4 tips for developing effective professional development for blended learning

September 15, 2016 | by Stepan Mekhitarian

With the growing prevalence of blended learning in classrooms across the country, the need for teacher training for effective implementation is more critical than ever.

In order to better understand the skills and training required to implement blended learning effectively, I conducted a three-year doctoral research study at three public school sites in Los Angeles. The study included interviews with teachers and administrators, a survey, observations of classrooms and professional development sessions, and an extensive literature review on blended learning. Although 80 percent of the 32 teachers and administrators who participated in the study said that best practices for teaching used in traditional classrooms applied to blended-learning classrooms, a full 90 percent added that effective implementation of blended learning required additional skillsets beyond the traditional classroom model. Furthermore, 80 percent of participants said that they would benefit from additional blended-learning training to develop instructional approaches that facilitate conceptual understanding and application. These numbers clearly highlight the need for traditional professional development to undergo a disruptive makeover in order to be truly effective for educators utilizing blended learning (the Christensen Institute wrote more about disruptive models of professional development here).

Based on the results of the study, here are four ideas school leaders should consider incorporating into their blended-learning professional development to help traditional teachers transition more effectively to blended teaching. At the Los Angeles Unified School District, where I serve as the blended-learning coordinator, we have woven these four ideas throughout the professional development offerings we have designed for blended-learning implementation.

1. Allow teachers to experience blended learning as a learner

Individualized differentiation and strategic grouping, coupled with a focus on constructivist learning experiences, are critical in developing understandings about how students learn. Effective blended-learning professional development can include learning experiences that highlight these instructional approaches, challenging how teachers view instruction and creating opportunities to understand student perspectives on learning in a blended setting. Experiencing blended learning as learners can also inform teachers’ thinking about planning rigorous, project-based learning opportunities and the supports that are necessary for student success. Differentiating professional development based on teacher needs and focus areas can also demonstrate how technology in a blended-learning setting can enhance learning and engagement.

2. Encourage peer observations in blended-learning classrooms

In addition to conversations on effective instructional techniques in a traditional classroom model, effective professional development should include peer observations and collaboration, modeling of innovative best practices, and the integration of blended-learning programs in instructional practice. School leaders can dramatically impact teachers’ understanding of blended learning by modeling innovative best practices and creating opportunities for observations of disruptive classrooms. This approach, however, can be challenging because many school leaders may not have a strong background in blended learning and may be hesitant to implement blended-learning approaches during professional development sessions. The challenge persists at many school sites because school leaders are tasked with serving as instructional leaders to support a learning approach for which they may not have extensive experience. Considerations for support from experienced teachers or outside experts are highly recommended. Most teachers who participated in the study said that they had difficulty envisioning effective blended-learning implementation. Teachers suggested that observing peers at other school sites to be exposed to a wider range of approaches and philosophies is an important element of professional development: they want to see what blended learning looks like.

3. Offer technology implementation training, including lessons on educational software utilization, troubleshooting, and student data analysis

Several teachers in the study also expressed an interest in adding a technology training component for students and teachers to ensure smooth lesson transitions, minimal student frustration, and effective planning. Although technological fluency is critical for success, any training on technology should be grounded in instructional practice with clear connections to how technology can enhance and inform student learning opportunities. Technology integration should be woven into professional development on instructional practice instead of becoming the focal point. This approach cannot be emphasized enough.

4. Teach classroom management strategies specifically for a blended-learning classroom

Although teachers who participated in the study endorsed blended learning overall, they conceded that implementing blended learning with fidelity is extremely challenging. The multitasked classroom environment can be difficult to plan and manage. Furthermore, technical difficulties can derail wonderful lessons, and conceptual understanding achieved through collaboration can be challenging to design. Educators—teachers, as well as administrators—need substantive training and support in classroom management specifically for blended-learning classrooms in order to be successful. In addition to establishing traditional classroom expectations, educators must consider the impact of digital citizenship as well as logistical considerations regarding software access and hardware management.

At LAUSD, we use these four elements to establish an authentic theory-to-practice experience for our teachers and administrators from concept introduction to classroom implementation. In addition to professional development opportunities, educators join a blended-learning cohort to facilitate collaboration, classroom observations, and resource sharing.

Effective blended-learning implementation will take time, but carefully planned professional development can ensure enthusiasm for the approach, greater understanding of what it looks like, and, ultimately, a richer educational experiences for our students.

About the author: Stepan Mekhitarian is the blended learning and data coordinator at the Los Angeles Unified School District. His dissertation is titled, “Effective Instruction in the Blended Learning Classroom.” Email: stepan_mekhitarian@post.harvard.edu

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