Blended-learning advice for educators from educators

January 16, 2019 | by Jenny White

“What’s the one piece of advice you’d give educators leading emerging blended-learning programs?” is among the set of questions we ask educators on school profiles in the BLU directoryand it often yields the most interesting responses. With 2019 underway, if you’re an educator reading this blog, chances are you’re kicking off a new blended practice or working on fine-tuning an existing program. Fortunately, there’s no need reinvent the wheel. Here are some of the meatiest nuggets of wisdom offered in 2018 by experienced blended-learning implementers on the BLU.

Lead with a purpose

The same way you would start any new initiative, make sure that you are doing it in order to solve a challenge, not just because blended learning is new or exciting. What is the specific problem that you’re trying to solve? And how is this going to solve it?

When [we] began our initiative to personalize learning, we visited a number of schools that were personalized in one form or another. It looked very different at each school. We took components of models that resonated with us, and we designed our own model tailored to the needs of our district and school. Above all, we would suggest observing what is out there in the field and talking to people who represent a variety of perspectives on this work.

Know your context. It took us a long time to understand who we were serving and working with. Who are your students? Who are their parents? Who are your teachers? What does each group want? What are the strengths of each group? What is each group interested in? It sounds simple, but designing your systems to meet your context is an integral part of starting a blended program dependent on the participation and buy-in of multiple stakeholders.

If you’re piloting a blended-learning program, it’s not only about teaching educators how to use software but also about communicating a shift in pedagogy. Our experience tells me that starting with a really simple software program like Schoology enables students and teachers to better handle the daily manifestations of this philosophical shift in teaching and learning. Be thoughtful about the percentage of professional learning time that you dedicate to software training.

I would give the same advice we received when we were first starting: get the word out in your community as early in the process as possible. Be open and honest. Organize community engagement and invite people to enter into dialogue. We had a great turnout at discussions of the proficiency-based program, and we were able to win over a number of initial naysayers by presenting research-backed evidence.

Consider these critical design factors

We invited all interested to learn more. We held many parent meetings and talked to all of the current middle school students. As you start designing your program, invest a lot of time engaging with all of your stakeholders. We started with a plan, then talked to the school board. We wanted to be open and transparent right off the bat. Even more than strong communication, though, is that you have to be willing to take a lot of questions, and have thick skin against criticism along the way. Believe in the learning process and focus on designing what’s best for the students.

First and foremost, involve the kids in all of the decision-making. Whenever we involve the kids, it goes better than when we don’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s kindergarteners or twenty-year-olds. The kids have wisdom and should be trusted. Additionally, it is important to have a consistent instructional design approach. Teachers provide better lessons when they feel ownership, and therefore they need some control over the creation of lessons. Maintaining consistent instructional design provides kids with necessary structure and routine, without stifling teachers’ creativity. Above all, I would recommend that any blended program be student-centered and focused on positive youth development.

Create systems and structures around how you’re going to utilize the blended program. How are you monitoring and managing the program so that students are successful? For instance, if you are using 90-minute blocks, it’s not realistic for students to be on the computer for the entire time. How can educators break this time down to use it most efficiently? How are students monitoring their own progress? You have to make sure that students have a clear understanding of what they are doing and how they are interacting with technology at any given time.

Identify your core practices, and pilot with willing participants first. Nothing that you think is obvious about blended learning will be apparent to everyone. Be overly explicit, seek feedback, and don’t be afraid to start over.

Let students discover new learning opportunities

Build the ability of students to lead and take charge of their learning through goals that have a meaningful purpose for the student.

In a blended-learning environment, make learning real and authentic. Give students ownership of their learning. Teachers, always put relationships first even in a blended environment. Relationships with students are the priority. And don’t be afraid to be creative to truly personalize the experience.

Great face-to-face instruction is paramountnot just teacher-to-student, but also student-to-student. It is about creating opportunities for collaborative learning; this is what work in the twenty-first century is going to be about. Every blended-learning decision you make should be in service of students and their specific needs. We’ve been moving so quickly in the edtech sector that we’re often focused on “solutions,” rather than students. We’ve seen students come to our school increasingly familiar with learning technology, having used it at the middle school level. Some students come to us and say, “I don’t like to work in groups. I like to work alone.” That isn’t how we do things at our school; students are going to need social and emotional skills to succeed in college and in the workplace.

Consider how you frame the tech

Have a really robust wireless infrastructure in place. If the technology does not work, people will not use it. Any blended program is going to run into problems, but it’s worth it. Digital technology will allow teachers to do things they cannot currently imagine. It will transform learning.

I’d suggest having a clear focus on student outcomes and avoid getting dazzled by the wide array of apps and programs out there.

It’s okay to start slow and to do one piece at a time. Start with the staff members who are excited about blended learning and integrate others slowly so that you are building up success. Think about what you are hiring technology to do for your school. You should make sure that technology is not just becoming a bright, shiny object; you are hiring digital devices to do a specific job.

Remember that it is never about technology and that it is always about engagement and learning. Look at technology as a vehicle to facilitate learning, but not as learning in itself. A computer will never, ever, ever take the place of a teacher, but a teacher using a computer effectively can make amazing things happen. Focus on the educators using technology and make sure that they know its purpose.

Model the culture you want to create

Have a clear vision that includes flexibility. It is also very important to think about the way you are communicating that vision. Students and parents should feel confident that they know what your school stands for and how it will run. Have one-on-one and group conversations with stakeholders surrounding marketing and perception and include students, staff members, and parents.

To the principal: do your due diligence prior to having any conversations with teachers. Go to trainings, visit schools, and make connections. For every new program, one person—likely the principal—should have a deep, specialist understanding of blended learning. Don’t be afraid; leaders should be open, flexible, and fluid with their thinking throughout the process of going blended.

Principal Homen says, “From a principal’s perspective, you have to make sure you’re providing teachers with support and that you’re in the trenches with them. We focused on building a safe zone, a community of teachers trying things with regard to blended learning. KMS was able to blossom with that culture.”

Find your motivation

Follow small steps. Take a risk. Do it. Do it in increments. Know going in that there is never going to be enough time, PD, developed content. Start out with one project, assignment, or activity. See what works well. Develop it over time and trust the process.

Three years ago, when we started this journey, my definition of ‘personalized learning’ was completely different than the definition I would provide now. It is okay not to know everything and to embrace ambiguity. It is okay to make mistakes and to correct them. That is the growth mindset in action. When I am observing a teacher whose lesson has substantial flaws, I never penalize that teacher, as long as they work to retool or edit the lesson. As a leader, you have to provide your staff with opportunities to experiment and fail. The more you fail and try again, the better you will be.

There are so many reasons not to that you can come up with, most financial. We cut back on so many other thingstextbooks, paperso that it doesn’t cost us more. It’s the right thing. Go for it.

Got your own advice? Share it with peer practitioners in a BLU profile of your classroom or school.

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