal at E- Cubed Academy High School in Rhode Island, notes that it was important for administrators to help teachers avoid falling into “innovation fatigue” by verbalizing a clear vision. “For me, the mission and vision of the school is where I always start,” explains Winkfield. “We were not focused on [our mission] when I first came, so I started having conversations with teachers to define what our mission looked like and our path to achieving it.”
Being strategic requires reaching out to a variety of stakeholders, starting with teachers who are willing to innovate and using their successes as models for others. “I start small, slow and steady,” she explains. She first introduced her personalized learning initiative to the elected teacher-leaders in the school before bringing it to a broader audience. “I don’t believe I am an all-powerful principal,” explains Winkfield. “Fatigue comes in when the setbacks happen, and that’s when I come in to have conversations and offer solutions.” Her goal is to reach the students that struggle the most—their success or failure is her evidence of the school model’s efficacy.
Matching the Models With the Tools
Far from being a cure-all, technology and blended learning strategies are more well-suited for certain specific problems, says Kim Loomis, the online and blended education director for the Clark County School District in Las Vegas. Among them: serving students who feel unsafe in school.
“A teacher had a student who was being bullied so badly the student no longer wanted to come to school, so I suggested she use the Independent Study Program model,” Loomis explains. Loomis designed the models by giving schools digital content and then documenting the innovative ways teachers used it. “I help teachers design their models, fine tune it, and deploy it,” Loomis explains. Her upcoming book, “Thinking Outside the Box,” goes into detail about the blended learning models she found. (Here’s a blog post that teases at the 10 blended learning models she’s seen.)
“When you have digital content, you need to know the problems that it can help solve,” says Loomis. “You don’t need another tool for everything you do. Be proficient with one tool and learn how many ways you can use it.”
Loomis also notes the advantages of using blended learning to support students who may be failing a course. In the Unit Recover model, she found that programs like ALEKS Math were affordable tools students could use to study content that they did not understand. ALEKS uses artificial intelligence to scaffold independent study for struggling students.
Cultural Inclusion Struggles to Enter the Blended Learning Conversation
The conference featured a cultural inclusion circle to help administrators leverage blended learning methods while diversifying their curriculums. Cameron Berube, director of curriculum and instruction for the Providence Public School District, shared stories about five schools that adopted an Ethnic Studies course using digital resources to supplement existing texts. However, in the midst of her stories, there was an undertone of exasperation and exhaustion indicating the difficulty she faced getting the curriculum in schools, “Our students came with their textbooks and said there are 700 pages in this book, and I am not in it,” says Berube. “Don’t tell me the kids are not engaged. I don’t want to hear it.”
Getting teachers to make the curriculum changes based on their student’s demands for more inclusion has been an uphill battle for Berube. “I have had to prepare myself for days for some of the meetings I have gone to, but there is no other way forward,” she explains. “Once while I was explaining the need to revise our curriculum someone asked me: ‘So you’re telling me we need to tell the history of poor people, why does that matter?’”
The sparse attendance at her session echoed Berube's struggle; only five educators, all minorities, attended the session. “When we were signing up people we realized we didn’t have a lot of people signing up for the cultural awareness session,” explained Karla Vigil, the Educational Strategies Specialist for the Highlander Institute. “It’s something I reflect on. Educators seem more concerned about learning the tech piece, but this goes hand in hand,” she explains.
Caroline Hill and Michelle Molitor of the DC Equity Lab continued the equity and cultural inclusion discussion at another session. The D.C.-based educators urged the audience to rethink educational systems to include all students in their address. “We retrofit personalization for radical inclusion,” said Hill, noting that educators had an obligation to recognize their biases and compliance in what they described as “a system of oppression.”
Here too, mixed reactions filled the room as some stood up and exited, while others offered a standing ovation. Hill did not seem too concerned with the negative responses, “One lady came to me and told me it was the most offensive speech she ever heard,” Hill explained, “I guess that means I did something right.”