Inspiring Innovation through Blended Learning

Many currently serving in school senior leadership roles grew up in an age of little technology, and have, by comparison with their teachers, minimal technological competence.[1] For example, the new classroom technology when I was in university was the overhead projector!

My professional training did not involve the technological and digital resources commonplace for students, teachers, and school leaders today. The world has changed, and technological advances have also had, and will continue to have, a major impact on how we do school. Trusted school leaders, marked by Commitment, view the technological revolution not as a threat, but another opportunity to exercise their responsibility as Optimizers by embracing the innovations of blended learning.

Blended learning is far more than just electronic textbooks and digital learning tools and applications. Blended learning better meets the needs of students and teachers through the creation and support of more effective learning environments. More significantly, blended learning also means entrusting students with more control over the pacing and the timing of their learning, even the physical location where the learning takes place.

In order to implement blended learning successfully, stakeholders must understand the fundamental shifts taking place in teaching and learning in the 21st century. Blended learning is personalizing the learning experience for each student to assist them with higher levels of motivation and engagement.[2] Here the responsibility of being the Optimizer significantly comes into play. Optimizers first engage their communities in working through the process of establishing a clear vision for, and philosophy of, blended learning; and then work through strategies, models, platforms, devices, and staffing to support this new learning paradigm. They inspire stakeholders to embrace the many advantages of blended learning.

For example, one of the first advantages of increased blended learning is its’ complement to external online-standardized assessments. Many schools conduct their benchmark assessments through services such as NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing.[3] These online interactive tests have replaced fill in the bubble exams. One of the challenges observed by early adopters was that students did not perform well if they were not comfortable in an online assessment setting. However, students who had been exposed to earlier blended learning opportunities performed better than those who had not.[4] Once students are accustomed to the online testing experience, the benefits are numerous. Assessment data is more personalized, providing rich insight for teachers and specialists, and greater levels of individualized support to students. Another benefit is “The combination of digital content and digital assessment provides more than sufficient rationale (benefits and savings) to support an increase in improved access to technology.”[5]

Complexities of Implementation

The implementation of blended learning is complex and requires a high level of Commitment on many fronts. It requires a comprehensive integration of new approaches to teaching and learning, which requires substantial initial levels of Professional Development; investment in information technology, and the personnel to provide ongoing training and support; as well as a commitment to clear communication among stakeholders. The need for communication also involves the ability to provide a clear vision of the school’s direction, as the implementation by its’ very nature requires a phased-in approach; taking the school community step-by-step as finances, resources, and human capital permit – toward the goal of an effective and fully functional blended learning environment.

Blended learning is still in its infancy, or toddler years – but the movement is growing at incredible speed. Today’s school leaders are navigating what it means to be a parent of a learning support system that is expanding into a near complete redesign of the traditional school model. Yet, the centrality of the teacher remains.

Blended learning is not about replacing teachers with machines. Rather, it is about leveraging technology to provide students and teachers with immediate feedback, holding each individual student accountable for his or her academic success, and personalizing coursework to best meet students exactly where they are… This point is absolutely critical: Without highly effective teachers and instruction, a blended-learning model cannot be successful or sustainable.[6]

Optimizers are very clear that even in a blended learning environment; the teacher is the very essence of a school.[7] They also believe that teachers who embrace and engage in blended learning reinvigorate their profession.[8] They provide evidence and arguments that when schools embrace blended learning, they also see improved working conditions and greater career options.[9] Before those opportunities can be realized, however, Optimizers clear up blended learning misconceptions with stakeholders and develop policies that remove potential barriers to the success of the developing blended learning environments. They even include incentives that motivate teachers and supervisors to support further innovations.[10]

Blended learning fuels much of the current reformation of the education world. Now that students literally have near instant access to almost all information, the nature of the classroom has fundamentally changed. The information age has resulted in the obsolescence of key elements of the past education system. It is well known that the factory model of education is not the best for students and their development.[11] Through blended learning techniques, we can finally free students from the confines of that antiquated approach to education.

“Outdated notions of teaching and learning that lock students and teachers into one-size-fits-all experiences no longer serve the college and career needs of the 21st century.”[12]

Optimizers also point out that the benefits from blended learning are not limited to the student population, but also to teachers – creating a revolutionary setting for improving the careers and opportunities of educational professionals.[13] Additionally, schools benefit. When blended learning innovations are embraced, schools attract higher caliber teachers.[14]

A Paradigm Shift

Optimizers address the fundamental need to move the educational system from a content focus to a competency focus with stakeholders.[15] This paradigm shift ensures students demonstrate competency of life-skills and knowledge that will serve them beyond the classroom and into the unforeseeable future. This is the highest goal of education. “However, the benefits [from competency education] for fast learners, struggling students, and students that learn differently require a transformation of how American education is organized and managed.”[16]

