Blended learning that connects teachers, students, and parents around Learning Differences

December 27, 2018 | by Alex Dreier

This piece is Part 1 of The Friday’s Institute’s insights on effective blended learning to understand learning differences. Stay tuned for Part 2 which will unveil practitioner examples and perspectives on this approach.

When my colleagues and I at The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation design blended-learning experiences, we tend to judge their effectiveness by the extent to which the “blending” is ubiquitous yet utterly seamless. Our belief, and we are by no means unique in this view, is that the best learning experiences are those in which our online and face-to-face components work together seamlessly to enable our audience to meet a particular learning goal. While this audience has traditionally been mostly educators, we recently expanded our learning differences work to include both students and their parents. The learning differences program started at the Friday Institute in 2014 with a Massive Open Online Course for educators and has since expanded to include programs for students, school teams, and parents. In the process, we discovered how the online and face-to-face components of each audience’s learning experience could work together to amplify their impact. While the roots of these three learning experiences are online, their impact has only been fully realized through the development of three tailored online guides to support each group as learners in a blended environment.

For the teacher audience: Online learning that fosters community learning

We started by launching an online professional development course for teachers called Learning Differences. Our participants, a global audience of passionate educators from Raleigh to Riyadh, access our custom learning management system to consume key resources, view examples of teachers implementing instructional strategies, engage in conversation with each other, and much more. This audience of busy adults is able to access this content when and where they need it, and our data logs suggest that they take full advantage of this capability. The online discussion forums give learners an opportunity to synthesize concepts, gather their thoughts, and reflect on key ideas. This benefits those who might be less comfortable communicating extemporaneously, something that is highly valued in a face-to-face discussion. Our participants have the opportunity to try something, reflect on how it went, and make adjustments as they go. They document this process in the online discussions, benefiting from the insights of their peers along the way.

These online discussions are limited, of course, in certain ways. We came to discover that the most meaningful change often resulted when a local group of colleagues engaged with the course content together in a face-to-face context—sparking a blended-learning environment. They could each enroll in the online course and take it together, of course, but the course wasn’t designed to  take full advantage of their physical proximity to one another. Our institute decided to create a series of Professional Learning Community (PLC) guides to support the course. We designed these guides to give educators roughly one hour of activities to do together, face-to-face, with their school teams. They can dig into select resources and activities together and discuss how they might integrate what they’ve learned into their classrooms. While this type of synchronous environment might not be as conducive to reflection as an online discussion forum, it does support the potential for spontaneous insight and idea generation. Our PLC Guides are structured to support these flashes of inspiration.

For the student audience: Online learning for growing as an offline learner

Like our course for teachers, students engage in our Students LEAD course primarily online. The goal of the course is to help students develop a meaningful understanding of themselves as learners. They do so by exploring constructs such as memory, attention, idea expression, and organization/time management. They discover their learning strengths and learn how to leverage these strengths to address challenges. In doing so, they also learn skills to advocate for their own learning needs. They create their final product—an action plan—in an online environment as well.

But our course for students also contains a guide for teachers, or wrap-around, to enable them to partner with their entire class as they work through the course together. We see this as the optimal learning context for the material. Students demonstrate agency by directing their own learning, working at their own pace, and engaging with their peers around the country, while at the same time partnering with their classroom teacher for support and insight as they move through the course content. In the process, the teacher gains a much deeper and richer understanding of their students, and can use this understanding to further personalize instruction to meet students’ individual learning needs.

For the parent audience: Blended learning for parents, too

While we were encouraged by the engagement and success of our student course, we saw an emerging need for parents (or other adults) to have access to the same language and understanding of learning differences as the students. The reality is that students needs aren’t only diverse in the classroom but that their strengths and challenges are also apparent at home, in after school activities, and more. Out of this need came the Parent Guide, which provides a way for parents, mentors, and others to work alongside their student as they experience the course. Parents do some of the same activities as their child; for example, both complete an online learner “sketch,” where learners get a useful snapshot of their own learning strengths and challenges, have face-to-face discussions with their child around their insights. We imagine both the parents and students doing some of these online activities at their own time and pace, with both the online and face-to-face elements just making sense to parents and students alike.

These three courses are a means to a particular end: to design optimal learning experiences that help unique audiences meet their learning goals so that every learner feels understood, empowered, and supported when learning. And, on our best days, we frequently discover that good blended-learning design really just looks like good learning design. To the learner, it all just makes sense. We’ve found that focusing on building the capacity of all of the key players in a students’ lives is important (and often forgotten). When it comes to engaging with learning differences, we, alongside educators and instructional designers, have realized that leveraging blended learning to connect learners, teachers, and parents can help better meet the needs of students.

Alex Dreier is the Instructional Design Lead at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation.

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