To get the most out of blended learning and personalization, school leaders must not start with blended learning or technology for its own sake, but instead must undertake a careful design process that emphasizes and appropriately prioritizes the building blocks to unlock its potential.
Recent surveys and reporting have highlighted a need to re-emphasize some key fundamentals of blended learning, including the order which different elements are implemented and emphasized.
Once there is a coherent vision for blended learning and a defined model, implementing blended learning to personalize instruction is dependent on the effectiveness of the teacher in delivering instruction by maximizing instructional time and integrating technology.
Such a formula can deliver outstanding results if teachers are provided training and support, and can teach within a well-designed and implemented blended learning approach like that of the Horry County Schools in South Carolina.
The above graphic shows a student-centered conceptual model, where the teacher is the most important factor in the student experience and achieving results. Data is also critical and should constantly inform and shape instruction, as detailed in previous posts here.
As Aspire Public Schools’ Liz Arney says in Go Blended!: A Handbook for Blended Technology in Schools: “technology does not improve student learning as a highly effective teacher does. Keep your focus on improving instruction and ultimately student learning using data.”
Indeed, the single most important in-school factor that impacts students achievement is the quality of the teacher. According to the RAND Corporation, “When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor.”
Another personalized learning leader, Rocketship Education, works to ensure students have the best teachers by supporting them with dedicated coaching, professional development, and leadership programs to help them grow professionally, regardless of their experience. In fact, Rocketship aims to provide over 300 hours of professional development to each teacher in its schools every year.
Crucial to supporting teachers is providing them with professional development about the particular blended learning model being used, how to teach within the model, and continually re-emphasizing the model during implementation.
Next, blended learning models should — in concept and design — increase instructional time through an effective model, tight implementation, and using technology effectively. Blended learning can break through the seemingly static barriers of finite time dictated by set school days and years to allow for more instructional time that is optimized, like Summit Public Schools does.
Instead of a ‘wait to fail’ model where students only get increasing attention and personalization as they fail to succeed, personalized learning cuts through the lost time and angst of students failing before they get the opportunity for success.
Research conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that increased instructional time was found to improve academic outcomes when instruction was led by qualified teachers. The study found that practitioners who wish to use increased learning time programs set goals and design activities based on a deep understanding of student needs and interests, which is another way of saying ‘personalized learning.’
Undoubtedly, shorter yet more focused instructional periods may be as effective as longer yet less productive time, but when increasing instruction time using technology to personalize with effective teachers, great results are not just possible — but likely.
The emerging evidence about blended learning is very encouraging, as academic research and case studies of specific schools show that students benefit when blended learning is used effectively. One notable meta studypublished in 2013 from the well-respected SRI International says, “The advantage over face-to-face classes was significant in those studies contrasting blended learning with traditional face-to-face instruction.”
When implementing blended learning, it is crucial to make purposeful decisions about using technology to meet students’ needs, without letting technology become an end in and of itself.
Technology can serve many purposes for both student and teacher; in addition to the student-centered application described above, it can also save teachers time by handling simple tasks easily, helping manage more complex tasks efficiently like analyzing ‘big education data’ to track and predict student progress, identify next steps for teaching and learning based on student mastery and leading modes, and group and regroup students based on needs and results. By saving time on these tasks, technology tools can help teachers reach more students successfully.
Beyond management and administration of a classroom, technology can help teachers off-load some rote and/or simple fact-based instruction to technology. This allows teachers to spend more time on the important learning that is often given short shrift. For example, teachers can spend far more time working with students individually or in small groups, helping students work on projects, and generally developing students’ critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.
Yet, technology cannot overcome ineffective teaching. Blended learning introduced to a poorly managed and taught classroom will only exacerbate the problems. Blended learning in a well managed and taught classroom stands a better chance of producing break through results. Poorly implemented blended learning can be mitigated by effective teaching, but it is unlikely to be a transformative experience for anyone, especially the students.
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