For example, what would be the implications of a school with no grade levels (e.g. no Class of 2020)? So much of the American K-12 school experience focuses on socialization activities and student identification with a certain graduating class. Moving away from these forms of socialization, even at the benefit of student learning and achievement, is immensely challenging. The factory-style of education is wired into the DNA of American culture. To face these challenges, leaders must be committed to three key priorities as they transition to competency-based education:

  1. Implementation Timing: Restructuring systems (e.g. funding, reporting, metrics, etc.) in a timely fashion
  2. Opportunities: Taking advantage of the explosion of student data to better meet the unique needs of individual learners
  3. Language and Leadership: “In shifting the focus from chronology to competency, leaders need a new language to capture the system’s new capabilities and avoid confounding families and communities. This will require a common language about college and career preparation.”[17]

The following nine benefits to a blended learning environment, as noted in a detailed study by the U.S. Department of Education, serve as research-based rallying points, which leaders can share with stakeholders; enumerating their commitment to student learning and innovation:

  1. Broadening access to quality education, especially for rural schools

  2. Engaging students in active learning, based on learning sciences

  3. Individualizing and differentiating instruction based on student performance on diagnostic assessments and preferred pace of learning, thereby improving the efficiency with which students move through a learning progression

  4. Personalizing learning by building on student interests, which can result in increased student motivation, time on task and ultimately better learning outcomes

  5. Making better use of teacher and student time by automating routine tasks and enabling teacher time to focus on high-value activities

  6. Increasing the rate of student learning by increasing motivation and helping students grasp concepts and demonstrate competency more efficiently

  7. Reducing school-based facilities costs by leveraging home and community spaces in addition to traditional school buildings

  8. Reducing salary costs by transferring some educational activities to computers, by increasing teacher-student ratios or by otherwise redesigning processes that allow for more effective use of teacher time

  9. Realizing opportunities for economies of scale through reuse of materials and their large-scale distribution[18]

Blended learning for all learners is inevitable in the not-too-distant future. In fact, some states, such as Virginia, have made the completion of at least one online course a requirement for high school graduation.[19]

Blended learning is here and here to stay. Optimizing school leaders, who maintain a clear focus and demonstrate Commitment to what best meets students’ needs, also gain higher levels of trust from stakeholders.

©2018 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.

[1] Mojgan Afshari, Kamaria Abu Bakar, Wong Su Luan, Bahaman Abu Samah, and Foo Say Fooi, “Technology and school leadership,” Technology, Pedagogy and Education 18, no. 2 (2009): 235-248.

[2] Curtis R. Henrie, Lisa R. Halverson, and Charles R. Graham, “Measuring student engagement in technology-mediated learning: A review,” Computers & Education 90, (2015): 36-53.

[3] “Educational assessment you can trust,” NWEA, accessed 23 June 2016, https://www.nwea.org/.

[4] This was my own assessment when we first implemented MAP testing at AAI.

[5] John Bailey, Carri Schneider, and Tom Vander Ark, Navigating The Digital Shift: Implementation Strategies For Blended And Online Learning (Tallahassee, FL: Digital Learning Now, 2013), 1664, Kindle.

[6] Ibid., 2335-2339, Kindle.

[7] Harvey Singh, “Building Effective Blended Learning Programs,” Educational Technology 43, no. 6 (2003): 51-54.

[8] Deborah Gill, “Effective Blended Learning Techniques,” Journal of College Teaching & Learning 6, no. 2 (2009): 1-14.

[9] Majot Kaur, “Blended Learning – Its Challenges and Future,” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 93, (2013): 612-617.

[10] Peter J. Fadde and Phu Vu, “Blended online learning: benefits, challenges, and misconceptions,” accessed 1 July 2016, http://peterfadde.com/Research/blendedonline13.pdf.

[11] Frank W. Serafini, “Dismantling the Factory Model of Assessment,” Reading & Writing Quarterly 18, no. 1 (2002): 67-85.

[12] Bailey et. al., Navigating The Digital Shift, 2348, Kindle.

[13] Ron Owston, Herb Wideman, Janet Murphy, and Denys Lupshenyuk, “Blended teacher professional development: A synthesis of three program evaluations,” Internet and Higher Education 11, no. 3-4 (2008): 201-210.

[14] Peter Chan, John Wilkinson, Charles Graham, Jared Borup, and Jennifer Skeen, “Blended Learning : Transforming Teacher Roles in 21st Century Education,” E-Learn 2011–World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education, (2011): 1089-1096.

[15] A. Moreira and A. Monteiro, “Developing a blended learning strategy: Pedagogical paradigm shift,” Proceedings of the IADIS International Conference e-Learning 2010, Part of the IADIS Multi Conference on Computer Science and Information Systems 2010, MCCSIS 2010, 2 (2010): 239-242.

[16] Bailey et. al., Navigating The Digital Shift, 3618, Kindle.

[17] Ibid., 3643, Kindle.

[18] Ibid., 5040-5052, Kindle.

[19] “Graduation Requirements,” Virginia Department of Education, accessed 25 May 2016, http://www.pen.k12.va.us/instruction/graduation/index.shtml.

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